Saturday, August 27, 2011

Riding Shouldn't Hurt

I have been feeling nauseous for the last couple of days, ever since I read this article, delivered to my email box, courtesy of The   “Is Your Horse's Bit Harmful to His Mouth?” by Casie Bazay, BS, NBCAAM.

This study found that the majority of domestic horse skulls examined have bone or tooth damage caused by bits.   I realize this is a very small study, and I realize that it was conducted by a person who developed and sells a bitless bridle, so don’t go all reiterate-the-obvious on me.  In fact, the study was recently a topic of “conversation” on a COTH thread, where these points were batted about. 
The spin, in reining (credits to Wikipedia).

The same thread presents this study, however: “Surgical Removal of Mandibular Periostitis (Bone Spurs) Caused by Bit Damage,” by Thomas J. Johnson, DVM.  This more medically-focused article, starts out with this sentence, “Many performance horses suffer from painful mandibular periostitis caused by bit trauma.”

There are a couple reasons these articles are upsetting to me.  The first is that I have long suspected that bits hurt horses.  When I really think about it, I can’t imagine that they don’t hurt horses.  Even in gentle hands, they must feel terrible in their mouths. 

I work very hard at gentle hands.  It’s the single most important thing I do for my horses while riding, but once in a while a mare spooks or takes an unexpected leap over something, or trips, and I accidentally jerk on the mouth.  I can see and feel that that jerk did not feel good.

Another reason the articles upset me is because I haven’t really thought about it very often.   I was taught, like most English riders, to apply “gentle” pressure to the bit while signaling with the seat to get the horse to drop his head, round his back, engage his hindquarters and “collect.”  I was taught that this is the way to get the horse to use his body correctly, so it’s a good thing.  You’re not yanking on the bit, you’re applying steady pressure with the hands and seat until the horse drops his head.  But even when I was doing it in lessons and shows, the thought would flitter across my brain that reason the horse was dropping his head was to avoid the painful bit pressure, not because he was magically learning the correct way to carry his body.  But that was the “right” way to ride.

A very famous horse wearing two bits. (Credit to
I queasily searched Dr. Johnson’s article until I found this “Frequently affected horses include the following: dressage horses, gaited horses, western working horses, Standardbred and Thoroughbred race horses, gaming horses, and polo ponies.”

I keep thinking of CG, the main horse of my past, and other past horses, and how I probably hurt their mouths as we worked toward dressage shows.  And I have been thinking of how I attempted to start working Hudson away from being “strung out,” which was written all over our only two dressage tests we ever did, by applying the seat and hand techniques I was taught to get her hind end more engaged.   I could tell she was stressed and confused by the change in pressure on the bit, and honestly, I hated doing it so much that I didn’t try it for long.  I wonder if we have to force horses into the “correct” positions.  If you ask them to work, they’ll work for you, but do we have to twist them all up at the same time?

I use the gentlest bits I can, but I am questioning using them now.  The idea of them causing tooth damage and bone spurs, and the horse just bearing this, is pretty terrible.  I have a bitless bridle that I’m going to try on Starlight.   Interestingly, she has been uncooperative only on one point: She refuses to offer her open mouth for the bit when I push my finger on her bar (I never get the bit in the mouth by pushing it against the front teeth).  I have to push pretty steadily while she just stands there looking at me.  Eventually, I get her teeth open enough to slide the bit in, but, duh.  It’s pretty obvious that the pony who has been up for anything under saddle is trying to tell me something.

With Dee, I’ll probably still use a bit until I have confidence in her being cooperative under saddle, but will then move away from the bit. 

If I move away from bits, I will also be excluding myself and my horses from those competitions that require bits.  But, is it so bad?  Aren’t there many fun things to do with the horse that don’t make any rules about tack, other than that it be safe?  There are, and I think that for now, that’s where I’ll head.

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