The Great Bit Debate

The only opinion that matters to me is my horse’s:

Jack eyes

Jack doesn’t like it when people look at him in the appraising way people do. It makes him cranky and reminds him of his days as a show horse when he was judged for his looks and his way of going. He was a champion. Qualified for the world show. Went home from the qualifying competition and kicked through a concrete waterer, effectively taking himself out of the competitive world. I often get the feeling from him that this move was intentional. He doesn’t like to be looked at that way and he doesn’t like to be judged. He picked his own way out of that world.

Jack found his way to me some years later. After spending some unknown, but no doubt lengthy stay in a vet hospital, in a cast, he recovered enough to survive, but not to be sound. Not useful in the traditional sense of the word, he was moved along to a new home, ultimately donated to a horse sanctuary to live out his days in relative ease. Except for one small problem.

His injuries were such that his right hind leg continued to weaken. It bothered him enough he learned to get around without using it much. He packed it underneath himself in such a way he didn’t bear any weight on it. His spine adapted, growing crooked in response to the unusual stressors, his pelvis tilted at such an odd angle the local vets could only guess he must have a dislocated hip. He was effectively disabled, vulnerable, picked on by other horses and in enough discomfort he was pretty darned cranky.

I was volunteering time at the sanctuary back then. Doing bodywork on those in need. Jack and I crossed paths there and he responded brilliantly to my work, standing up on that right hind and making use of it to the degree it was decided he should come to my place and enter my rehab program. He came to me an angry, frustrated, uncomfortable guy. He seemed to know I was trying to help him and yet was so frustrated that all he wanted to do was bite. I understood his frustration and his discomfort so he was never punished for bad behavior. I simply worked around it.

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Jack is one of those horses who is a great teacher for me. Ultimately it is work in hand, with a bit in his mouth, that seems to help him access the muscles in his back that build the strength necessary for him to be relatively sound, and definitely comfortable. He’s no longer the vulnerable, picked on, frustrated guy who bites anyone in site. He’s one of the sweetest, snuggliest guys around, finally able to hold his own with the other horses. It took us a long time to find our way through all of his angst and my own doubt and hesitation about what to do and how to do it. Is it even fair to put him through physical therapy? And yet time and again, even when he was more like a snapping turtle than a horse, he kept asking me for help.

 

We’re well over the hump now. We know each other, trust each other and love each other. He has his ways of letting me know when I’m not doing enough physical therapy and when I’m doing too much. He’s a good communicator! Jack is one of those horses that makes me feel confident about what we’re doing together to the point that no one else’s opinion matters one whit. And I sure do appreciate that right now.

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You see, I wrote an article recently as a guest contributor – http://www.listentoyourhorse.com/giving-horses-their-voice-what-if-they-say-no/

I was asked to write about how I handle/interpret my horse saying “no” to something I ask them to do.  Several people called me out because I included images of my horse Rio wearing a bridle with a bit. How can I possibly justify the use of a bit and justify the use of something that has no purpose but to cause pain or the threat of pain. There is no way to make use of a bit and still give a horse their voice, still allow them to say no.

I respectfully beg to differ.

It’s a human choice to determine to use a piece of equipment to control or to inflict pain. Some pieces of equipment are clearly designed with that goal in mind and there sure are plenty of horrific bits out there! I get the argument against bits, I really do. But the human can choose to give their horse a voice and a choice, bit or no bit, tack or no tack. Bit or no bit, tack or no tack I’ve seen humans who have a knack for taking away a horse’s voice and choice through the shear magnitude of their presence. Horses are so keyed into body language that if you are intimidating enough they may not feel they have a choice even if you don’t have one lick of equipment involved.

So it’s the human that has a choice to make. Are we going to control and manipulate and force our horses to do things for us or are we going to make the commitment to giving them a voice? Once I made that promise, to never force compliance, I stopped using tools and equipment to enforce my ideas. It’s tempting and it would be so much easier, but I promised myself and my horses I’d find another way. It ain’t easy! I walk away disappointed more times than I can count but I’m not going to yank on those reins, or pull on that bit. So I’m here to tell you, you can use a bit or a halter or any other piece of sane, humane equipment and not turn it into a weapon.

The choice is yours.

If you don’t trust yourself or you don’t have the relationship with your horse in place then by all means don’t use that bit. It takes me a lot of time with a horse to determine how we are going to do things together in a cooperative, mutually beneficial way. I don’t put bits on horses who are going to fight me, who don’t trust the connection and brace against it. We learn to trust each other first. And then the bit is there for a reason and the horse has as much or more to say about the addition of the equipment as I do.

