In the pursuit of learning and bettering myself as a rider, I’ve made significant changes over the last several years with regards to the manner in which I handle horses. As I move away from the lazier aspects of training and handling from years past, my eyes have become more “open” and I’ve become more aware to mistakes I’ve made as well as people making what I’d personally view as mistakes. I used to be lazy, focused on moving forward and hitting the end goal as fast as possible with my horses. I wanted to cut corners but still expected a great result. When my horses got fast or heavy, I’d look into bitting up or adding more equipment instead of appropriately training them. Instead of being aware of the holes in training, I’d blame their fence rushing issues on their “excitement” or “love” for jumping and would throw on bits that gave me the illusion of more control instead of fixing their less than stellar dressage foundations. I’m embarrassed of how I used to bring up my OTTBs. I did a bad job. I didn’t do them justice while I was still learning about the Thoroughbred horse post racing career. On top of this, I also used to disallow my horses adequate turnout and then would wonder why they always wanted to spook, bolt and be silly during rides. All of these behaviours were avoidable, easily fixable. If I’d just done things differently, but I didn’t and that is a mistake I now have to own and learn from.
To some extent, yes, I’ve gotten better at choosing prospects but them turning out better, with nicer muscle tone and healthier weights is due to my growth as a horse person. I feed them better. I ride them better. As a result, they build top lines and lose their upside down necks. The horses haven’t become easier than the ones I’d had in years past, they’re just being brought up better and as such, appear easier. The horses I had 7+ years ago were saints for dealing with my subpar training skills and lack of patience and if I had them now, I’d do better by them.
Anyways, let’s get to the point I’m trying to make. I just had to roast myself a little first to make it clear that I’m criticizing the way I used to do things and not just merely pointing fingers. The major difference in my horses has been eye opening to me in how much these things actually MATTER and how much they benefit the horses. Bitting choices, for one, are a bone I have to pick. Majorly. Now that I work with currently racing Thoroughbreds as well as retired ones, I simply cannot get on board with the people who pull horses off the track, start them with little flatwork foundation, throw them over fences as soon as humanly possible and then wonder why they rush. Then, they blame the horse, blame the racing industry and slap on a bigger bit to get their horse to stop running through the bridle. A bandaid fix. This is seen outside of OTTBs, of course, but I wanted to reference the Thoroughbreds first to point out the stark difference in bitting options on and off of the track. Thoroughbreds are trained to take a hold of the bit on the racetrack, which is why a good flatwork foundation is imperative before introducing jumps because it is in their nature to get heavy and be rushy, since they were trained to RACE. With that said, if I walked up to my racing trainer with a double twisted wire gag that I’ve seen used in the jumper ring and suggested we put it on, she would not be on board. Why? Because they don’t really view bit changes as a fix in the same way we do in other disciplines. Even using a noseband is a bit of a big deal and they’d most certainly NOT want to pair a regular noseband, let alone a flash or drop noseband, with an exceedingly harsh bit. Why? Because they realize it’s harsh.
In show disciplines, I see a lot of complacency. People advocating for pretty ridiculous bitting set ups under the guise of bits only being as harsh as the hands. Sure, if you have great hands, you’ll be less harsh but at the end of the day, people need to be aware of why harsher bits work the way they do. The fact of the matter is that when you add a more abrasive mouthpiece or more leverage, the horse is forced to soften and respond quicker because the consequence is far greater than they don’t. This is something to consider even more so in English disciplines than western ones since we’re holding a more direct contact, meaning that the twisted wire bit you put in Little Fluffy’s mouth will probably have pressure on it the vast majority of the time, with the wire creating more pressure points than a smooth snaffle would. This is further compounded by the thinness of the bit and some people use excessively thin wire snaffles, that in the wrong hands or wrong situation can do a lot of damage. I used to be one of these people. I used to ride my Arab in a thin twisted wire that, I kid you not, was probably not much thicker than a strand of barbed wire. I’ll never make that mistake again and I’m ashamed that I did it in the first place but said bit was suggested by a professional that I trusted. It never even crossed my mind how exactly harsh it would be and this is exactly the problem. People are naive to the equipment they use and why it works.
