Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bitless: Flash in the Pan or a Paradigm Shift?‏

Recently in the bitless yahoo group a discussion was started by Zoe, the inventor of the Nurtural bitless bridles about an upcoming talk she has to give. She has asked us for our input.

Zoe riding Collin in Ireland at the Slieve Aughty Centre last May.

Bitless bridles of all kinds have taken horsemanship by storm. There are so many options and people are realizing that not only is it just as easy to control your horse, it's usually easier because there's not the anxiety on the horses part as well as some physical problems. Five years ago bitless was taboo. Hardly anyone rode their horses without a bit and if they did it was in a harsh mechanical hackamore or western bosal. Those were really the only options. Now the limit is the sky and more people are trying bitless instead of turning their noses up at it. They realize not every horse bitless is well trained or ridden by a professional.
I went from having a couple readers riding bitless to many in the past three years I have had this blog open. I get e-mails weekly from people who are now riding their horses faithfully bitless because of this blog. They have seen myself and others do just about every discipline bitless. I have to say this blog would not have survived without all the great input from you readers.

Having said this lets start a discussion for those of you who ride bitless. This discussion is not brand specific, but rather talks about bitless as a whole. This is what Zoe asked:

Hi Folks,

Happy New Year!!

Can I ask your help again – with a presentation I will be doing at the Maryland Horse World Expo later this month? Can you send some quotes and photos to share?

What do you think: Are we changing the world, or will 'the non-believers' hang on to their bits forever? Will / when will the rules change? What will it take?

This is brand-neutral! Just promoting bitless in general.

Here are the specific questions:
Can you really: Stop a horse quickly; Collect a horse; Jump, Ride Crosscountry; Fox Hunt; Perform Dressage; Train young horses; Teach new riders,; Drive minis to drafts to standardbreds; Trail ride; Endurance ride; Develop & relax your competition horse; Create a closer bond; Create a winning team!

Looking forward to your thoughts!


So of course I put in some of my input as I was asked:

As a species the human race has made leaps and bounds in evolution in merely decades. However with horses we seem to stand still. The bit was effectively in use around the time Genghis Khan ruled. He was a cruel, barbaric ruler who thought very little of hurting others. This was also a time us humans believed the world was completely flat! If we have outdated things like cruel training practices, painful blistering of a horses legs to make him "sound" and even in recent times soaring why do we continue to use something that obviously at one point or another causes a horse pain and distress? I do think the rules will change and they are. When bitless was mentioned before people thought it was something a well trained horse could only be capable of. Now more and more people are training with their heads rather than brute force they realize horses are not all out to gallop away with us the second we take away a false sense of control.
This day and age it is a much better time for the horse as he is used mostly for recreation and seldom called upon to do real work. People wanting to ride bitless are those that want to understand the horse as a partner and not a tool we can force into doing what we wish. They want to better themselves as riders and their horses as members of the equine community. Riders who ride bitless find they need more seat and legs and less hand, for riding the horse should not be about tugging a rein left, right or back and having the horse follow for that only engages your arms and his front end, not both of your bodies as a whole.
I don't think people know enough about bits, rather than bitless bridles. They do not look at the anatomy of the horses head, lips, mouth, surrounding tissues and most importantly the nerves that bits can cause pain on in the horses face. The horses mouth is arguably the most sensitive part of his body. With a lip that can pick tiny blades of grass out amongst rocks and dirt the horse can feel a lot more than we know. By placing a bit as a solid, usually metal object in his mouth we are not only compromising his comfort but his health when so many riders do not look at what type of bit would be most suited to what mouth and face conformation. Teeth become eroded or even fractured, nerves are pressed upon causing pain or at the very least discomfort. It's a proven fact that a horse learns and retains a lesson better when taught by positive reinforcement rather than negative though both are very important tools of horsemanship. I think if people knew more about bits there would be less people using them.

