At the highest levels of dressage a double bridle is mandatory — a point of contention often debated on amongst industry riders and trainers alike. According to the professionals I spoke with, the rule exists solely because of tradition. The compulsory double bridle is “totalitarian” according to six-time Canadian Olympian, Christilot Hanson-Boylen. “The rule does not come from the horse’s point of view,” she says. “The times are gone when we can think like that.”
Luis Lucio, two-time Spanish Olympian and former Dressage Technical Director of the Spanish Equestrian Federation, says, “It is ridiculous in my point of view. Sooner or later, both bits will be accepted.”
But let’s back up a little.
What is the purpose of the bit? And in this case, two bits. Are they for control or communication? Control might be necessary at the beginning, but top marks in dressage are awarded for seamless communication between horse and rider. There are some big horses out there who may struggle with collection, and some small riders who may struggle with control.
Canadian Olympian Jacqueline Brooks suggests, “It’s better in the long run to have more control given to a petite rider rather than [them] always leaning back against the reins.”
What judges appreciate are what any sports fan lives to see: top athletes working together and making it look easy. It doesn’t matter if it is Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in beach volleyball, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry in basketball, or Carl Hester and Uthopia in dressage — all sports have a way of making success look simple.
A horse that is only controlled will not have the same power and athleticism as one that has the freedom and training to respond to more subtle cues. A controlled horse may show anxiety by swishing their tail, pinning their ears, or grinding their teeth. Although some horses don’t show anxiety outwardly, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there and may show in other ways, such as developing ulcers.
Let’s back up even further for a moment: Consider that a green horse should, ideally, “accept” something before the rider uses it to control or communicate. A horse should accept the saddle, the leg, the rider, and the whip with no fear before it is used to enact change. The same goes for the bit. A horse should have a relaxed muzzle and soft, closed lips when the bit is in the mouth. Some horses can’t even do this on the lunge line or while being led, much less with a riders hands at the end of the reins.
"... the judges should mark the horse, not the bridle."
How does the bit interact with the horse? Well, it should go without saying that every horse is different. All their mouths are different, their conformation and way of going are different, and their mentality and sensitivity are different. They’re all unique animals, right?
“There is an argument that if a horse does not accept the double bridle they are not well enough trained,” Luis says. “But I disagree. Some horses are happy with it, but some others really suffer.”
Christilot also explains that “the breeding of dressage horses has changed so much. The body type today is much finer. The more Thoroughbred-y they are, the more they tend to reject having too much in their mouth. The double bridle comes from the cavalry. The older, heavier breeds, they have a much heavier genick …” Christilot pauses, then asks, “How is your German?”
(“Genick,” I later learned, is one of those special words that does not have a direct translation to English. It means the poll area all the way down to where the throat latch hangs. In German one can say “gehen durch das Genick” which means “to go through the poll,” but more than that, it means through-ness. It means that to go on the bit, not only is the head down, but that the hindquarters need to step under in order to go “through to the genick.”)
Christilot continues, “The first real big change we see in their conformation is they are so much finer in the genick area. So that many horses today have so much less problem rounding themselves up.” In other words, not only are these modern horses less likely to want two bits in their mouth, they also probably don’t need them.
When we use a bit, pressure is created in the mouth. A small amount can be construed as communication, but increase the pressure slightly and it becomes uncomfortable. This is where communication can switch to control. Adding more pressure and control can turn, if we aren’t careful, to abuse.
“A discerning rider does understand the separate uses of the two bits,” Jacqueline says. “In particular, the second bit is used for elevation. Part of how a horse accepts the bit is by elevating his shoulders. Often a horse or rider may struggle to learn that skill in a snaffle alone. Once the horse and rider understand how that elevation works, it then becomes possible to achieve it in the snaffle alone. If the rider is skilled enough, it also becomes possible to teach it in the snaffle alone as well.”
A less severe bit requires more strength from the rider in order to be more assertive. But less pressure more often is not necessarily better than more pressure less times. Think of the difference between one blow or a thousand tiny taps. It is the difference between a bruise we can see and the ulcers we often don’t.
Christilot also stresses “the importance of fitting whatever you decide to put in the horses’ mouth, and to explore all the variations of bits available. There are also many bit materials: metal, copper, rubber, even latex-wrapped. Also trending are technically-cut leather bridles, [designed] to not put pressure behind the ears, or over the poll, and the side pieces are fitted further back so that they don’t sit directly on the side bones of the face.”
So, how important is tradition? Well, it depends on the tradition. Chinese foot-binding is out. Greeting with a handshake is still popular. Flying the Confederate flag, not so much.
As I conducted research for this article I interviewed three international grand prix dressage riders, Jacqueline Brooks, Christilot Hanson-Boylen, and Luis Lucio; they all agreed riders should have the choice of whether to go in a double bridle or a regular snaffle. That choice already exists at the National level in many countries including both Canada and the United States. As of 2019, riders can compete in a snaffle in the FEI one- and two-star classes, as well.
"I have had at least two horses that would have been able to get 10 to 15 percent higher marks if they could have gone in a snaffle."
“The double bridle can help a lot, but the judges should mark the horse, not the bridle,” Jacqueline says.
Tradition often changes when society is in the enviable position to consider the individuals and not just the group. Double bridles began as something for the cavalry. Today they are used mainly for sport horses. Some horses will perform better without them.
“I have had at least two horses that would have been able to get 10 to 15 percent higher marks if they could have gone in a snaffle,” Christilot says.
What this means is that not only would the sport open up to more horses, but that some horses already competing in dressage might be happier.
If the inevitable direction we are going is to have less bit and to have more choice, will we one day see tests done in just a halter, or with nothing at all on the horse’s head? The unanimous consensus of these three riders is “no.”
“We have to put a limit on the tack in order to compete in the same conditions. We need similar things to be on an equal playing field,” Luis says. Without a bit it would be a different sport. Or, as Christilot puts it “riding ‘on the bit,’ requires a bit.”
“On the bit” means the feeling that the horse, his body, but also his energy, is in between the leg, at the back, and the hand, at the front. We want the horse to “take” the bit the way a child might take our hand. So often we take a horse’s mouth, but what we really want is their mouth to take our hands. A subtle difference perhaps, but perhaps not.
Dressage will adapt. Times change. But there are few things that if they changed it would not be dressage anymore. Riding from the leg to the hand is one of them. And for that we need a bit, or two.
We want to hear from you. Have you ever used a double bridle? How do you feel about the mandatory double bridle rule?
Read this next: Let’s Talk: The Optics, Ethics, and Emotions of Bitting
Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.
Written by Tik Maynard
Tik Maynard was shortlisted for the Canadian eventing team and has twice won the Thoroughbred Makeover Freestyle. His passion is learning about how horses think, feel, and play. In 2018, he published his first book, “In the Middle Are the Horsemen.” His lives in Florida with his wife, Sinead Halpin, and their son, Brooks.