Bits, Bit Use and Bitless – A Classical Perspective

Over the years, I have had many conversations pertaining to bit use and misuse and the choice several horse owners have made to go with one bit option or another, or to forego the use of a bit entirely. These discussions have ranged from horror at how one trainer abuses the mouths of the horses in his charge with the bit he chooses to use, to the other end of the spectrum wherein the person wants to have nothing in the horse’s mouth at all because, “It is obviously better for the horse to not have to deal with metal in their mouth, right?” But what are the facts in this contentious discussion?

What I want to discuss are the very basic notions and misconceptions of bits and bit use that are held by many people.

I had a chat once with a very nice lady I know from Facebook who participates in mounted archery as her chosen sport. When we got on the subject of how she is riding ‘bitless’ these days and she made the following statement: “We like the idea of no metal in our horses’ mouths, and since mounted archery is primarily riding by the seat of your pants, our horses have to be responsive to leg and body cues.” Now, she is not the first person I have spoken with who held a similar opinion, which appears to be that bits as a whole are not desirable because if you ride with your legs and your seat, you don’t ‘need’ them. I have heard this sentiment repeated many times by many people and even echoed something like it myself years ago when I was riding one of my horses in a hackamore. I have come to realize this view is often, though not always, a push-back against heavy-handed riding and/or use of harsh bits by many riders.

Now before I go on, let me preface the remainder of this discussion by saying that in ‘Classical’ horse training, the ‘aids’ are broken down into three sets; the hands, the seat, and the legs. The legs include leg pressure with the thigh, calf, and heel, and the use of the spur. The seat is balance shifts and encouragement or retarding of the horses movement. The hands refer to the use of the reins and bit. Each of these three sets of aids is equally important to the whole that is ‘Classical’ horsemanship, and they are not fully interchangeable; meaning not every proper function of the bit can be replaced with the use of the seat or legs. I will touch on this more later.

So let’s talk about a bit about bits.

While there are a vast array of bit designs out there promising a wide range of effects, in my experience, they can be broken down into two very basic effects; snaffle effect and curb effect, or lateral and elevation vs. vertical flexing.

A snaffle are a bit design in which the reins are attached to the bit in direct line with the mouth piece of the bit and give the best communication to allow the rider to encourage flexion to the left and right, as well as to elevate the neck. In ‘classical’ riding this is done while riding ‘in contact’, while other styles of riding use them with a ‘guiding’ motion that avoids contact.

With a curb bit, the reins are attached to an arm or shank of some sort, offset from the bars which provide a degree of leverage on the bit that varies with the ratio of the length of the shank in relationship to the purchase. Movement of the shank toward the rider causes a rotation of the bar, and port if there is one, in the mouth to one extent or another. Drawn in far enough this rotation will bring the curb chain into contact to apply pressure on the horse’s chin, a light brush if the rider is skilled, or a greater pressure if used with more energy and depending on the design of the bit and headstall, the nose, and/or poll. This allows the rider to influence the horse’s bend more along this vertical axis and is normally used with a more ‘slack rein’ when used classically. High ported, or ‘spade’ bits are another form of curb bit and are used in some western disciplines.

It is interesting to note that many horse people, possibly even a majority of them, think that a bit is a snaffle if it is ‘broken’ or ‘jointed’, in other words if the bar is in more than one solid piece. You will sometimes see a bit called a ‘western snaffle’ when actually it is a jointed curb bit. A snaffle bit can in fact have a solid or jointed bar (though the latter is more common), as can a curb bit, but it is the relationship of the reins to the mouth piece, or bar that determines the snaffle or curb effect.

There are bits designed to offer greater or lesser degrees of one effect or the other with a single set of reins, like the Kimberwick (originally called a Kimblewick), which varies the effects depending on where the reins are attached and how they are used. There are also bits designed, like Pelham bits, to allow both effects from a single bit, using two set of reins, one set providing the direct snaffle effect and one set using leverage to enhance the curb effect. In higher levels of modern dressage it is even common to use two separate bits with two sets of reins in a ‘double bridle’, allowing for even greater separation of the curb from the snaffle effect.

With all these options it is very easy to get confused as to the purpose and efficacy of one bit over another. I can see how someone seeing the double bridle being used with those two sets of reins might think that it must be harsh and hard on the horse’s mouth, just as the spade bit used in western riding can appear excessively harsh. What one has to keep in mind is that while yes there are some bits that simply ARE painful and harsh, for the majority of them, it is the knowledge of the proper use of the bit and the ability of the hands of the rider, in relation to the training level of the horse, that dictate comfort level for the horse.