Having said that and answered many, many questions about bitless because I have driven, ridden and trained horses ages 2 to 21 this year one of the most common questions after will my horse stop is will he go "on the bit". The riders asking this are the ones who do not understand the concept of collection. Collection is when the horse actively engages himself from his hind end, lifts his back and breaks at the poll, driving himself from his hind end forward and engaging every muscle in his body. Proper collection takes a long time to achieve with a horse because muscle and strength must be built. What most riders want is "breaking at the poll" AKA- on the bit, on the vertical or as some people wrongly believe but is not, collection. A horse that is flexing vertically (breaking at the poll) has learned to give to the pressure of the bridle, be it bit in his mouth or pressure on his nose from a bitless bridle. A horse that is flexing vertically and does not have the rest of his body engaged is usually on the forehand, not engaging his hind end with a hollow back. His other parts of the body are not engaged to properly drive him forward. Having said that being "on the bit" is merely a headset, and not true collection but can indeed be taught to give to pressure as well as with a bit, only now we have to teach him with a bitless bridle, not force him with the pain of the bit in his mouth. This is why so many riders have problems with a newly bitless horse being "on the bit".

Every person I teach rides or drives bitless if they are using my horse. Not one of them have ever had problems with control. Horses used for lessons with learning riders that may do some harsh, unforgiving things on the horses mouth are now painless, creating confused signals yes, but pain which can lead to training problems and even the condition of learned helplessness, no. I have found a bitless school horse needs far less tune ups than a bitted one, no matter how gentle the specific bit may be considered.

And as the famous Loriner (bit maker) Benjamin Latchford once said: "I frequently tell my friends that out of every twenty bits I make, nineteen are for men's heads and not more than one really for the horse's head"


So there we have it folks. Why do you ride bitless? Why not? Have you just not had the option or are you afraid your horse is not going to listen? Speak up, Zoe, the rest of us and myself would love to know. If you have pictures you would like to let Zoe use please do send the links our way or join the bitless yahoo group.

p.s- Due to comments I'm going to ad I am not anti bit by any means I just see far more horses improperly bitted than properly bitted ones. I believe a horse is only as good as it's rider and the tools only as humane as they are used. I wish to further everyones knowledge on a subject (bits and bitless) people know little about. There seems to be endless sources on how to train your horse, groom your horse, select saddles and pads but nothing on bitting.

p.p.s- Please take a gander at the post below. I think this one kind of overshadowed it. I would love to know why you own your horse.

p.p.p.s- For those of you not being able to afford a bitless bridle why not hire one to try it


Mare said...

A very thougtful and well written post! I have read your blog for awhile, and continue to do so, because I have absolutely nothing against bitless riding. That being said, the only bitless "bridle" I own is a halter and clip-on reins. And while I've found that it's my favorite method of control, somehow I always end up back at the bit...

Why? Because it's what I've always used, and why change something that works?! Then again, for many years I didn't take into the slightest account on how bits actually work. I merely did what I was told and accepted that it was the "right" way, as I was riding other people's horses, and I wasnt really in a position to question. However,in the past year, I've found myself fully engrossed in books and other rescources detailing the anatomy of a horse's mouth and how bits of all kinds actually do work.

The conclusions that I've drawn re neither pro-bit or anti-bit, but merely that it's not the bit that's necessarily cruel in itself, but the person who puts the bit in the horse's mouth. I think the real enemy is ignorance.

People don't understand how bits work, and so they go to a tack store, pick out a walking horse bit with 10" long shanks, and when their horse "stops" they think it's doing it's job. They don't take the time to understand that the bit is actually severely damaging the nerves in the horse's mouth because when they pull back on the reins, 100 lbs. of force is being transfered because of those shanks. A LOT People tend to "ride the bit" not the horse, simply because they don't know any better.

So, with that being said, if you give someone a bitless bridle and they don't understand the concept behind it, are you really doing the horse that much more of a favor? Well, yes it some ways because at least there isn't something destroying their mouths, but in other ways, depending on the bridle, no. If people take the time to learn and become educated about a bit before they use it, heck, if they just THINK, the cruelty levels go way down.

So, just because I use a bit doesn't mean I'm abusing my horse, but then again I understand what I'm using. Maybe someday I'll change my ways and go bitless, but for now, my horse and I are happy. But, Thank you for giving me a view of the bitless world...

lisa said...

I have to agree with Mare, but I do love learning about all kinds of concepts concerning bridles, bits saddles, you name it. I don't think one is better than the others just what is right for you. Great post!

Kristen Eleni Shellenbarger said...

I made the switch seeing how I tried many bits in my OTTB's mouth and I was looking at pictures of him gaping and looking unhappy. I thought, OK, let's TRY bitless. It honestly took ME a while to fit it properly but once I did, my OTTB responded well. We are still learning in it but I don't feel it inhibits our learning and for my horse, I see/hear a lot more licking/chewing during our rides. That makes me a FAN!
I still have an issue in my head that when he reacts strongly to fear, and wants to bolt, I wonder if I'll have the control I need with the bitless...but then shouldn't I have more control everywhere and not just in his face. So we are learning and building on it but love it. :)

smazourek said...

