Ask a Horse: Bits

AMBER: Hi Fiona. Thank you for connecting with me today. My question this week is: how do horses feel about bits? There are a lot of opinions about bitting in the human world, so I though I would ask how horses feel about them.

FIONA: This is a great question because it applies to most horses and riders. Many people do not consider the implications of bits and bitting horses, so it’s good that we connect around this subject. There is nothing wrong with a bit as a communication device. It allows us to be very precise in our efforts to connect, and it helps the horse understand what the rider requests most of the time. The problem for us is when the bit becomes a device to inflict pain, or a method of restraint. Then it is improperly used, as pain is an unfair way to make requests in a relationship.

We understand your deep fears regarding our large bodies and ability to harm you. Most people who use bits for restraint or force or punishment do so out of their deep terror. They do not know how they will conquer such a powerful beast in any other way, so they resort to violence to ensure their safety and the cooperation of the animal.

I assure you, such extreme means are not necessary. Most horses do not wish to harm you in any way, and we take great care with our human friends. We value you and your connection, and have no desire for you to come to harm. This doesn’t mean we are always able to control our instincts, just as you are not able to control your own fears, so accidents do happen. However, rarely do horses cause intentional harm to human beings because it is against our nature and our friendship with you to do so.

So let us revisit the question of the bit in this light. Most bits are not particularly comfortable for most horses. This is not because of the bit itself, but because of the misunderstood mouth-space. Additionally, most bits are designed to act upon the tissues in the mouth to make a point, but doing so is largely unnecessary. You do not need to pinch the tongue or apply pressure to the jaw in order for us to respond to your desires. From this perspective, the bit switches from a communication device to a coercion device (by inflicting pain) very quickly solely because of its design. Even conscientious riders may not realize this distinction because they consider themselves to be using a very kind and soft bit. That is where awareness becomes key.

Not all bits are built in such a way that they incite pain by design, however most are created for that express purpose even if the pain is mild. Why must you pinch the tongue just to ask us to turn? There is no need for that extreme. Gentle pressure on the lips or bars is enough to signal your request. Most people do not realize that the horse must be trained to understand the request. We don’t know that a tug means “turn right” any more than you knew how to read as a young child. These people take a lack of response to subtlety as a message that the horse cannot feel the request or is disobeying on purpose. That is not the case. A horse who is trained to understand what that gentle request means will absolutely comply unless he or she cannot do so.

AMBER: What kinds of bits relay the communication you describe without pain? I have some ideas, but I’m curious what you think.

FIONA: Not curbs, not single-joint snaffles. A double-jointed snaffle is a much better choice because it conforms to the mouth-space with the intention of fit rather than pain, but if the joints are too large or blocky, they may rub and cause discomfort. Smooth bits are nice, and thin bits are lovely if they are used only for communication, but pulling can make them quite severe. Every horse will have some personal preference in this area, but as a general rule, if you seek to use a bit as a communication device only, seek one that is minimal, smooth, not overly large (this hurts the jaw if we cannot comfortably close our mouth, which causes headaches and salivation from discomfort), without large joints, and with plenty of room for the tongue. If our tongues are squeezed or compressed, the ride will never be comfortable and we will never be able to fully relax in the jaw. Straight bits can work but only if they allow proper room for the tongue. Most do not.

AMBER: I’m having uncomfortable flashes from my associations with dental work as a result of this conversation. Tongue compressors, mouth full of gauze, etc. It’s especially interesting that I feel the pressure on the bars of the mouth when a bit is too large. I’m not sure how to describe it for people, but it reminds me of the feeling I get if I have been clenching my teeth for a long time combined with that achey feeling of gum pain, plus TMJ pain and having a giant jawbreaker candy in my mouth all at once. Unpleasant.

FIONA: Yes, and then imagine that someone asks you to relax your jaw and skull with that feeling. It is quite difficult to do.

AMBER: What about the various materials bits are made of? Metal, rubber, plastic, nathe bits?

FIONA: Metal is not bad unless the horse has a tooth ache or dental problems. Then it seems to irritate more than it should. I don’t mind a metal bit as long as it’s kind and soft. Some horses may not like the taste, but I find the metal to be a comfortable weight usually. It is generally smooth and glides over the tongue. Some horses enjoy rubber, but the texture may not meet everyone’s standards. Some people think rubber is softer and kind, but unless the rubber is very small, chances are the bit is too big for the mouth to be comfortable, and then it becomes a stimulus for a busy mouth to chew. Some rubber bits have seams or uncomfortable places. I do not like plastic if it is so light that the rider’s aids are obscured. That is where the heaviness of metal is preferable, because it is a more seamless experience. Nathes are similar to metal in that way, which is pleasing, but they run the risk of acting as a tongue compressor if the bit is too straight.

