There’s a petition circulating the Web and it’s calling for an end to animal cruelty. The problem is that most of us are guilty of committing this particular crime.
Started on September 5th, “Demand Bits Be Banned” takes the hardline view that all bits are bad, all the time, regardless of whose hands they are in. It then links to this rather alarming footage of horses being handled roughly with bits in their mouths.
Now, it’d be easy to dismiss the petition as the sensationalized ramblings of a zealot. Statements like “bits are cruel torture devices with a sole intent of harming the horse” and bits create “severe and paralysing pain” are not going to win over the majority of the horse loving public. (Also, they spelled “rein” wrong and that’s never going to improve your credibility.)
But are the petition’s claims entirely out in left field? There is mounting evidence that bits may not be the be-all-end-all of horse training we’ve imagined. We turn to Dr. Robert Cook to explain.
Dr. Cook has studied the horse’s mouth, ear, nose and throat for some 60 years. The Tufts University professor emeritus has devoted countless hours, two books—Specifications for Speed in the Racehorse: The Airflow Factors and Metal in the Mouth: The Abusive Effects of Bitted Bridles)—and over a hundred research articles in scientific and horsemen’s journals to the horse’s head. Suffice it to say: he knows a fair bit more about, well, bits than most.
That’s important because what Dr. Cook says is shocking. If it weren’t for his extensive academic background, his views might seem altogether unbelievable.
“We’ve grown up with the presence of a bit in a horse’s mouth and accepted it without question, which is something in retrospect I can say quite vigorously was a big mistake. I accepted it too in spite of the fact that I supposedly had scientific training. I didn’t really consider seriously what the bit is doing to the horse. And it wasn’t until it was possible to communicate and control a horse without a bit and switch a horse overnight from bitted to bitless that all the information came tumbling in,” he says.
Specifically, that information connects bits to a wide variety of diseases, health conditions and behavioral issues that until now were not associated with the hardware of a bridle. And it’s not just physical damage to the mouth. Obstructed breathing, impaired gait and behavioral issues are among his growing list of bit-induced conditions.
“Prior to 1997,” Dr. Cook says, “I might have listed 12 problems as ‘aversions to the bit.’ From research completed since then I now list over 200 negative behaviors and 40 diseases…I kick myself for not having recognized sooner that the bit causes so much mayhem. Bronze age man made a mistake putting a piece of metal in a horse’s mouth.”
Bits May Inflict Pain
Most riders agree that bits can cause pain to horses. A too severe bit in the wrong hands, or even a soft one in rough or inexperienced hands is a well-known cause of rubs, cuts and soreness in a horse’s mouth. Dr. Cook’s research suggests the damage may go even deeper—to the bone and beyond.
In a study published in Equine Veterinary Education, Dr. Cook examined 66 jawbone specimens from domestic horses in three Natural History museums. He found bone spurs on the bars of the mouth in 62% of the jawbones and evidence of either bone spurs or dental damage in 88%. It’s probable, he says, that horses today exhibit a similar frequency of damage.
“The repeated pressure of bit on bone,” he says, “causes the sensory nerve to the face to become super-sensitive, i.e., to develop trigeminal neuralgia. This is the most common cause of headshaking (head tossing). Horses experience pain in the mouth but also in their face, eyes, and ears. A head tosser may also be difficult to bridle, a persistent head-rubber, unable to stand bright light, wind or rain, and impossible to handle around the ears. Trigeminal neuralgia occurs most commonly in horses required to work with their heads in flexion.”
Horses Run From Pain
Bit-induced pain isn’t just uncomfortable for the horse, it creates dangerous situations for riders, says Dr. Cook.
“One of the most deeply rooted myths in horsemanship is that a bit controls the horse. It doesn’t. A bit doesn’t act like the brakes on a car. On the contrary, it often acts like an accelerator. Horses run from pain. If you hurt your horse, it speeds up,” he explains.
“Horses are prey animals. They have evolved to be frightened. Their survival as a species depended on their shyness. If they didn’t flee, they got eaten.”
