I have grown exceptionally tired of the trend that the horse world has been following for as long as I remember and that's the trend of equipment equals control. It's as if we all forget that we're riding thousand pound animals that could maim or kill us in the blink of an eye. Truly, the things we are counting on for "control" are merely an illusion. Control is an illusion. These animals are far quicker and more powerful than us and while it may be possibly to train or in some people's cases, bully them into submission, realistically, the "control" we have is reliant on training, trust and in some cases, fear. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that no amount of bit, no amount of equipment can prevent a horse from hurting you. These are flight animals who are so much larger than us, animals who may act without thinking and as a result, their actions could have dire consequences. The bottom line is: humans cannot out muscle horses, no matter the equipment. Horse people know this, but we choose to participate in the sport despite this. Some may say out of sheer craziness others out of the love of the animal, but I think it falls somewhere in the middle.
Anyways, now that I've established the fact that equipment realistically doesn't stop horses from acting unpredictably, it's the training and handling behind them coupled with the horses' temperament and various environmental factors, I want to touch on something that has really been bothering me for years... But, fortunately for you guys reading this, a situation recently reminded me how jaded I am about this topic. Now, I guess my question for you guys is this: Good, ethical training should be applauded, should it not? Now, assuming you're sane and said yes, I'll stop beating around the bush and get to my point. Ethical training should be rewarded, so why is it that in so many cases, those who take the most shortcuts, who utilize the strongest (and in a lot of cases, most painful or uncomfortable) bits and other gadgets get accommodated the most? I'm sure now that I've pissed some of you readers off, but hear me out. In many disciplines, it's still illegal to ride and show bitless. You simply cannot ride your horse without a bit, despite the fact that they may go better like that, because of politics. It is quite ridiculous. No bitless bridles, but by all means, Susan in the double-twisted gag with one rein and incredibly rough hands attached to it, enter the show ring. There's something very wrong with this, instead of policing the harshness and misuse of equipment, so many people are being punished for wanting to use more "untraditional" options despite the fact that they're kinder than a lot of the popularized equipment. This isn't to say I'm anti-bit, I'm definitely not, but it does hit a point of ridiculousness, if you "need" to put an incredibly abrasive mouthpiece and other sorts of harsh equipment on your horse in order to show it, it does show a lack of perceived control, more so than riding in a bitless bridle would. So, why is this more accepted than bitless and bridleless options? Marilyn Little is an excellent example, although more or less looked down on for her equipment use by what seems to be the majority of riders, she is still defended by the large organizations that govern the world in which she chooses to show in. So, despite numerous instances of bloody mouths and some pretty frightening bitting choices, she is still allowed to compete and even selected for eventing teams, furthermore affirming that her "mistakes" are acceptable and not of concern... But, you can't show dressage bridleless... But... If your hunter goes better bitless, you're out of luck... Sorry. I don't care what you say, there's something seriously wrong with that.
Finally, I'll get to the situation that ignited my irritation of the whole mindset that condemns bitless and bridleless riding. Recently, I've been doing a lot of research on what is and isn't "allowed" at rated shows and found that technically, one can be allowed to show bridleless in the jumper ring provided a steward approves it. As some of you may be aware, I've shown bridleless at schooling shows before but never realized it was an option at rated shows until discovering @unbridled_goddess on Instagram. So, anyways, flashback a couple of weeks ago at my most recent show, I decided to ask the steward if it'd be okay for me to do one of my classes bridleless. Now, to put this in perspective, I have asked other shows before and have been denied (but they were schooling shows), due to the fact that they had a lot of kids riding there and didn't want to give them the idea to try it at home without the proper preparation. I think that is fair. So, in this case it wasn't the fact that I was denied the opportunity to show bridleless that bothered me so much as the response. So, virtually as soon as I finished getting the words out of my mouth, the steward immediately said no. There was not even a moment of consideration. She followed up her "no" with "you need to have some form of control." This is where I had to beg to differ. I argued that my neck rope was a form of control because, like with his bit, my horse is trained to respond to it. Keep in mind, I trained Milo to ride bridleless as a 3 year old and since then have done a lot of bridleless jump schools, showing, hacking, trail rides, dressage and have even galloped him on an open racetrack bridleless. He is very very well broke to being ridden without a bridle, I inform the steward of this. The steward shakes her head and is insistent it doesn't count as a form of control and that I need to have a bit. Because of her tone and her adamant insistence, I bit my tongue and didn't argue that bitless riding is actually legal in the jumper ring... She concludes the conversation with: "[Bridleless riding] isn't a trend we want to encourage." Anyone who knows me well probably knows how badly I wanted to go off on a tangent, but I knew it'd fall on deaf ears and I also had a class to do. So, here I am going off on a tangent now.
Why is that a trend we don't want to encourage? Why don't we want to encourage the "less is more" mentality in terms of equipment? Why don't we want to show people, especially the younger generations, that it is perfectly possible to ride with a soft bit, no bit or bridleless even on a young, greener horse who has the tendency to be excitable and still be in complete control? Why not make the trend all about how much actual training can do for you and your horse over just throwing on more equipment and "bitting up"? I am honestly ashamed of the fact that this mentality towards bitless and bridleless riding isn't uncommon. Should we not be wanting the trend of having people riding around with harsher and harsher bits, oftentimes going straight to changing the bit in lieu of actual training? Maybe if more people realized that riding bridleless or bitless or in a soft snaffle is more so about the training behind it and setting up the horse for success than it is about having a "good" or "calm" horse, we would see less shortcuts being taken in the show world. Milo isn't a calm horse. He's very quirky and sensitive and yet, I do not ever feel like I lack "control" with him bridleless because we have built a partnership and have created the foundation to make this type of riding possible. Similarly, I've had people call me "stupid" or tell me that it's "dangerous" to have done one of his first jump schools over 3' in a halter... I'm astonished at this mindset. It's only "dangerous" if your horse is ill prepared and not well versed enough in their flat work and the essential seat, leg and voice aids that help them with refined cues even when they lack the traditional "control" of a bit. People can try to argue that it's for safety reasons at shows, but that brings me back to my initial point of control being an illusion. Riding in a bit doesn't ensure you'll be in control. There's far to many instances of riders being entirely out of control even with bits both at shows and at home for that to be a reasonable argument.
Realistically, the only trend that needs to change is the idea that bits equal control. Bits are for communication, that is all. If you are needing to use a bit to essentially bully your horse into submission, in a lot of cases that's a clue that there's some holes in the training that need to be fixed. And listen, I've been there. I've been that person so desperate for quick fixes that I think a new shiny bit or a new gadget will fix my horse, but it doesn't. It's not that I've gotten "better" horses now, that's not the reason why I've been having more success with bridleless riding. It's that my mindset has changed. And it's time that the rest of the horse show world gets with it. Using what works for your horse and using less when you don't need more should be applauded not condemned. After all, I'm sure we have ALL seen kids and adults alike flying around out of control in the jumper ring despite having a big bit... Control is an illusion, guys, and just because you're used to needing "more" for control doesn't mean I'm endangering myself or my horse any more than you are by choosing to ride in your equipment of choice.