My quarter horses came with a sidepull because "you English riders start out with too much contact." I started my gelding with it and more than a year later I still ride almost exclusively in a sidepull. I have put a bit in his mouth a bare handful of times but he doesn't go as well with it as he does in the sidepull. My mare simply refuses to accept a bit in her mouth. Period. So I'll be riding her exclusively bitless.

I will not trail ride with a bit because I don't want to risk having my horses stepping on the reins and ruining their mouths should I come off, I had that happen once and it wasn't pretty.

I do get people commenting all the time, but I just shrug it off. My horse will stop and steer from my legs and seat, he doesn't need a bit for that. I'd rather have happy horses than have unhappy ones that meet with tradition.

Laura M. said...

Excellent thoughtful and thought-provoking post Sydney. The only "bitless" riding I've done is going for a short stroll using the halter and two lead ropes. My horse has gone well enough with it, but I've never taken that next step to acutally trying to do everything else bitless. And to be honest, I probably woudln't. Not that my mare couldn't learn, I'm sure she could and would. But as a show hunter such radical ideas as going bitless (silly traditionalists) would be considered unconventional and be penalized. I pay very close attention to how I bit my own horse and try to influence the way other horse(s) I ride regularly are bitted. Regardless of whether a horse is bitted or bitless your point about acheiving true collection is very well said! People of all disciplines and preferences would do well to remember that a properly engaged horse is one that will be healthier and happier in his job, be it trail riding, FEI dressage, show hunters, or driving. Thanks for the post! I'm thinking of driving up for the MD Expo and if so I'd definitely try to listen to Zoe's talk.

Sydney_bitless said...

Please see the addon I put in the posts. This is not meant to be an anti bit post but merely pointing out how so many people do not know about the equipment they use on their horse and how the horse works with or against it.

Jessie McCandless said...

My farm isn't 100% bitless because (1) APHA show rules require a bit for horses past their junior year and (2) because if something should happen to me, I'd like for them to be able to be worked in a bit, since the majority of people still feel that they must ride in one.

Otherwise, I have always started horses in a halter. I get asked a lot if that isn't dangerous, and my reply is, if it is, then I haven't done enough ground work. I SHOULD'T HAVE to have a bit in my horse's mouth to control it. Just like you said, more often than not, a bit is for the person, not for the horse. Realizing this, I do make my horses accustomed to bits (just in case they have to go to another home some day).

Now I do have plans on teaching my gelding barrels in a normal bitless bridle (NOT a mechanical hackamore). Although I'm no expert, I know enough about barrels and poles to know that I horse should be patterned well enough before you even start running that you shouldn't have to use a bit. We'll see if my theory works :) If I succeed, I look forward to seeing people's faces when I run a pattern without a bit....

Rising Rainbow said...

I agree with Mare also about ignorance being the root of the problem, not necessarily bits. I have read the entire post including additions and I don't see you as being anti bit either.

Still I have seen horses pretty brutalized with a side pull. I think it's important to be aware that converting people to bitless methods doesn't necessarily mean horses will not be hurt. Those who resort to excessive methods will find a way to do so no mather what tools they use in the process.

That being said, I would like to add input on the question "What will it take." As long as so many methods of showing horses involve rules that designate what "appointments" are required, which includes specifically bits, I know I will not be changing training methods because it affects my business as a breeder since show horses are my speciality. I don't know what the numbers are for membership in USEF but I would imagine that makes a large number of horse owners just like me. Change is going to take not only educating those people to the point they are interested enough in change to warrant the necessary rule changes. Of course, to change the rules will take advocates willing to put the effort into that actual process as well. I believe it can be done but it will take a lot of commitment and some money behind it. I know I would support such a change but I don't have the funds to even attend those meeting as a delegate and that's what it's going to take. People with the funds interested enough to work for change. Sad that things like this come down to money but I've worked this system long enough to know that it does.

(my security word was "turds" do you think that has significance? LOL)

Mare said...

I hope I didn't make you think I was implying that you were anti bit. If it sounded like I was, I apologize for not wording my comment better. I don't believe you to be anti bit, I simply think you are pro bitless, an assumption, I'm sure, you won't disagree with:)

I also have to add that I really liked this post. It got be thinking!

