Let's Talk: The Optics, Ethics, and Emotions of Bitting

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n March 16th, we published an article titled “What’s In My Ring Bag? 7 Things Andy Kocher’s Groom Won’t Leave the Barn Without.” While the article contained a list of useful items for ringside use, the message of the piece got lost in a fervent outcry regarding the bit and bridle combination worn by the horse pictured.

We believe that critical discussion is necessary to examine the status of the sport and feel that the thoughts and opinions of the community are important to consider in the sport’s broader analysis. Indeed, there are cases where public discussions may have contributed to rule changes directly intended to protect the welfare of the horse. For instance, less than a year after a prominent eventer came under public fire for whipping his horse excessively on cross-country, new rules were put in place further limiting when and how many times a horse can be whipped. Likewise, the circulation of news regarding numerous high-profile instances of blood in the mouth caused by bits or on the flank caused by spurs — whether they were accidental or otherwise — led to better clarification of the blood rule and a tiered system of disciplinary action.

This is certainly not the first time a rider’s bitting choice has sparked a conversation, nor is the bit debate limited to show jumping. But the impassioned response to the image in our article made us consider what it is about bits that invokes such an emotionally charged reaction. And why is this piece of tack so closely associated with abuse, seemingly even more so than whips or spurs?

Over the coming weeks, we’re going to examine these questions and more on NoelleFloyd.com, and we welcome input from our readers. For the first article in our series about bits, top show jumpers and icons of the sport share their thoughts about bitting. Weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below.

NoelleFloyd.com: Why are bits such a hot topic?

Luciana Diniz: Because everyone has a different style of riding; some want more control, some less, some want more contact, others less, heads up or heads more down. It’s hard to discuss because it’s a very personal opinion from one to the other. 

George Morris: It’s because there are a lot of exotic bits out there. I can just tell you from the perspective of my philosophy and my system. My whole life, all my horses worked on the flat at home in regulation snaffles — no draw reins, no martingales. That is to make sure that the horse is really on the aids and is really coming through with my legs, hands, and seat. Any auxiliary rein aids and martingales are a bit of a band-aid that cover up any resistance from the horse.

But you’re seeing all these exotic bits because when a horse is galloping, he becomes a bit of a different horse, and outside and at home working on the flat, it’s different, and you have to cope with that. And that’s why people experiment with bitting. It’s not so necessary in dressage because it’s a very slow, controlled situation and a very different discipline than, say, riding across the country and riding a show jumper.

Rodrigo Pessoa: Lack of education is definitely a part of it. People that make [negative] comments ... I think don’t really understand what rideability we require to jump a 1.60m fence at 475 meters per minute. So, of course, they don’t need as much control as we do. So they ask why we don’t ride in a rubber snaffle — and we would if we could — jumping high at a high speed.

NF: How do you choose a bit for each horse?

Jeroen Dubbeldam: I always try the most simple. When I start with a new or a young horse, I always try to start with a simple snaffle, and I try to come as far as possible with that snaffle. I try to go as far as I can with the basics, but if that doesn’t work out or I don’t get far enough, then I’ll try a little different bit —  a little bit thinner, a little bit sharper. I try always to start as simple as possible because if that works you have a lot of options left. Straight away when a horse is strong, going for a sharp bit will limit you later. First try to come through and as far as possible with the normal set-up and then from there on, you can still have other options to choose from. That is my first approach.

Beezie Madden: A lot of it is experimentation. When we get a horse, I kind of start with a snaffle and just try to judge. I might try something a little sharper and you learn if they particularly don’t like something sharp. Then I mostly try to go to something like a pelham or a gag. But each horse is so different, it’s really an experimentation. I think everyone tends to go with what they’re comfortable with.

Rodrigo Pessoa: Unfortunately, sometimes the horses react in some ways at home and differently at the show. Everything could be great at home, and then you go to a show and the bit doesn’t work the way you were expecting, so you have to go change.

NF: Does public perception affect your bitting choices?

Missy Clark: No, not at all. People who are showing at the shows we compete at are using what’s correct for their horses. When they change things around to find a bit that works, it’s likely well thought out ahead of time. I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter mold. Personally, I’ve tried and used just about every bit out there and have my own preferences.

I get up every day with our horses, I live with our horses, I know them and I know my riders, so someone looking from the outside in probably doesn’t know what goes into all of these decisions.

Beezie Madden: I don’t really think about that much, but on the other hand I have to say I mostly stay away from something sharp that might put a sore in their mouth because I think it hinders their mouth. Even if it isn’t bleeding, it tends to take away from their performance if they’re in pain. I really don’t use many sharp bits or things that people would think is a bad thing to use on a horse.

Luciana Diniz: No. I know very well what my horses need. Before defining the correct bit I can try different types and see which fits better for each different horse.