As a side note, flexibility in the bit is not necessary ideal; consistency of communication is.

AMBER: What about poll pressure? And though you already nixed curb bits, can you talk about what that feels like to a horse?

FIONA: Poll pressure is only bothersome if it’s extreme, or it’s applied to a poll that is sensitive or out of alignment. Most horses suffer from poll misalignment and the consequent tension and pressure of the forehead and ears, which means that poll pressure is extremely uncomfortable (so is wearing a bridle at that point, especially if it’s snug). If the horse is not already uncomfortable in the area, mild poll pressure merely acts as another communication device.

Curb chains and curb bits are horrible unless they are set to be extremely, extremely mild. Even then the mouth of the bit is usually horribly uncomfortable on the tongue. Perhaps some horses will find a version that they don’t mind, but the curb chain runs over a very sensitive part of the jaw. There is no padding there and quite a few nerves, so even the most mild compression is painful. Our reaction to curb chains is often fear because of the sudden blinding pain out of nowhere. It is a very unfair method of coercion. Imagine someone tightening a curb chain around your toes quickly and you might understand how painful that is. A curb chain that was heavily padded and applied with extreme care, so that the sensation was of touch and gentle pressure rather than pain, might not be so bad. It would have to be done in congruence with the horse’s permission and comfort though, because it is so easy for riders to cause great distress even inadvertently with a curb.

AMBER: Thank you for sharing. I know that was unpleasant to talk about. It’s an important topic though, especially for those who use a double bridle in their dressage work. I’m glad that there is a possibility of a solution to work within the FEI regulations that require a double.

FIONA: Yes, if you can change the curb to communication only, it would not be so much trouble. Double bridles in general have crossed that line of communication into pain incentives simply because of their design. Some horses have large enough mouths to accommodate two bits, but most do not. Many headaches result, as well as a loss of relaxation in the mouth because again, how could they do so? A double bridle may be the one fixture where a flash noseband is of some actual benefit to the horse, because it may help hold the bits in place to a limited degree and allow greater relaxation – as long as it’s not too tight. Otherwise, flash nosebands merely prevent us from making our jaw and mouth comfortable around an uncomfortable or painful bit. If horses were not given an uncomfortable bit to begin with, they would not fuss or avoid it unless they were in pain or your hands were quite rough, thus eliminating the need for a flash in the first place.

AMBER: Clearly, we have some improvements to make in order to ensure your comfort. I’m glad to hear that we can do so simply by using mindfulness and your input to select an appropriate bit. There are some people who take things a step farther and suggest that we should not use bits at all. How do you feel about that?

FIONA: Bitless is a nice choice especially for horses who have unusual mouths or injuries that will make any bit uncomfortable. Or, for those riders who are learning and not yet steady and gentle with their hands. You worked with me in a bitless setup when you had been out of riding for a while, and it was a great kindness.

AMBER: Yes, I didn’t want to punish you for my being out of shape, and I didn’t know if you had additional pain at the time. I also wanted to introduce you to the concept of continual contact since you were used to a loose western rein, but I didn’t want to confuse you by sending signals that would be frustrating.

FIONA: Those are all good reasons. I do not think bitless is the answer for everyone, especially those who wish to ask sophisticated requests such as in dressage and jumping. However, it is a good solution for all you described and for those whom prefer activities like trails, endurance, or recreational riding which don’t employ such precise and minute executions. Take care, however, that the bitless ensemble you choose does not coerce or enforce behavior through pain in a different manner, such as jaw or poll pressure, for then you are merely trading one pain device for another. When given correct training, most horses will be perfectly responsive even in a simple halter or its equivalent bridle solution. There is no need for more once the horse understands.

AMBER: On the other side of the spectrum, we have upper level jumpers and cross country horses. I am absolutely on board with using a bit for communication instead of control, but I’m curious to see what you think about situations like that, where the horse’s adrenaline is high.

FIONA: It’s important that you maintain very precise communication when you partner with your equine friend for this type of fun. Many of us greatly enjoy such games, for they are exciting and joyful! Not every horse, certainly, but that is one of your tasks as riders, to ensure that your horse enjoys your chosen sport – or to find a better match. I begin the answer to your question this way, because the horse’s joy in said sport makes all the difference in evaluating an appropriate bit. Horses who enjoy the game as much as you do rarely need substantial bits to succeed, because in their eagerness, they join with you completely. Those who do not enjoy what they do must be coerced because their bodies or minds are revolting, and therefore they require the application of pain to perform.

I understand this is a sobering thought, but part of the issue is a training problem. Many horses lose their joy as they move up the levels in any sport simply due to a lack of correct training. What was easy and fun gets difficult, stressful, and physically uncomfortable if the horse does not have a correct foundation of training. The questions are tougher and faster which becomes brutal to mind and body if the horse doesn’t know the answer. However, when a foundation is carefully laid so that the horse continues to find the sport joyful, through slow and steady mastery that builds confidence and capability – Oh! The fun we can have together even at the highest levels of sport. That is the answer to your bitting question about upper level cross country and showjumping.