Sydney_bitless said...

Oh no Mare don't worry I never thought that about your comment it was lovely. I just wanted to clear that up so anyone else doesn't jump the gun and get their panties in a knot.

Mare said...

haha...I know what you mean about panties in a knot...4 sure-fire ways to get horse people stirred up: mention either bits, shoeing, breeding, or training methods...hmmm funny how that really doesn't leave much that WON'T get people's panties in a knot! LOL!

Jeni said...

I agree whole-heartedly! While I can't afford a bitless bridle at the moment, I made a point to "unteach" everything I was ever taught when it came to "on the bit" with my mare Bonnie.

While I did that I made every effort to just move with her, and to move her with my body. No contact with the reins at all. Man I got looks as I was riding Dressage on LOOSE LOOPY reins, but my horse was "round, hind quarters engaged, through and breaking at the poll" naturally!!!

I have a much happier willing partner in her then ever before. As soon as I can afford a bitless I'm getting one for her.

Mellimaus said...

Since reading your blog, or perhaps before that...I've at least questioned why I use the bits I do, and changed my bits, both for English (to a snaffle) and western (From a tom-thumb to a regular curb). I'd like to try a bitless bridle... but don't have it in me to spend so much money on one. So unless I have an extra $100 lying around sometime soon, I'll probably stick with the bit.
I also stay with the bit because the shows in our area, at least to do dressage shows or county fair, you're required to use a bit, and I don't want to force Daisy into a bit just for shows. I do ride her a lot right now in just a halter and reins, and she does really well...even riding without hands ;)

achieve1dream said...

I plan to ride Chrome bitless when he's old enough. I'll just use a halter until I can afford to buy a bitless bridle. Why? I have no idea. I guess because I want him to be as comfortable as possible, I don't want to hurt his mouth with heavy hands or by him stepping on the reins and I think it would be fun to prove to everyone that bitless works. :)

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Great post, Sydney! I especially enjoyed reading about your info on collection, which was spot on.

My previous horse I only rode bitless. Before I bought her she was ridden in a mechanical hackamore, and it made her cranky. Come to find out she was cranky anyway, she was much less cranky when ridden in a Dr. Cook's BB. She would try all sorts of things with me, like spinning, bucking, crow-hopping, teleporting, and even bolting, but I never had a problem getting her to stop in her BB, even with the full on rocket-fuel bolting.

The folks who bought her last year agreed after trying her in a snaffle bit that she was much calmer in a BB and told me they planned to get her a BB after they got her home.

My current horse was ridden in a Tom Thumb with a whole head tie down before I bought her. Her previous owner told me my mare would rear sometimes, so the lady decided to strap a tie down on her.....instead of checking my mare's painfully overgrown teeth.

The first thing I did after I got her home, was get her teeth floated and then I got rid of the tie down and awful Tom Thumb bit. I then put her in a French link bit and my mare seemed so relieved and relaxed. She goes so well in it, but I bet if I went to the next step and moved her into a bittless bridle, she would be floating on a cloud. lol!


juliette said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
juliette said...

Sorry for deleting above - I can't get the link to work!

juliette said...
I have a page on my blog about my bitless journey. You can see that
here .
I have ridden another Thoroughbred in a bitless and I have had zero problems wtc and jumping. I started retraining my two OTTB in the bitless and I think it has kept our relationship perfect. They are unbelievably responsive. I know it is the bridle because I rode Pie without any tack at all and I did not have near the success with bending as with the bitless.
I hope more than anywhere the bitless is used on school horses. These horses sacrifice their lives and mouths for our learning. It would be a better world if a student could learn to ride without hitting a horse in the mouth.
Good luck with your presentation, Zoe!

juliette said...

Ugh! Sydney - my link is at my blog Honeysuckle Faire and just hit the "Bitless Riding" page!

Sydney_bitless said...

Juliette- Here maybe this will work Honeysuckle faire bitless riding

Desert Rose said...

Hay Sydney...great post! you always give so much thought to your posts. My horses both are on a MYLER bit with a rein so loose you could rope a goose! ;) small joke there, but, this is how they were both trained and since I am not a trainer nor do I want to use my riding time in a transition mode to bitless, I will continue as I have with my horses. Keep up your good work!!!

Rachel said...

Hi, stopping by to let you know that I linked to you from a little blog award thing that I did. Come by and check it out if you like. :)

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