Is a bit really necessary for riding?
From time to time, Jo and I get asked whether a bit is really necessary in order to ride a horse. Clearly, it’s not essential. On the other hand, if you know how to use one in a horse friendly way, it can become a very useful tool for both horse and rider.
The reason why head collars and bridles were invented is that the simple truth that control over a horse’s head and neck provide a key to influencing the rest of his body. This is something all horses learn through instinct in their first few hours of life.
At its best, a bit is a tool that can help your horse relax, understand his rider at a very deep level and manage his own body and balance more effectively while being ridden. At its worst, the very same bit can, unfortunately, become an instrument of torture.
What makes the difference is the knowledge and understanding in the hands at the other end of the reins. In one sense, a bit is just an amplifier. If what you do with your hands is helpful to your horse, then those effects and benefits will be magnified. If what you are doing is unhelpful, then of course that gets magnified too.
In the French tradition of riding, a horse’s mouth is given very particular attention and respect. Your horse’s tongue is incredibly sensitive and it’s best considered as the starting point for a conversation, not a place for an argument.
The French expression, ‘la mise en main’ (translation = ‘putting the horse in the hand’) is a concept that describes the entire process of educating a horse’s mouth as well as the appearance of the end result. Interestingly, there is no real equivalent in any other approach to riding.
When it’s done well, this education process begins with a cavesson to protect the soft tissues of the mouth in the earliest stages of training that are carried out on the lunge line. Reins can then be added to the cavesson and the rein aids introduced. This, in effect, was the earliest form of bitless bridle.
Ideally, progressing to a bit involves more than just putting one in the horse’s mouth and getting on with it. If we learn to control horses by influencing their balance, like we teach inside our Schooling Made Simple online coaching programme, the bit becomes a tool for very precise communication and feather-light control. This communication happens through a language that’s based on gently influencing your horse’s posture instead of physically manoeuvring him around with your aids.
A suite of exercises known as ‘flexions’ provide a way to explain the actions of the bit to a horse as well as teaching him how to respond to it and keep himself comfortable at all times. This makes it possible to establish trust and understanding in the bit and the rider’s hands instead of overwhelming your horse with unfamiliar feelings that risk causing confusion, pain and panic.
When a horse has been educated this way, the bit also becomes a tool that he or she can use to communicate with you. A rider who understands the meaning of the different feelings their horse’s mouth creates in the reins gets insider information about their horse’s physical, mental and emotional state. It’s like having a 2-way ‘hot line’ that lets you know about any impending problems, allowing you to solve them even before they even appear in reality.
Now, doesn’t that sound like something worth exploring?