I do not believe that any other piece of tack causes more controversy than does the bit. Throughout my travels, worldwide, I am continually asked about this piece of riding equipment. Is it necessary? What kind do you use? What about the bosal, the hackamore, the bitless bridle?
Before I offer my opinions, I think that a brief history lesson is in order. One of the earliest references to using the bit for riding and training is found in the collection “The Art Of Horsemanship” by Xenophon, 300 B.C. Xenophon writes, “Further, the smooth bits are more useful than the rough and hard. When using a sharp bit one must temper its effect by light leading.” Another early reference can be found in the book of James, Chapter 3, verse 3, “We can make a large horse turn around and go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth.” (NLT)
The most common misconception that I face is the idea that the bit is best used to control the horse. From the earliest writings, included Xenophon and The Bible, that bit is most often described as a tool of communication. Very few unwilling horses can be controlled with a bit… a ring through the nose, perhaps, but not a bit.
So why do we use the bit and why do we need the bit? Most people use the bit either because they believe that they are supposed to or they were told that they needed to. The people we first encountered while becoming involved with horses form many of our training practices.
In a recent email survey, I sent out the question, “Why do you use the bit (in 10 words or less)?” Answers to the question ranged from “because I always have” to “I cannot stop my horse without one” to “I don’t know how to ride in anything else”. The fact remains that the bit is the traditional piece of tack used by most riders to steer, stop, control, communicate to and be in command of their horses.
I believe that our dependency on the bit is directly related to the amount of time that we have to spend educating our horses. In other words…”You reap that which you sow”, “You get out what you put in”, and one of my favorites “Nothing is for free”. If I am only available for 2-3 hrs per week to ride or train, I cannot expect to be riding bitless any time soon.
Ideally, I would like for all of us to have the ability to ride in the same rope halter that we accomplished most of our groundwork in. If we could devote 3-4 hours per week to developing this skill, I believe that we could attain this goal.
What does the bit do? Make no mistake; the bit is a piece of mechanical equipment that is used to provide discomfort to the horse. There is a fine line between discomfort and pain and the difference is only a question of pounds per square inch. When using a bit, pressure is applied to an area of the mouth (different bits pressure different areas of the mouth). This pressure causes discomfort and the horse moves away from the discomfort. I do not believe that a well-made, well-fitted bit in the mouth of a healthy-mouthed horse causes pain. It is always the pair of human hands at the end of the reins that has the ability to cause pain. As is the case with most training equipment questions, (i.e. saddles, spurs, and whips) the real question is with the rider and not with the equipment. Bits, hackamores and bosals are all used to communicate with the horse by using discomfort. Discomfort is best used, when teaching horses, to accompany or cement a cue. If you were to bring me a horse for training that was accustomed to a 4” shank grazing bit, and if your training goal was to eventually ride in a rope halter, our training would proceed as follows:
First, we would review the classroom ground exercises (some call these exercises “round pen work”). We want to be sure that we have the horse’s trust and respect before attempting to teach. Next, we would review a few exercises like sacking out, standing while mounting, and lifting the feet. Next, we would make sure that the horse accepts the bit. Accepting the bit (exercise #5, acclimation) and having the bit crammed into your mouth are two entirely different situations.
We would approach the horse with bridle in hand and expect the horse to drop its head into the headstall. We would expect this exercise to take place without any head tossing or avoidance. If any avoidance occurred, the horse would do twenty push-ups (forward at the jog for a lap or two).
After the horse fully accepts the bit, we would mount the horse and ask him/her to begin giving to pressure while walking. At the walk, lift the left rein while looking over your left shoulder. The goal is that the horse will respond to our shift and that the bit will only remind him of this cue. As we proceed, we can test our progress by giving the look-over-the-shoulder cue without the lift of the rein. If the horse responds without the lift of the rein, we are making progress. If the horse does not respond, more repetition is needed.
We should always resist the temptation to use more bit pressure. This temptation is natural and normal but creates the heavy or hard-mouthed horse. If the horse is responding to a light lift of the reins, with the bit, then perhaps we can try it with a rope halter. I would expect to spend about 2 weeks on the preliminary exercises and as much as three months getting the horse from the bit to the halter. The most important thing to remember is that your student is not wearing a watch. Be aware of the very small successes and reward each one. The exercises described above can be downloaded from www.ponyboy.com.
About the author:
GaWaNi Pony Boy’s profound understanding of the relationships between horse and rider draws students from all over the world, and his Relationship Training™ curriculum has become a vital part of the horse owner’s repertoire. Pony’s approach teaches the necessary skills and imparts the confidence necessary to make positive changes in the horse/human relationship. His courses, bridging all disciplines, are grounded in the firm foundation of what the horse understands best. Pony’s students learn to systematically exceed their own horsemanship goals and accomplish more than they had hoped for with their equine partners. Team Pony Boy, Pony’s far-reaching organization, offers horse owners the continued encouragement they need. To learn more about GaWaNi Pony Boy and to sign up for his free weekly email newsletter with training guidance, visit www.ponyboy.com.
To contact Pony:
The Pony Boy Learning Center
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