As the French Riding Master Phillipe Karl says, “It is the way you do a thing and not the thing you do, that is ‘classical’ or not.” In ‘classical’ riding, all the aids, including the use of the bit, are simply means of communication with the horse, not a method of controlling the horse. The difference may seem subtle, but in practice it makes a huge difference when it is taken to heart by the rider. Yes, there are times when controlling the horse is required, certainly when we begin the training. Even more often when we take over the training of a horse already taught that the relationship between horse and rider is a contest and not cooperation, but subtle communication should always be our first aim, and partnership our goal.

Modern dressage riders use the same snaffle and curb bit types used for centuries by classical masters and students, however many used them harshly and with little or no real understanding of the difference between ‘connection’ and ‘control’; between greater ‘sensitivity’ and greater ‘power’. Similarly, the modern western rider often uses spade bits, much the same as those used by Vaqueros historically, with their roots in old world military riding, but they lack the same understandings.  Used callously or with ignorance all these bits can be harsh and abusive. Used correctly, they can provide wonderfully light communications with the horse.

François Baucher described there being three levels of rein pressure acceptable in riding: light, gentle, and firm. Unfortunately, everyone has a different idea of what light, gentle, and firm mean. Unless someone teaches you through demonstration what Baucher meant, it is easy to take these terms down a path that leads from ‘classical’ to the worst forms of modern riding; from asking the horse to making the horse do something, from cooperation to conflict, from partners to adversaries. In the latter situations, the bit becomes a weapon used to force the horse to react in a certain way, and herein lies the reason the bit becomes harsh or painful. To some riders, light means only a few pounds of pressure, gentle means only hurting the horse slightly, and firm means punishment for getting things wrong. I cannot begin to adequately emphasize how wrong this is.

My goal is for Light to be an elastic contact on the horse’s mouth that is kept as close to the zero point between contact and no contact as possible; this being accomplished through the active adjustment of fingers, hand, and elbow position in relation to the movement of the horse or the rider. Gentle should be the slight manipulation of the contact to achieve a desired response from the horse. Firm is then the reduction of the elasticity of contact to retard movement. In ‘classical’ riding the ‘leverage’ in the curb bit is used to allow this communication on a slack rein, where the weight of the rein itself maintains the contact; the lifting of the hand or movement of a finger is enough for the horse to recognize a cue and as such requires a very high degree of training for both horse and rider.

Here is a little visualization to help you understand what I mean. Think of the old ‘two cans with a string between them communications device kids played with before the time they were all given smart phones at age 6. For the sake of this visualization, let us assume the cans are being held by kids in two adjoining tree houses. The wind is blowing slightly so the trees are swaying. Kept lightly taut, communication is possible; too loose, contact and therefore communication is lost; too tight and the string will break, so the two kids are required to maintain an elastic contact between them, giving and taking as each moves. But how does the kid in one tree know when to put the can to his ear to listen for the message from the other kid? The kid wishing to be heard gives the string an ever so gentle tug to alert the kid on the other end that he needs to pay attention. Tug too hard or too suddenly and the kid will drop the can he lightly holds. Now let’s assume one of the kids moves around in his tree house, the other kid has to move also to keep the connection lightly taught, but then the moving kid goes too far and suddenly the second kid finds himself at the edge of his tree house about to lose his balance and fall, rather than jerking back on the string and breaking it, he just holds firm and allows the other kid to realize he has stopped moving with him and so both kids come to a stop.

Obviously in the above visualization, both parties had to understand the goal and develop a sense of give and take. When you begin working with your horse, it will be up to you, as the presumed smarter of the two, to help your equine partner understand this. Once you have it, you will be able to ride in Light contact that is maintained by elastic movement on your part. You will able to ask for bend and flexion from the horse with Gentle manipulation of that contact and you will be able to transition down from one gait to the next all the way to the halt, by simply by shifting that elastic movement to a Firm hold for a moment (along with proper seat and leg aids, of course).

You may notice that at no point do I talk about pulling on the reins or any form of backward motion with them. This was quite intentional. The only backward effect on the reins comes from closing your hands, turning your shoulder, or shifting your weight back in the saddle, or in most cases, some combination of these. When properly schooled, the horse will go forward, stop, turn left, turn right, back up, from the seat through balance shifts, and the legs by supporting the haunches. However to move sideways, shift its quarters, or shift its forehand, the reins are needed to support or hinder hinder motion by being Lightly flexible or held Firm. The purpose of the reins is not to stop or steer the horse per se, but rather to control the direction and degree of bend and to affect the balance of the horse. In essence, our hands do help in directing the horse left or right, but only inasmuch as they affect the bend of the animal and/or shift its weight to one side or another. A horse moving forward bent is turning, as is horse stepping laterally with the the forehand or hind end exclusively.

