To Bit or not to Bit

By Bethany Caskey

Archeological evidence suggested animals were domesticated for work in this order: the ass, the ox, the camel, the water buffalo (and perhaps even the reindeer and elephant) before the horse. It appears that toward the end of the New Ice Age (11,500 years ago) humans began using horses in a new way. Previously, horses had been kept as we do cattle today; chiefly for milk, meat and hide. Horses were put to work. The only metal work at that time was copper and pure copper would have been too soft and ultimately too poisonous to be used as a bit.

While there is some anthropological evidence that horses were ridden before they were driven, the most substantial evidence of domestication and use of the horse as a driving animal are the Sintashta chariot burials in the southern Urals, (Russia) circa 2000 BC. Horses may have been driven even earlier. The Standard of Ur, in ancient Sumer, c. 2500 BC, shows horses or some type of onager (an Asiatic wild ass) or donkey hitched to solid wheeled carts with a yoke around their necks and a ring in their nose, in a manner similar to that of oxen.

The Numidians of North Africa were introduced to horse riding from Spain around 1000 BC. They rode horses without any headgear at all, only a strap around the neck and a light crop to apply directional cues.

Somewhere among the nomads of the steppes between the Black Sea and Mongolia, the first “bits” were made of twisted rawhide pieces and cheek pieces of stag horn. At least these were the first “bits” anyone has discovered. If made of natural fibers or hide, early examples of “bits” would have not survived the ages.

Bits flourished with the bronze age and European horsemen hardly rode horses at all. Transportation was dominated by the driving aristocracy. Most bits were of the snaffle types we know today.

In North America, the natives found the white faced intruders had discovered the secret of controlling the “magic dog” to carry them. Like the nomads of Asia, they had only stone and bone tools and they learned to control the horse with a loop around its lower jaw and a another thong passing back over the withers. The Indian “bridle” worked well for over a century and no real improvements were made to it.

The snaffle bit or variations thereof, has dominated the driving world up to the present time. Some of the modern clinicians start colts in a snaffle bit, but many more start the animals in a rope halter.

            “There is currently a fad for bitless bridles. They work – most proponents of natural horsemanship start colts in simple halters. But, bitless bridles are not the optimum way to communicate with the horse. Skillful fingers, delicately handling reins attached to a bit, are the most effective and humane means of communication between horse and rider.

Are the advocates of bitless bridles correct when they say that the bit is a cruel instrument? Unfortunately, many riders misuse the bit. Go watch a John Wayne movie if you want to see a coarse and inhumane use of the bit.

*Dr. Robert M. Miller “Natural Horsemanship Explained” page 135

Dr. Cook’s Crossunder bridle

Horsemen, and in particular, teamsters, are tradition minded. With all of the resurrected techniques of natural horsemanship flooding the horse world, why do teamsters seem the last to change?

If you do an internet search, you find the bitless bridles being used in combined driving over courses where speed and accuracy count. Why would teamsters, who tend to work slowly and methodically, not embrace the use of the bitless bridles?

For the most part, tradition plays a heavy hand. It is difficult, if not impossible to find a work harness with a bitless bridle. Most teamsters do not care for the look of a rope halter on their horses in harness and also want blinders. There are manufacturers of bitless bridles specifically for the driving horse that produce quality leather and biothane bridles that could replace the traditional bridles of a harness. Unless a bridle breaks, most teamsters would not replace it just to go bitless and most would replace the bridle with something easily available from the harness shops or a farm auction.

So why would a driver go bitless?

Historically, lightness with a horse is the mark of a truly superb horseperson. As a species, man has used force to get what they want from an animal. Using force and fighting methods, we loose rapport with the horse. Does force and intimidation work? Of course it does. It has worked throughout history. It is not the best way of getting along with a horse. The best method is to handle our horses in a way that they want to be with us and they want to do what we want.

When we begin with severe signals, and then lighten up later, we never develop the degree of lightness that we can get if the process is reversed. If instead, we give the minimum signals until we get a positive response from the horse, the horse will begin to anticipate the signal and respond to the slightest request. Horses learn extremely quickly and after three or four experiences, will feel the lightest signal and anticipate the request and move in the direction we desire. We allow the horse to do what we want with a minimum of fear on his part and a minimum of effort on our part.

An older or “problem” horse or mule is more challenging to train than an unbroken or untrained animal. The solution is to start over from the beginning as though they had never been driven. Most horses and mules that are labeled “hard mouthed” are not hard-mouthed, they are hard minded. They have stopped responding to and resist the bit because they have been handled too aggressively during their training or working life.

The natural horsemanship clinicians have made the new information available to everyone. The majority of people do not, or can not achieve lightness, and do not understand how it works. The power of the bit is used by most as a method of force. It is effective in soliciting compliance from most animals. It serves as a safety measure for use by the less skilled. In the hands of a skilled horseperson though, it can be used to achieve the ultimate in communication.

Nutural Driving Bridle

Driving without a bit is obviously not for everyone. There are many reasons to keep using bits from a safety viewpoint. Changing the headstall to a bitless model or a rope halter without some remedial training for the animals can also be hazardous. The next time you start a colt, or are thinking about sharpening up an older animal, please think about the aspect of the bitless bridle.  Know that there are handsomely made bridles available if you decide to change and at the very least, when you drive with a bit, drive as though you don’t need one. There are good reasons for the changes in horsemanship these days. There are good reasons why the methods are better than most traditional methods and the drivers that are still clinging to the old methods may someday be left behind.

Originally published in Rural Heritage, Holiday ’08