No studies have yet been published to quantify the difference in behaviour of the same horse, first when bitted and then when bitless.
The present study tested the null hypothesis that if a horse is ridden in a snaffle bridle and then again in a crossunder bitless bridle there will be no change in its behaviour. The author predicted that there would be change and that behaviour would improve when bitless. Four horses, none of which had previously been ridden in a crossunder bitless bridle, were ridden through two four-minute, exercise tests, first when bitted then when bitless. An independent judge marked the videotaped tests and her comments and scores were recorded on the soundtrack. The results refuted the hypothesis and justified the predictions. The average score of all four horses when bitted was 37% and, when bitless, 64%. Percentage improvement in individual scores, from bitted to bitless, ranged from 46% to 97%, with an average of 74%. The study also demonstrated that these horses could be switched seamlessly from a snaffle bit to a crossunder bitless bridle. Others are encouraged to repeat the study and suggestions are made for improving its design. The author is of the opinion that the bit represents a serious welfare and safety problem for horse and horseman. He urges veterinarians to support a reform of equestrian organizations’ rules, in order to give riders the option of using the crossunder bitless bridle in those competitive sports in which a bit is currently mandated. By so doing, equine welfare could be improved, accidents reduced, and performance enhanced.
An invitation to speak at a horseman’s conference where live demonstrations were possible gave the author the opportunity to conduct such a study in front of witnesses. The experiment tested the null hypothesis that if a horse is ridden in a bitted bridle and then again in a crossunder bitless bridle there will be no change in its behaviour. As a result of investigations already completed (Cook 1999) the author predicted that there would be change. Furthermore, he predicted that behaviour would improve when bitless (Cook 2003, 2007a-c). The primary objective of the experiment, as the title of the conference session indicated, was to "Let the Horses do the Talking," i.e., to demonstrate the influence of the bit on the behaviour of the horse. The author introduced the experiment and answered questions when it was over but otherwise took no part. A secondary objective was to demonstrate how a horse responds to being switched from a bitted bridle to a crossunder bitless bridle.
Materials and Methods
Four horses were provided for the experiment. These were riding school horses of various ages and types (Table 1). None of the horses had, prior to the experiment, been ridden in a crossunder bitless bridle. The same horses had been used for earlier demonstrations in the day, ridden in bitted bridles. The experiment was scheduled as the last demonstration of the day, in a time slot of 75 minutes.
Four CHA certified riding instructors (Grade 3 or above), volunteered to ride the demonstration horses. Only two of the instructors had previously used a crossunder bitless bridle. Each of the riders was assigned to a horse, riding it first in a bitted bridle (a jointed snaffle) and then, immediately after, in a crossunder bitless bridle (BitlessBridle). The bridle was the only variable in the experiment.
Each horse completed two identical exercise tests (see column one in Table 2). The test comprised 27 timed phases. Both tests were staged consecutively so that any differences in behaviour would be most apparent to the delegates. The test was timed to take 220 seconds; just short of four minutes. So each horse was observed over a total period of about eight minutes. All the tests took place in the same covered arena, under similar environmental conditions. Riders made good use of the large arena and were asked to ride in a figure-of-eight pattern. At their discretion, they inserted a couple of half-halts during the test.
Each of the eight exercise tests were scored on a scale from one to ten by an independent judge whom the author had met for the first time at the conference. The judge was a CHA Master Clinic Instructor, a Grade 4 Centered Riding Instructor, and a member of the American Judging Association with 25 years experience of judging dressage and other classes. During her teaching classes she had used a crossunder bitless bridle for short periods when demonstrating on students’ horses but did not own such a bridle herself. As there was only one judge, she stationed herself at letter ‘C’ in the arena.
A scribe made a paper record of the judge’s comments and scores (Table 2) but the judge wore a lapel microphone so that her comments were added, in real time, to the soundtrack of a videotape recording of the entire session. The judge’s comments during a test were not heard by the delegates, so they were able to draw their own conclusions without bias.
Using a stopwatch, a timekeeper called out the different phases of the test (see column two of Table 2)
The behaviour (performance) of all four horses exhibited a marked improvement when the bit was removed. The improvement was reflected quantitatively in the scores (Table 2). The average score when bitted was 37% and, when bitless, 64% (Table 3). Percentage improvement in scores from bitted to bitless ranged from 46% to 97%, with an average of 74% (Table 3). That such a convincing improvement in performance could be achieved in four minutes after removal of a snaffle bit indicated that the snaffle was a serious impediment to the performance of these four horses. The improvement in performance when bitless also served to indicate that none of the riders had any difficulty in switching their horse from bit to bitless … quite the opposite.
The null hypothesis was refuted and predictions justified.
DiscussionDespite the conditions imposed on this study by staging it as a demonstration within a limited time frame, the results were compelling. On first glance, some aspects of the protocol might appear to be weaknesses but the presence of witnesses and the existence of a videotape recording were balancing strengths. Nevertheless, the study design could be improved. In the hope that others will repeat the experiment, some suggestions can be made.
The protocol could usefully be applied to a larger number of horses, with additional judges and for a longer time period. To avoid any bias in judging, it would help if the judges were unaware of whether or not a horse was bitted or bitless. Without interfering with the function of the bridles, some masking material could be used to cover the bit in the corner of the mouth and to hide the features of the crossunder bitless bridle. Bitted and bitless tests for the same horse need not be consecutive. As long as each four-minute test was identified with a number, some horses could be ridden in the crossunder bitless bridle before the bitted test. The order of the tests could be randomised.
Many variations on the general theme are possible. For example, riders could be novices or professionals, and the bitted bridle could have a leverage bit instead of a snaffle. The exercise test used on this occasion was a test of basic training but similar studies could use a dressage test, a jumping, driving, or barrel racing test … in fact a test based on just about any discipline.