This effect on the flex, bend, elevation and balance of the horse and how in tune with you the horse is through your contact on the bit, dictate the type of bit you want. The reason most trainers begin with the snaffle bit is precisely because it allows for very effective encouragement for bend, elevation and lateral movement which are keys to teaching the horse to balance. Only after the horse is supple and flexible, with good lateral movement, “rounding” due to a relaxed poll, and balance, all achieved with the lightest of contact, should you consider moving to a curb bit. The curb bit can then be used to encourage vertical flex and relaxing the poll and to move forward to even lighter contact while riding with one hand. In neither case should the bit be used to force a head or neck position. Force causes tension, which ends relaxed bending, which puts a stop to supple balance.

The curb bit is used on a slightly ‘slack’ rein, meaning the arms of the bit are allowed to hang down with a small drooping of the reins between the hands and the bit. Lifting or closing the hands takes back some of the slack and the arms of the bit are lifted up and back, rotating the bar, which in turn is felt in the mouth, at the horse’s poll and/or through the curb chain under the horse’s chin.

I think it is important to mention that I do in fact start the horse’s first rein lessons bitless; I begin said work from the ground in a longeing cavesson. This work begins with longeing, then moves to long line and/or in-hand work, and eventually to the horses first steps with a rider. Typically I introduce the snaffle to the horse along with the cavesson, before removing the cavesson from the equation as the horse comes to accept the bit as a normal thing. I then continue with snaffle until the horse is schooled enough for the proper use of the curb.

In classical training, only after the horse understands, accepts and is comfortable with the light, flexible, but constant connection riding on the snaffle in contact provides, are they ready to move to the curb. The subtle effect of the curb can be missed by the lesser trained horse and too often the rider resorts to stronger and therefore harsher use of the curb simply because the horse has not been properly prepared for it.

It is another common misconception that you use a stronger bit to correct problems; for instance, moving from a snaffle to a curb because the horse keeps raising its head. The fact is, in my understanding of the ‘classical’ view, you should only move on to leverage bits to refine the communication with your horse not to gain more power over it. The point of the leverage is to allow your touch to become lighter not stronger.

The last misconception I want to address is the belief that a bitless bridle or hackamore is more comfortable for the horse than a bit. A correctly fitted bit in light, flexible hands is more comfortable than a bitless or hackamore in heavy, rigid hands. In fact, some of these bitless options, while having no mouth piece, still use leverage and curb effects on the chin, nose, and/or poll. In the wrong hands, these options can cause serious damage, both physical and emotional, to the horse. It is how you use the hands, not whether or not you use a bit, that determines the relative comfort the horse experiences.

There are of course horses that simple will not completely accept a bit, either because of an issue in the structure of the mouth or because of past trauma at the hands of poor trainer or rider. These horses can often be rehabilitated with careful schooling, but depending on the purpose the horse is being set to, a bitless alternative is sometimes just the easier path.

For me, with a healthy horse, bitless alternatives are fine for trail riding or general hacking about, but for schooling, competition, or anything requiring the horse’s full athleticism, I want to be able to help the horse to flex, bend, and balance, and a classically-used bit is the best way for me to achieve these goals. In my opinion the ability to mobilize the tongue, which release the jaw and in turn relaxed the poll, is the main advantage of the bit over bitless alternatives.

Now before you begin to think that I am trying to say you cannot ride without a bit and therefore cannot ride without your hands, which there are many videos on YouTube to prove the contrary, let me reiterate that I am saying the bit is a fundamental part of the ‘classical’ method of training, but once the horse and rider are trained to a certain level things can change. Once the horse instinctively bends around the inside leg, shifts its haunches from the presence of the leg drifting back, extends the stride or shortens it by the use of the seat and changes its balance to follow the change of balance of the rider, then a skilled rider can maneuver the horse quite effectively without the use of the reins at all.

Making correct use of the bit requires the rider to understand all the aids equally. Since the use of the other aids are just as important to good riding and I am already influencing the horses direction, gait and speed with my legs and seat, I have no difficulty dropping the reins for mounted archery or combat and do so without lanes or barriers to control the horse.

I am not telling you which bit to use. Nor am I saying don’t go bitless, I am just suggesting you think it though and decide which option is right for your needs for the right reasons. Whichever way you go, Light, Gentle, and Firm should be your guide.