A bit, he says, puts their evolutionary flight response on high alert.
“Imagine you’re riding in a bitted bridle and a piece of paper blows across your path. The horse spooks and you lose your balance. Instinctively, you clutch at the reins and give your horse a painful bang in the mouth. This convinces him that the paper monster is dangerous and he takes off,” he says.
“You apply ‘the brakes’ with an increasingly frantic pull on the reins. The escalating pain now causes your horse to panic. He runs faster and with increasing desperation. Maddened with fear, he’s literally ‘running blind.’ In this state, he may run straight into barbed wire, a ditch or oncoming traffic. You and your horse may die.”
If the bit is removed from the equation—Dr. Cook invented the crossunder bitless bridle precisely for that purpose—the horse will still spook when a piece of paper blows across his path and you will still be unseated and clutch at the reins. But now the horse feels nothing worse than a painless hug of its head.
“He may run a few yards but then realizes that the piece of paper didn’t hurt. As he is not in pain from the rein aid, he will listen to your polite request to slow down. The next time he sees wind-blown paper he will be less anxious,” he says.
Bits May Impair Breathing
“A bit is a foreign body in the horse’s mouth and stimulates salivation, chewing, movement of the jaw, and swallowing. These are not the responses needed for exercising; they are ‘eating’ responses. Eating and exercising have mutually opposed priorities. No horse should be asked to do both at the same time,” says the professor.
“At liberty, a running horse has a closed mouth, sealed lips, an immobile tongue and jaw, and an empty, relatively dry oral cavity. This ‘programs’ the throat for rapid breathing. The soft palate switch-plate falls and enlarges the air channel at the expense of the food channel.”
A bit, he says, programs the throat for swallowing. “It breaks the lip seal, opens the mouth, admits air, moves tongue and jaw and triggers salivation. At the level of the throat, all these raise the soft palate and enlarge the food channel at the expense of the air channel, interfering with breathing,” explains Dr. Cook.
“Use of a bit sends conflicting messages to the horse’s brain—to eat or exercise, that is the conflict? The confusion is particularly evident in its effect on the soft palate and the horse’s wind. A bit disturbs not only the mouth but also the brain, lungs, legs, heart and circulation—the proper functioning of which are critical to peak performance. In fact, the bit harms just about every bodily system except the reproductive.”
One consequence of impaired breathing is restricted movement.
“The running horse takes one breath for every stride. If the horse can’t breathe freely, it can’t stride freely. Amazingly, that small piece of mouth metal interferes with the gait and the poetry of motion. You get a choppy gait and stiff movement,” says Dr. Cook.
Bits May Impede Performance
Beyond the health considerations, Dr. Cook’s work suggests that bits may interfere with the precise purpose they were designed for—performance.
“For example, when a show jumper tries to balance her horse a few strides ahead of a jump, bit pain often causes the horse to throw up its head. She distracts her horse at the very moment it needs to focus on the obstacle ahead,” says Dr. Cook.
The bit may also be to blame for a horse that rushes its jumps or bolts on landing. “This behavior,” he says, “is the horse’s way of getting the ordeal over as quickly as possible.”
His research indicates an improvement in performance when the bit was removed. In a filmed experiment that Dr. Cook ran at the 2008 Annual Conference of the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA), four school horses that had never been ridden in a bitless bridle completed two four-minute dressage tests—first, in a snaffle bridle, then immediately after with the same rider in the crossunder bitless bridle. The horses were ridden by CHA certified instructors and scored by an independent judge with 25 years experience.
Here is the first part of the experiment.
And here is part two.
“The improvement was remarkable. The average score in the bitted bridle was 37%. In their first four minutes in the bitless bridle, the average score was 64%,” says Dr. Cook. The study was published in Equine Veterinary Journal.
The Final Word
Dr. Cook says all bits are an impediment to performance, welfare and safety. Others counter that bits don’t hurt horses; people’s hands hurt horses. Whichever side you lean to, maybe it’s time to reconsider the way we think about bits. As of this morning, 396 petition supporters already have.
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