To use a bit, or not to use a bit. Gentle riders all over the world are considering this question.

We hear lots of opinions, and there’s no shortage of studies done by bitless proponents supporting their feeling that metal in the mouth causes problems to the horse. But any “scientific” research that starts with a point to prove is bad science. How is the bit being used? That is never addressed, as the modern trainer assumes he or she knows the one and only answer to that question.

There used to be a different way.

Classical riding begins with the hand.

The hand is on the reins, the reins on the bit. And we, who advocate an inexpressible lightness, often find ourselves calling out like a voice in the wilderness: we absolutely love the experience available with the correctly used bit.

YES, the way it’s used by modern riders is causing problems. But then, everything about the interaction of the rider’s aids with the horse in modern use is causing problems.

It is not the bit that causes the issue, it’s the mind using the tool that is confused about how to interact in a useful, healthy way with the horse through the connections we have in this tactile language: the bit, the hand, the leg, the seat. 
François Robichon de La Guérinière stated categorically in 1733 that the hand is the first or primary aid. And he’s considered the father of all modern riding. The seat and legs came into fashion when the trainers of the 19th century decided the army full of commoners were all too crude and brutish ever to learn the subtle nuance of the hand. They took away the poetry of the interaction between the hand of the rider and the mouth of the horse, and replaced that conversation with blunt instruments: the legs and seat. They created a system of cues based on the pull, push and squeeze, since neither horse nor rider was considered to have a mind.

Even if they were exemplary beings, the rider would likely die in battle and if he survived he’d likely eat the horse on the march home. It takes time and education to create a good hand, and patience and curiosity to create a horse that looks for the conversation in the bit. Horses for soldiers are sacrificed by the nature of their use, so the 19th century military trainers set aside the sweet subtlety of the hand and the bit, and just gave the peons a way to muscle the disposable horse onto the battlefield.

Contemporary trainers inherited military riding. They think the bit is used to hurt, or at minimum, to threaten to inflict pain. They believe that you control with more and more harshness, increasing the severity of the bit if the horse offers resistance. They preach that you strap the horse’s jaw shut to prevent gaping the mouth open or chomping at the bit. That you attach side reins or draw reins to hold the head in position to assume the shape he ought to hold.

Contemporary riders who use a bit never deal with their hands, they think of themselves as having “good” hands if the bit doesn’t interact with the horse much. 

Modern trainers use of the bit is almost universally mute, deaf, dumb and crude.

What is happening the world over is that kind and gentle riders turn to the only alternative people know, which is one of the various forms of bitless riding. They join clubs that swear off metal, they find beautiful Mexican bosals or patented bitless bridles, or they ride only with a corde or simply buy reins to snap onto their halters. But in all of this they never address the mistakes of the hand. Their hands on these bitless devices remain stiffly embedded in the muteness, deafness, dumbness and crudeness of the hands they used for the rein on the bit. It’s like deciding you don’t like velveeta in crystal, so you put the cheese-alternative in a wooden bowl instead, because then in your mind it’s more natural.

It’s not. 

There are physical problems caused by the crude hand. The neck of the horse comes into the body without benefit of any stabilizing clavicle. The shoulders float, connected only by soft tissue, to the spine. The neck floats between the shoulder blades suspended in a cradle of muscle, ligament and tendon. So when the rider pulls on the face of the horse, regardless of the point of contact: bit, bosal, or halter, the cervical vertebrae are compressed into the body. It is not uncommon for our horses in training to grow two or three inches of neck in the first year as the body decompresses from the previous riding.

We’ve seen horses moving with dumb misery with the knot of the bosal or the line of the corde jammed into their trachea.

It is not the bit, it’s the blindness to touch that is the misery.

Nor does bitless riding address the cacophony the horse hears in the hidden lurches and missteps created by moving with inadequate balance. “I never fall off” is a far cry from flawless balance. Using your legs like grappling irons you may indeed never fall off, but your horse is held between your thighs like an unfeeling saw horse, and he’s experiencing all the movement of the upper body that you’re blind to.

This side track into bitless work leaves well meaning, loving, gentle riders ignorant of the pain they cause their horses with the mistakes of the hand, seat and leg.

Today, although we may not sport aristocratic titles, you and I don’t have to act like peons in the 19th century army. We have the luxury to come to listen to the mind that is calling to us from the horse, and we can offer him the pleasure of our own minds in return.

So how does Craig Stevens teach us to use a bit?

The bit is for the horse to communicate to you, it’s to make your communication very clear in a very subtle way. It is not only not painful, it is engaging and curious. When modern riders say the horse seeks the bit, they’re looking for the feeling of pressure as the horse takes their hand. When we say the horse seeks the bit, we mean he looks for the curious feeling of the interface with the rider, there’s no pressure, there’s not even a wrinkle in the cheek from the touch. The rein can be looped, the horse feels for the nuance of communication from the rider, and the rider listens with her hands to the reply from the horse.
We use a Baucher snaffle bit, because it hangs flat unless the horse interacts with it in a way that alters that hanging. The horse can push or chew on it if he chooses, the rider never pulls. The rider’s hand touches the reins which float on the bit, the bit is carried by the bars of the horse’s jaw which is released and mobile in the mouth of a peaceful horse at ease. The jaw is the first part of the body to reflect tension when the horse begins to feel any discomfort. Emotional, intellectual or physical discomfort all appear first as a tightening in the jaw, just as the relaxation of the horse first appears as a release in the jaw.

Laying lightly across the bars of the jaw, the bit carries that subtle change to the rider’s listening hand. 
Learn to use the bit well, and a world of communication opens from your horse to you. Learn to use the bit as we teach and you’ll find your horse telling you never to go back.If we’re even a little bit right… might this change anything? Is it possible, just possible, that there might be a reason we play guitar and paint our children’s faces with our hands, and not our legs or seat? If you’re interested or willing to be curious, come ride with us.

Be curious. “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” There are wonderful things in the world, if you can open your mind to new ideas… and some of the best of the new ideas are very, very old ones.