Bitless or Bust: A Dressage Rider's Journey
On my first date with my husband five years ago, we had an in-depth discussion about our careers. As the conversation turned to my career as a dressage instructor, my husband commented on how he thought horses were really neat and he enjoyed riding once a year out in Wyoming on an annual trip with family. He then paused and said something that has stuck in my head ever since. He said, "I love riding, but why is it that one puts a piece of hard metal inside a horse's mouth?" At this point I was feeling a little warm with embarrassment because I did not want him to think I wasn't an animal lover.
After the initial shock of the question wore off and because my husband was a non-horse person I wrote off his comment as somewhat ignorant and gave him a typical answer about how the bit is a fine tuning tool to help the horse remain supple and funneled in the direction of travel. I went on and on for a few minutes with various insights into different kinds of bits and how I thought they were useful and helpful and did no harm to the horse. After the conversation shifted, took a few more turns, and faded into the moonlight of this lovely evening, I was left with the lingering residue of his question. Why, I asked myself, do I put metal inside of an animal's mouth? It truly bothered me.
The next day I wrestled with the question again and again. I kept thinking about walking around with metal jerking in my mouth and wondered about the pain factor. I reflected back on some of my scarring experiences of seeing the corners of horses' mouths torn into open wounds from bits pulled back harder and harder. Mind you, this was the practice of world champion riders in our industry. I realize that not everyone rides like this, but the possibility of the bit creating pain planted a seed.
As the years passed I put these thoughts in the back of my head. I had to continue to make a living, didn't I? And I certainly was not up for the task of helping to change the entire industry - and to what would I change it? But I have been watching more keenly how horses respond to the bit these past five years. I have seen horses resist intensely the pulling hands of riders, beginner and advanced. I have seen horses' heads on their chests with riders in fear of resistance from their horses. I have seen horses lunge in the air and buck to escape the insensitive intrusion into their spirit. These animals are prey, not predators. They deserve care and sensitivity, and to be worked with, not to be worked on. Could it be that putting a painful piece of metal in their mouths heightens their flight instinct?
I then began to question riding and training horses altogether and came extremely close to quitting my business and creating a refuge for abused animals. Spurs, whips, bits... are used in dressage to bring about impressive scores. But I found that I didn't fit in anymore with the dressage community - I was simply not comfortable with these practices. But I love to ride and I do feel like horses connect with people; that we have a mutual curiosity and appreciation for one another. Is it possible we can ride horses without abusing them?
During this difficult time of utter contemplation and unsettlement a student of mine came to the barn one day with a brochure about a bitless bridle. She had been to the website of the bitless bridle made by Dr. Cook, and was fully convinced that she needed to get rid of her bit. Interestingly her horse was just being introduced to the double bridle and performing solid fourth level dressage movements. The horse did have some issues with the bit: he tended to root against the kk bit, stiffening his poll and opening his mouth. We don't use crank nosebands or flashes at our barn so there was not a lot we could do from an equipment point of view to help this student and her horse, except to keep helping them find a better feel for each other. My student decided to try the bitless bridle. She called Dr. Cook and had many conversations with him about the use and fitting of the bridle and why he believed this was a much more humane piece of equipment. He had endless reasons ranging from autopsies of horses' mouths to ethical questions of rider priorities. He said that in using the bitless bridle true collection may take longer, as it should, because the rider is encouraged to ride more with the seat and leg, not the hand. More importantly the horse is responding to pressure - not pain - which gives the horse more freedom throughout his mind and body. The pressure of a rider's legs would be similar to the pressure of the bridle exerted and distributed from the poll to the noseband.
At first I was not convinced. I thought it had to be a gimmick. I'd been riding with a bit for 30 years and the world has been riding with a bit from before Christ. How then can this be changed? I took a deep breath and a step back and gave it a try and for a while I was on the fence. It didn't take long though to reap the benefits of a happier more balanced horse who was inspired to go forward with freedom and relaxation. The main difference I found was that the horses were not resistant to or distracted by the inevitable action of the bit. There was a calmness and happiness I sensed from riding and from observing their overall expression and demeanor from the ground. There were no open mouths, no tight cramped necks, and no noses cranked way behind the vertical. The only time I experienced any uneasiness was with my young horse who had been started in a kk. He moved really forward in the bitless and tossed his head. Fortunately, I was ready for this reaction because Dr. Cook's web site talks about this reaction. His theory is that some horses are surprised with the absence of pain and act a little exuberant. I just hung in there with my young one and he soon settled down and relaxed his mind and body.
My bottom line from this experience is that if it takes inflicting pain to work with this majestic magical animal I want no part of it. I'd rather watch them run and be free in the pasture. Dressage does not allow the bitless bridle in competition. So be it. I don't need to compete. I honestly believe that riding these animals at all is a gift and if we abuse this privilege for too long these animals will transform into mechanical beings accepting their enslavement many riders seem to think is their right.
In conclusion I want to thank my husband who rides bare back with a bitless bridle and my student for introducing me to the bitless bridle. I have been a die-hard dressage rider, instructor and trainer for years and I had lost touch with my roots and my love for these creatures. Instead of breathing in the aroma and touching the joy of connection with horses, I became fixated on how a horse moves in extended paces and flying changes and the gymnastic training creating suppleness and throughness and harmony. How all this training was accomplished never seemed to be as important as the outcome of a highly schooled, fabulously muscled, extraordinarily talented, wonderfully obedient submissive creature. I am embarrassed I went so many years with blinders on. I do know one thing and that is why I married my husband. You remember, the one I once referred to as an ignorant non-horse person.
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