Some horses do experience adrenaline, and in this case it is the responsibility of the rider to maintain the lines of precise communication without resorting to pain. However, far more of these supposed circumstances are caused by fear and stress in an over-faced horse – who will want to rush through to get the upsetting event over – rather than true, in-the-moment adrenaline. For those rare few, a very well-padded curb or gag may be an option, or one of the many gadgets humans have invented for this process. However, the same mindfulness and congruence with the horse should be taken in making this selection as for any choice, because not all horses will be comfortable in all situations. Moreover, perhaps exploring whether your horse really, truly loves your sport at its current level is a better step than adding leverage.

AMBER: Makes total sense to me. I’ve often thought that if I go cross country again, I would like to explore a kineton noseband because it redistributes pressure to the nose, mitigating much of the pressure from pulling or fast adjustments between jumps.

FIONA: Yes! That is a creative way to solve such problems. That is how you must think: how can I ensure that the bit remains a communication device, not a coercion device.

AMBER: Last question, Fi. What is it like from a horse’s perspective when a rider takes up contact with your mouth?

FIONA: It is very sacred to us. Much as you would consider your relationship with a lover. You must understand that to even allow you on our backs, we enter a sacred union with our human friends. We offer you our bodies in partnership and shared joy. When you take up the reins, we enter into an agreement of your guidance. We are absolutely vulnerable to you in this position, because it is not the nature of animal to enter into harm. Meaning, we do not willingly choose to be coerced with pain. Instead, we give you this permission out of love and trust to join with us. We give you this gift to share with you the same joy you feel for us in togetherness. Co-creation at its best. Not every partnership has this divinity; most do not. But with all horses, this is the gift that is given each time you sit in the saddle. Remember that when you take up the reins.

AMBER: Thank you. For everything. <3

Have you ever wanted to ask a horse how they feel about a particular subject? Now’s your chance! Hear about horse-keeping and equestrian subjects straight from the horse’s mouth. These segments are conducted interview-style between Amber and equine advice extraordinaire Fiona, or a guest horse. Have a question or a topic you’d like to know about? Leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter with under #askahorse.

3 Replies to “Ask a Horse: Bits”

  1. Hi Amber and Fiona

    I’m learning so much from your conversations. Thank you!

    I was a little surprised to read that salivating can be a sign of discomfort. Are you referring to “lipstick foam?” (I hope you understand what I mean by that) I always interpreted that kind of salivation as a sign of good communication but is that not the case?

    Some other signs I look for are relaxed snorting and a soft tail. Are these still good ways to check that my work with my horse is beneficial?

    Thanks for all the wisdom!

    1. Hi Hannah,
      That’s a fabulous question, and I’m so glad you asked. A tense mouth may be very dry as the horse grinds his/her teeth or clamps the jaw, because the horse has shifted into the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/flee mode), and salivation turns off. So, a very small amount of foam or lipstick can indicate relaxation from a soft tongue/jaw. This is saliva produced by the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/restore), meaning the horse is relaxed enough for natural body functions to occur, and the parotid glands which produce saliva are gently stimulated from the this relaxation in the jaw. That kind of lipstick is minimal and not very sticky.

      What we usually see horses is the opposite side of the spectrum: excess salivation. This sticky, thick, ultra-foamy salivation, which can even become more akin to drooling in extreme cases, is again caused by a shift to the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/flee), but the horse remains in this state for a prolonged period of time. This type of foamy mouth can be present when a bit is too thick, hands are too heavy, or the horse is being ridden behind the vertical, or pain in general, because the position of the jaw and head places pressure on the parotid glands. The glands get overstimulated from the position of the jaw, like when the dentist has your mouth open for a long time and has to “vacuum” your mouth dry. Horses ridden chronically behind the vertical like this may develop swollen parotid glands as a result. When the parotid glands have been overstimulated, the horse may be very fussy in the head after the ride, itchy and uncomfortable. That last bit is not a sure fire tell because the horse may be fussy or other reasons, or they may be so relieved that the experience is over that they quiet down, but generally if horses have lipstick for the right reasons, they are pretty zen after a ride.

      You’re right on with the relaxed snorting and soft tail. Also look for a soft eye, steady breathing, freely forward motion (but not hurried), engagement in grooming and work, and a soft topline when the rein is loose. A relaxed horse will lower the head and desire to stretch when given the rein, but not thrust the head down/out, jig, or substantially change pace. There’s lots more to be said about this topic, but these are some good things to watch for.

      Cheers,
      Amber

  2. Awesome! Thanks for your thoughtful response Amber 🙂

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