Bit or bitless riding, what is better?
Bitless bridles have been becoming increasingly more popular. Many riders are convinced that bitless bridles are better for the horse because bridles with bits are harmful to the horse's mouth, but is this actually the case?
What is normal?
From the Bronze Age (thousands of years BC) metal bits were used in riding horses.
Today the majority of ridden horses are ridden with bits. That cool horse that you saw on the internet, your favourite riding pony from when you where young, but also that perfume advertisement on TV or that nice horse from that trail ride when you where on vacation. Chances are they where all wearing bitted bridles.
Horses with a bit are all around us, so it is not surprising that we consider riding horses with bits normal. After all, we see it every day.
It was only in 2009 and 2016 that the first studies were conducted to compare bit and bitless riding. As a result of these two studies, a third study was conducted in 2019 with 66 horses under the supervision of W.R. Cook and M. Kibler.
The study looked at how well the horses performed and what behavior the horses exhibited with bits and without bits. 69 different "types" of pain behaviors were observed and registered. These included: Head shaking, Stiff neck, Tail wagging, Heavy forehand, Bit pulling, Stumbling, Bucks, Open mouth, Back problems and many more.
The research showed that the horses that were ridden with bits showed about 1575 pain signals and the horses that were ridden bitless 208. This is a significant reduction of about 87%.
So you can ask yourself that if scientific research shows that horses exhibit significantly less pain whilst being ridden bitless with then why we still ride with a bit?
There is currently a big movent in the equestrian industry that normalizes bitless riding. It is becoming more and more accepted and you can now ride bitless dressage competitions up to ZZ light in the Netherlands. This is by no means the case everywhere. In Australia, for example, you are not allowed to ride a dressage competition with a bitless bridle.
Often the "excuse" is used that a horse needs a bit to walk correctly or that a bit is needed to refine the exercises.
But if you think about it, wouldn't it be a lot more impressive and special if someone could perform at an Olympic level without the use of a bit? Then why wouldn't you allow it?
Personally I think one of the reasons for this is "culture" within the equine industry but with the ever growing focus on animal welfare I believe bits will disappear over time and bitless will become the new normal.
I cannot say whether riding horses is bitless is better than riding horses wih a bit. However what I can say is that my own horse has become a lot happier since we switched to bitless and that riding a horse without a bit is really a lot nicer for the horse than being ridden in a bitted bridle.
If you are looking for a nice bitless bridle or if you have been persuaded to give bitless riding a chance, be sure to take a look at my website FR Equestrian. In 2020 I set up my own line with anatomical bitless bridles with ultra soft nappa padding for optimal horse comfort.