Jeroen Dubbeldam: No. We do what is good for the horse — what we think is good — with a lot of horsemanship and feeling and knowledge behind it, and if other people think differently, then I would like to have a conversation with them.

I’ve also been in the warm-up and had people taking pictures, and the horse is too short in the neck or this or that. A picture doesn’t say anything. It’s just a little moment of the whole picture, but it’s always the same — people that complain or start to have comments are the people who have no idea.

NF: Do optics matter when it comes to bitting?

Jeroen Dubbeldam: I would say that the [riders] that have no idea are always looking straight away for a sharp bit. But it’s not always a sharp bit, even if it looks complicated. It’s a difficult problem to solve; there are so many riders and so many bits. But no, looks are not always the full story.

George Morris: Yes. My philosophy is I try to be simple. As little as possible but as much as necessary. If I had a horse, I would try anything in competition with a bit if I needed to, but I don’t lean towards that. I’m not interested in that. Most jumping trainers are much more interested in bitting than I am. Flatwork is definitely necessary, but at the same time you do have some armchair experts who are holier than thou and believe every horse should go in a fat snaffle. I’ve jumped horses for over 70 years and that has not been my reality. Maybe for some it is.

Rodrigo Pessoa: You need to have a bit, no matter how it looks. The important thing is that it works, and so, yeah, sometimes you see a little bit of everything. Some people do overdo it … I think you have to try to keep it as simple as possible. Show jumping is already complicated enough and we don’t need to make it more complicated.

NF: Do you think a rider’s bit choice is reflective of their talent or ethics?

Missy Clark: I think that the choice depends on the horse and the rider. Certainly the better the rider, the better their hands should be. If you’re gearing towards a little kid on their first children’s jumper, if you have the right horse you hopefully shouldn’t need to use heavy artillery as your first bitting choice. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with going within the confines of correct bitting, as long as no one is interfering with the horse’s jump. If you need a little more bit, that’s okay. You have to go with what works and what puts the horse and rider in the best position to be safe and succeed.

I don’t think the bit is the key to the magic kingdom. No bit will suddenly make a horse go from difficult to perfect. Instead, correct flatwork and horsemanship over time should hopefully lend better results, not the bit.

Luciana Diniz: For sure. Unfortunately, we still see a lot of unethical bitting around. That’s why it is very important to educate riders of how to correctly use a bit, its functions, and its effect on the horse. Less is more.

George Morris: In principle, bits are as much for riders as they are for horses. Myself, I always loved twisted snaffles, Leslie Burr Howard always loved pelhams, Anne Kursinski was an expert with gags. Bits are as important for riders as they are for horses. You could take the top 10 riders in the world and rotate the horses, and if they really had their way would all have a different bit and be successful.

You should always, when trying to improve hands, over-bit horses. The worst thing you can do for someone’s hands, especially an elementary hand, is under-bit the horse. That’s the worst thing you can do. That’s why the old saddle horse riders had such good hands because the horses were so over-bridled. But that made them have very good hands because you’re getting a quicker reaction.

Rodrigo Pessoa: I think before the bit there are a lot of things that have to be in order. The right bit and the right spurs are the icing on the cake of the root of good flatwork and good preparation. Finding the right equipment is the icing on the cake for the right partnership.

I see a lot of people today who don’t want to put in enough time on the flat and just want to solve the problem with the bit. At the higher level maybe this happens a bit less, but I think that we see this a lot — horses that are not properly worked on the flat nicely and just go with a huge bit. The more the horse has good flatwork and is well-broke, the simpler the bit should be. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule; even horses with good flatwork can have a tough mouth.

NF: Do you think there should be more regulations for bits in show jumping?

Luciana Diniz: Yes. It’s very important to know the effect of each bit. Many times the lack of knowledge can lead to mistreatment. That’s why is important to always check the horse’s mouth and teeth and be aware of what you are using and if it is being well used.

Beezie Madden: I think it’s pretty good right now — there are so many bits that we can use, if we can’t find one that works, I don’t know what you’re going to find. I don’t think we need more restrictions. I haven’t really seen abuse of bits that I would think, ‘Hey, that isn’t okay.’

We already have rules for blood; if the horse has blood from the bit there are already ways to supervise that. One thing I think is important, though, is that the stewards should feel empowered enough to say something if they do see something. Some take too much power, some don’t feel they can speak up. It would help a lot if stewards had more training opportunities so they have more respect from the riders. Stewards should be paid and be well paid, but there are so many shows all over the world. I think we need more system of helping them and training them so they know what they can and can’t call people on. They should have the confidence to do their jobs.

George Morris: I think the riders should be able to choose. I see in dressage where they have to get permission for that discipline. Every horse, when their blood gets up and they’re built differently, goes around differently. You really want to give something to people some sort of latitude to choose.

Rodrigo Pessoa: There are just so many bits. There are so few that are restricted; if they are [restricted], that means that it really affects the welfare of the horse.

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