Why bit-less is potentially safer for horse riders
Disclaimer: Before getting started I want to make clear that when I speak about bit-less bridles in this article, I am referring to comfortable, properly fitted bridles such as padded side-pulls. Not a thin rope head-collar or a mechanical hackamore that can arguably be more uncomfortable for the horse than a bit without a noseband.
For the purpose to provide an article that is accessible to most riders, I assumed that the reader's horses are trained and ridden primarily using negative reinforcement and some positive punishment as it is instructed by the BHS (British Horse Society) and natural horsemanship trainers. Definition for negative reinforcement and positive punishment can be found in this article.
How do bits and bit-less bridles work?
A bit is a metal piece (at the exception of the leather bit) that goes inside the horses mouth and is used to control the horse’s movements. There are many types of bits and depending on the design, they work by inflicting some discomfort/pain to different parts of the mouth.
For example the jointed snaffle puts pressure onto the bars, the teeth, the tongue and the palate. The pressure applied by the joint of the bit on the palate is one of the reason why a horse opens their mouth when riders apply pressure on the reins; the joint digs into the palate, the horse open their mouth to relieve himself. Many riders use a flash noseband to prevent the horse from relieving himself by keeping his mouth shut.
Curb type bits work slightly differently; they squeeze down the tongue and the leverage puts pressure on the trigeminal nerve (that runs along the horse lower jaw). Hackamores work quite similarly, while they do not put pressure within the inside of the mouth, they put pressure on the nose and also on the trigeminal nerve. The shanks of curb bits and hackamores vary; the bigger the shank the more discomfort/pain the horse experiences from a small draw of the reins.
A side-pull (a type of bit-less bridle) works by exercising pressure on the nose. A properly fitted side-pull only apply pressure to the supported part of the nasal bone.
If the same rider were to use all these devices on the same horse, using the same amount of pressure each time, the side-pull (bit-less option) would provide the least amount of discomfort to the horse, providing that the horse has no health issue that would make nose pressure unusually painful for him.
Lateral view of the cranial nerves of the horse's head.
The trigeminal nerve got 3 branches which include the ophthalmic nerve (V1), it supplied branches to the eye, eyelids etc. The maxillary nerve division (V2) it comprises the principal functions of sensation from the maxillary teeth, nasal cavity, the palate, infraorbital nerve (2) etc. The mandibular nerve (V3) which runs along the bones of the horse’s lower jaw and give off to the buccal nerves (3), lingual nerves (4), inferior alveolar nerve (5) etc.
More pressure doesn't mean more control.
For most riders the question is, if my horse spooks and I have to stop him to prevent an accident from occurring wouldn’t I be more likely to be successful with a bitted bridle than with a bit-less bridle? The answer is, not necessarily. First fear causes the release of beta-endorphins, which numb and reduce emotional and physical pain. Beta-endorphins are one of the reasons we often see riders pulling with all their strength on curb bits and yet have little to no success at stopping their scared horses.
Another factor is saliency. Relying on discomfort or pain to control a horse means that you have to be scarier than whatever scared the horse in the first place. This is also true with non-scary things. For example, if a horse dives for the grass, to move him you will have to be more salient to him than the grass. Of course horses are all individuals with different pain level tolerance, training history and preferences. Therefore some horses may find a small squeeze of the leg a lot more salient than grass while other may find grass to be more salient than a kick.
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So far we discussed why it is difficult to stop a scared horse but not what make bit-less a safer option so let's talk about trigger stacking. Trigger stacking occurs when multiple stressors or stressful events occur at the same time. The stress level of the animal rises as stressors are added and when the horse goes over threshold he will attempt to escape. For example, a horse that is fearful of dogs encounter a Labrador while out hacking. He tenses up and spook to the side. The rider react fearfully and pulls on the horse mouth, causing him to bolt. The rider added a stressor to the equation when he pulled on his horse mouth, sending him over threshold. The same phenomenon often occur when riders try to “kick on” a threatened horse instead of working on reducing the animal stress.
A bit-less bridle can of course be perceived as a stressor but a study looking at behavioural and cardiac responses of horses undergoing training in bitted and bit-less bridles found that horses were more relaxed (lower heart rate) when long reined bit-less than bitted (Quick et al., 2009.) This suggests that bitted bridles are more stressful to horses than bit-less bridles and as a result more likely to send an already anxious horse over threshold.
Additionally a bit can be a genuine safety hazard if it provokes facial neuralgia (headshaking), dyspnoea (breathing problem) or behavioural problems. For example, if a horse actively avoids having the bridle put on, one must understand that the pain is significant enough for the horse to actively avoid it. Contacting your veterinarian for a check up and considering a more comfortable option for your horse (bit-less bridle) is the right thing to do to reduce stress. As a horse trainer, I always feel safer riding a horse that is easily threatened with a bit-less bridle (as long as he has learned to respond to it) than with a bit. This is because I want to limit the stressors to reduce the chance of the horse going over threshold and react. Of course this is only an extra layer of security and does not dispense the rider from recognising signs of stress and learning to lower stress.
Unfortunately, most bits are used in combination with a noseband. A recent study conducted by Australian researchers combining double bridle and crank noseband found out that the heart rate and eye temperature of the tested horses increased as a result. (Both are physiological signs of stress) The tighter the noseband, the higher the heart rate and eye temperature. Horses displayed post inhibitory responses which include; yawing, chewing and licking suggesting that the horses felt deprived of these behaviours when equipped with the double bridle and crank noseband (Fenner, 2016). These results suggest that crank nosebands are stressors and as such can play a role in trigger stacking and the horse going over threshold.
To conclude, a bit-less bridle can be a safer option because it is associated with lower level of stress in horses. However the real key to safe riding is training; Training of the horse and also training of yourself. Take the time to desensitise your horse, teach him clear cues, learn about learning theory, signs of stress in horses, how to decrease stress etc. On this website there are many free resources to get you started training yourself and your horse.