Bits are painful and frighten horses (Cook 2007 a-c). Pain and fear alone are incompatible with the physiology of exercise. But, in addition, the bit triggers inappropriate digestive system reflexes and these too are incompatible with exercise. Specifically, use of the bit results in obstruction of the nasopharyngeal and laryngeal airway (Cook, 1999, 2003). The study results are consistent with the author’s previous findings that the bit is the cause of over a hundred behavioural problems (Cook 2007c). Collectively, these constitute clinical signs of 40 different diseases (Cook 2007b). Bit-induced pain, fear and physiological confusion are, in the author’s opinion, the cause of many accidents, some of which are fatal (e.g., bolting, bucking and rearing).
To communicate safely and effectively using a rod of steel in the horse’s mouth is a skill that only a master horseman can achieve. Even at the Olympic level of equestrian sport, a rider often transmits a signal that has quite the opposite effect to the one intended. As a result of the unintentional (and now unnecessary) infliction of pain, dangerous reactions on the part of the horse are precipitated. In the author’s opinion, children and novices rarely have the skill to use a bit safely and neither does the average horseman. Its use results too often in miscommunication, loss of control and injury to horse and rider.
Conversely, using a crossunder bitless bridle, even a child can transmit painless, safer, more effective and unambiguous signals that are compatible with the physiology of exercise. For all these reasons, the crossunder bitless bridle enhances the welfare of the horse and reduces the likelihood of accidents (Cook 2008). Welfare and safety benefits are reason enough to forego the bit but, as a bonus, the corollary to improved behaviour is improved performance. A horse that is not in pain and not frightened, is calmer, more confident, and better able to focus on the task in hand, whether this be paying attention to the rider’s aids in dressage or watching the jumps. A horse that can freely breathe and freely move its neck, two things vital for any athlete, is likely to run faster, jump better, and tire less quickly.
With one notable exception, one or even two bits are mandatory for any dressage event at pony club competitions worldwide and at competitions run by national equestrian federations. These organizations follow but also determine the rules of the International Equestrian Federation. Similarly, at least one bit is required for flat racing and steeplechasing. Two bits or more are considered appropriate for harness racing, together with many other restraining devices.
The metal bit was invented by Bronze Age man. Since then the basic concept of the bit has not changed, though its designs have become more complicated and its potential for inflicting pain has been enhanced. As riders continue to experience problems with the bit, additional devices have been approved by equestrian organizations. Tongue ties are widely used in all forms of racing and a variety of constricting nosebands are approved for dressage and other disciplines.
The advance in equine welfare and human safety that the crossunder bitless bridle represents has temporarily wrong-footed equine organizations. Their constitutions invariably include an avowed intent to promote the welfare of the horse and yet, a decade after a major advance in welfare has become available, their rules have not, in general, been updated to accommodate the advance. Bits are still mandatory in many disciplines and a painless option is widely banned. As the bit has been in use for 5000 years, a time lag of ten years to validate an alternative does not indicate undue caution in introducing change. A healthy dose of scepticism is good for science. Eventually there comes a time when the evidence for change is overwhelming and this has now occurred. In November 2008, the Royal Dutch Equestrian Federation took the lead in approving the crossunder bitless bridle for dressage, the dressage phase of eventing, and for driving competitions within the show ground. It is to be hoped that other national federations will soon follow the Dutch example. A significant move in this direction has already been made by the South African National Equine Federation. As children, in particular, should not be obliged to use a bit, the author considers that it is especially important that Pony Clubs should be among the first organizations to approve a safer and more humane rein aid.
I am grateful to the Certified Horsemanship Association for the invitation to address their annual conference. I thank Diane Dineen and Hillary Benjamin for the use of their horses and commend the excellent riders, Nicole Ebert, Tiffany Ehnes, Ali McMillan and Brie Messier. Sanna Roling served as timekeeper and Brent Morgan was the scribe. I am particularly indebted to Mitzi Summers for many helpful suggestions in the planning of the experiment and for her impartial judging.
Cook, W.R. (1999): Pathophysiology of Bit Control in the Horse.
J Equine Vet Sci 19, 196-204
Cook, W.R (2003): Bit-Induced Pain; a cause of fear, flight, fight and facial neuralgia in the horse. Pferdeheilkunde, 19, 1-8 [in English, with German summary]
Cook, W.R. (2007a) "Bit-Induced Fear, Part 1: From Human hand to Horse’s Head. Veterinary Times, Volume 37, No. 12, April 9, pp 18-23.
Cook, W.R. (2007b) "Bit-Induced Fear, Part 2: Bits and Diseases they can Cause. Veterinary Times, Volume 37, No. 14, April 30, pp 22-25.
Cook, W.R.(2007c) "Bit-Induced Fear, Part 3: Use of the Bit and bad Behaviour. Veterinary Times, Volume 37, No. 19, May 28, pp 36-38.
Cook, W.R. (2008): "Metal, Myth and Equine Misery." Anim. Welf. Sci, Ethics and Law Vet. Assoc.J, January
Captions for Tables
Table 1. Signalment of the four horses in the study
Table 2. Showing the phases of the exercise test, the timing of each phase, the judges comments and scores for the bitted and bitless sections, and the total scores, average scores and percentage scores. The entries relate to Horse #1. Similar score sheets were compiled for all four horses.
Table 3. Showing in columns A and B the averaged scores of the four horses, when bitted and when bitless, for the 27 phases of each test as judged on a scale of ten. Column D shows the degree of improvement, expressed as a percentage, when the bit was removed. The bottom row shows the combined percentage scores of all four horses and the marked improvement from 34% to 64% when the bit was removed.