I think that one of the largest indicators of the ethical dilemma we have in terms of equipment we use on horses is that bitless options are more highly regulated in most disciplines than bits. You can go out in a leverage bit with an abrasive mouthpiece on cross country but hackamores are being banned on XC. You can ride in some pretty scary snaffles that may look safe from the cheekpieces but are harsh mouthpieces when you’re showing your hunter but can’t show bitless. Now, the show jumping set ups are even more scary and there seems to be no real limit to what they allow people to put on their horses. “They’re strong” people say, “You’ve clearly never ridden an upper level horse” I’m sure people will tell me from this post. And, okay, I’ll humour you. Yes, horses can be strong. Racehorses are strong but we still stop them in snaffles because we aren’t allowed to put on bandaid fixes. Now, sure I’ve also never ridden a Grand Prix horse but frankly, if my only option in getting around the 1.60m is to put an abrasive mouthpiece gag paired with a crank noseband (yes, I’ve seen this) then I honestly want no part in that. No matter how soft your hands are, the set up is harsh. Your horse isn’t softer in it because they “like” it, they’re softer in it because they have to be or it’ll hurt more.
There is a broad spectrum in terms of beliefs in the horse world. I’d like to think I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m not as radical as people who think horses shouldn’t be ridden at all or that bits are evil but I am swaying away from some of the “traditional” mindsets that encourage people to heavily discipline their horses for, you know, acting like horses or are quick to add equipment to “fix” an issue because it’s quicker than getting some dressage lessons. I’m not against bitting up but there has to be a limit. I fail to believe that there are horses out there who essentially need a serrated knife in their mouth to be in control and if that actually is the case for that horse, then there are some massive holes in their training.
At the end of the day, why do we ride and handle horses if their comfort isn’t something we are very much concerned about? Competing and using horses for sport is for OUR interests and honestly, even if our horses like what they do, it is still a selfish act to enter competitions. This isn’t to say that it’s wrong to do so but we need to be considerate of our horses, who work so hard for us, and do our best to ensure their health and comfort. We need to be aware that some equipment is just HARSH and not downplay it by saying “a bit is only as harsh as the hands” because NO, some bits are just HARSH and a lot of people use harsh bits harshly. A lot of trainers encourage students to bit up because it’s easier than training them how to ride properly and a lot of riders are riding in set ups that they do not have the hands for in the first place. These mythical, amazing soft hands that can handle any bit safely simply are not common enough to advocate for some the set ups we see used.
We also need to ask ourselves why our horses are acting “crazy” and being difficult to ride to the point where we need to keep adding more and more equipment. I’ve gotten on so many horses, many of which do not get enough turnout, and half the ride or more is just about them getting out pent up energy. They’re strong, they’re spooky, they’re technically being “bad” but is it really their fault if they spend 80-100% of their time in a stall, with no ability to get rid of excess energy? And then people go and try to “fix” them by adding more equipment instead of adding more turnout. More opportunity for expressing natural behaviours. A chance for better mental and physical health of the horse. But, nope, the bit will fix it. For the rider, at least, to enjoy themselves more. Not benefiting the horse at all. If we changed the way we brought up horses and cared for them day to day, I’d imagine a lot of these training hurdles wouldn’t be so prevalent anymore. If you deny your horse the ability to be a horse and consistently use harsher ways of asking rather than soft ones, they’re going to require a harsher means of equipment to respond. Horses who are started softly and allowed to get their sillies out in the field or at the very least, in paddock turnout, are a lot more likely to be softer, more focused and more responsive.
I guess all I’m saying here is that the Venn Diagram for horses who have good dressage foundations and nice day to day lifestyles and horses who do not require some of these crazy bitting set ups is a circle. It goes hand in hand. Far too many upper level riders are getting by in fairly soft snaffles or at least reasonable means of adding leverage as a “just in case” to justify some of the set ups we see people using. I think it’s ludicrous that people think it’s defensible to up the severity of a bit and then slap on dropped nosebands, cranks and other means of ensuring the horse cannot escape from the compounded pressure on their mouth. It’s too much. Especially when the people using these set ups are so often in denial of what actually makes a set up harsh. We spend so much time arguing about the hands rather than discussing the mechanics of the equipment even in the softer hands. Harsher bits are built to create a harsher response, even with soft hands, so let’s just please stop pretending.
Anyways, I’m thoroughly enjoying starting my horses under saddle and bringing them up slowly. The foundational aspect of starting horses is so incredibly important and I feel really blessed to have a large part of my job be focused on giving other people’s horses a soft start to allow them the best chance to be responsive and receptive without outrageous amounts of equipment being tacked on for control. As I grow my string of horses and continue to produce my personal horses with the intent of moving up the levels, equipment is something I will remain cautious of. I want my horses soft and well versed on the flat and if they start to get belligerent and strong over fences, the first thing I will do is change the exercises that I do. Who knows, maybe they will need to bit up one day but I most certainly won’t be using the types of bits that I used to use or that seem to have become acceptable on a fairly marked scale.