Worried you’re using a bit that’s too harsh for your horse? Mette Larsen says you aren’t alone.
Not everyone has been through pony club or 4H or a pre-vet tech program. So when it comes to choosing the right equipment, riders can only draw from what they know. The decision to reach for a stronger bit generally doesn’t come from any kind of bad intention to hurt or make our horses miserable. Most of us are just trying to find the right tool for the job.
“The truth is, many times as riders, when we go to a stronger, harsher bit, it is for control. And it might be because we don’t have the skill set yet to help put that horse in a position or a balance that gives the horse confidence. So, the horse isn’t confident and it gets really strong, and the rider doesn’t feel like they can manage or control it. That’s when you often see people going for a stronger bit.”
Mette notes that a stronger bit isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, but it’s worth evaluating to see if you are making the right choice for yourself and your horse.
To tackle the issue, let’s begin with what Mette Larsen means by “over-bitting.” Her explanation is pretty simple: using a stronger bit than the horse actually needs. “The way I think of it is that it’s like using jet fuel in your Honda Accord.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that’s not going to end well!
While moving to a stronger bit might seem like it’s helping you gain a greater level of control over your horse, Mette says that using a bit that’s too strong is going to cause problems for both the horse and rider. “It can cause fear, frustration, and injury, whether to the horse’s mouth or body or ultimately to the rider, and it can damage your relationship with your horse, which is going to prevent you both from making progress.”
Mette continues, “It can create a lack of desire in the horse to want to be ridden, and it can create a cognitive state in the horse where no learning can occur because all they are in is a fight-flight-fear state of mind.” When the horse is trapped in that mentality, they can’t learn. It can go so far as to create a sense of learned helplessness in the horse, which is a pattern of behavior. Mette explains, “That’s a result of us consistently and repeatedly creating a situation where the horse is unable to find comfort, no matter what they do. It’s a sense of surrendering to the circumstances because there is no other option. When a horse is in this state, he’s no longer able to respond to the horse’s aids; he’s just trying to survive. That can definitely happen with overly harsh or bad bitting.”
Even though it’s not intentional, when your horse is scared or in pain from a bad bit, you risk breaking the bond of trust you have with your horse, and that is going to take serious time to repair. Mette speaks from experience here: “I’ve made mistakes and had to go back and repair the relationship. With horses, you might make a mistake once, and it takes a long time to fix. You have to start over and re-establish the relationship.”
To help determine if you are using a bit that’s too strong, Mette suggests listening to what your horse is trying to tell you. “They are afraid of your hands; they are over reactive, or they may stop and not want to go anywhere. They might want to run away from you when you apply contact. They might bite on the bit and hold it because they don’t want it to move in their mouth. They may not want to put their bridle on, and you see behavior issues like rearing or tossing their head.” The horse could also have physical signs, such as bruising or bleeding in the mouth.
If you are already experiencing those responses from your horse, Mette suggests first to stop using the bit you are currently using and go for something milder that still keeps you safe. But that doesn’t mean it will be a quick fix. You should still reach out for help from a trainer or seek out a better understanding of bits, how they work, and what options are available. The good news is that there are tons of resources available online where riders can access more information. “One of the biggest things I have seen over the last ten years is that there’s more availability for education on bits and bitting. When you understand how your horse’s biomechanics work or their training works, you can be better at choosing the next thing you need to help your horse progress.”
Mette also notes that, even if the signs point to a bit problem, that might not be the only thing bothering your horse, so you need to approach the issue from other angles. “One thing that gets overlooked at times when we see horses reacting to the bit is that we haven’t considered there might be something with their teeth. They might be uncomfortable somewhere else, either in their body or their TMJ or their poll that is adding to the situation.”
Mette says she has a checklist when her horses aren’t going right: Is my tack fitting correctly? Am I using the right equipment? Are they sore somewhere? Am I doing something wrong? Once you’ve eliminated or checked those boxes, you can have a better idea of what decisions you need to make or what needs to change. And if you aren’t sure, it’s always ok to ask for advice.
Listening to our horses, following their cues, and educating ourselves about the bits we are using are all ways to ensure our horses are happy and healthy and pain-free. Honestly accessing our own skills, researching bits, and working with our trainer to get the right one might be more time consuming than simply falling back on that stronger bit = more control mentality, but choosing the correct bit will pay off in the long run as you develop a better relationship with your horse. “If something the horse does with you is painful, if they love you on the ground but, when you go to tack them up, they don’t want to put their bridle on and they’re dancing all over the cross ties, the horse is telling you something. And if that’s the case, if they’re in pain, they are not going to want to do that part of the relationship with you.”
Building (and protecting) that relationship, according to Mette, should be at the heart of all the decisions we make for our horse. “The better your relationship, the more they want to do for you. There are horses who would jump through fire for their rider. That relationship is so strong that when you ask for something, you have so much credit with that horse, they are always going to take the extra step for you and put all their effort into what you are asking.”