The nice thing about being called out this time is that for once in my life I didn’t get shattered by shame and doubt. Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I do right by my horses. How do I know? Because my horses let me know day in and day out by how they interact, not only with me but with all the people who step foot on my property. They know I am their unwavering advocate and that anyone who comes here is under my supervision and trying to hear them so they communicate profusely and freely, letting us know exactly how they feel about every single idea we present.

How do I know how my horse feels about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it? Because they show me. They share with me how they feel. I literally feel what they feel. If their jaw gets tight, so does mine. If their throat closes, so does mine. If they stop breathing, so do I. If they feel anxiety, nervousness or fear I share their butterflies. If we would simply learn to listen to this level of communication we’d all know exactly how our horses feel about everything we offer up. We’d learn to interpret what they are sharing – if they are sharing old memories they want help sorting through or sharing a current feeling that needs a change to help it resolve. It’s not that hard to learn to feel and that kind of direct communication is more efficient and immediate than any scientific study will ever be. I’ll take what my horses share with me and respond to that over any study any day.

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It feels good to have this level of connection and to be able to trust it. So jump up and down and scream and yell all you want about how barbaric my practices are. I don’t care because my horse’s opinion is the only one that matters. And Jack is the proof in the pudding that sometimes a bit is the right tool for the job. Nothing else helped restore his soundness like the tactful use of a bit.

And while I honor and respect your opinions, please don’t bother with angry anti-bit comments here because you won’t sway me. I’ll always do what I need to do to help and support the horses that cross my path. I’m always open to Jack deciding he doesn’t want to do his physical therapy or that he’d rather not do it with a bit. The point is, it’s his choice, not mine. Each horse is unique and I trust them to tell me what they need and I do my very best to listen well.

It’s all any of us can do.

P.S. I make a point of asking a horse’s permission before I share their story. It’s the respectful thing to do. I ask by establishing a connection to the horse in question and asking them if it’s okay for me to share their story. I get a felt sense of opening, spaciousness when it’s a yes and a closed off feeling when it’s a “no”. Jack gave me an enthusiastic “yes”!

 

 

10 thoughts on “The Great Bit Debate

  1. I have really enjoyed being enlightened about all the blog entries from different sources and people, about bit or no bit, that I have been coming across a lot lately. I personally never liked the idea of bits. I was a product of the retainer head gear 70/early eighties generation & I think I have a big aversion to metal in the mouth, because of it. My paint horse Banner never really seemed to have a problem with bits (even seemed to find comfort in them) but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the use of a bit and get ok with using them, as I continue on my path. Yet it’s so interesting to read how they can actually be preferred and beneficial for some horses. I ride my newer horse Dreamer in a flimsy rope bosal with a tiny leather strap behind his ears and I think he would prefer just a neck rope so we will definitely be working towards that. I just wanted to say I am so glad for women like you who have so much experience with so many different horses. Even if our own experiences take or have us feel a certain way that does not mean we shouldn’t listen to the number one source THE HORSE. Thanks for pointing out we are ALL individuals and we have to stay open and not judge other situations we have no knowledge or relation to. I will probably never use a bit again but I like the fact that hearing all this insight will help me keep an open mind to all things horse and try and keep that judgey little devil on my shoulder just a “bit” quieter. ✌🏼️❤️🐴

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    • Hey Michelle,
      Thank you so much for chiming in on the conversation. I have great respect for you following your own path. You know, it’s one thing to listen to our horse and try to work with the tools that make them most comfortable. But it’s not going to work for your horse if you aren’t comfortable using said tool. In my experience, horses can feel self doubt or internal conflict and it really worries them. So whatever tool you end up working with a key component is you feeling comfortable using it. So, if you don’t feel good about a bit then you absolutely should not use one. And it’s okay because there are so many options available now so you will likely find something that works for both you! I just love that we have options!

      And yes, I hear you keeping that judgey little devil on our shoulders in check 🙂 It’s not always easy!
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  2. Love this Andrea! I always say a story speaks louder than a thousand arguments. We can have all the theory, studies, data in the world – but each person’s body KNOWS what it needs and likes. I hate saddles, but I am always open to one of my horses asking for a saddle. Because it’s not my choice, it’s theirs. Your body, your choice. End of.

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    • Thanks Jini. I agree. Stories have far more power than arguments! I have to laugh about your saddle comment – I have a love hate relationship with them myself! I’d probably just ride bareback all the time if I had a choice. I did finally find a saddle that works for me and my horses, most of the time, when we all feel like riding together.

      Thanks so much for chiming in!

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