I am supposed to be writing a book (The Big Book of Miniature Horses, coming Fall 2017!) but I’ve been mulling bits a lot lately, and that doesn’t fit in the book so – here it goes.
Rocky has never been comfortable with a bit. He has worn different types of bits, adjusted every which way, and he just never seems to get completely okay with it like most horses do. Right now he’s as good as he’s ever been, with a mullen bit adjusted quite far up in his mouth.
A few months ago I bought him a sidepull noseband, so that I could work with him without using the bit to see if that would make him more comfortable. A sidepull is just a noseband with a ring on each side for the rein, very similar to working off the side rings of a halter. He has been working beautifully with it on the long lines, but with the clinic coming up I continued working from the bit in front of the cart.
Since the clinic I’ve been driving him from the sidepull, and while I was sure he would work well in it as he is so light and responsive on the long lines, but I didn’t anticipate the greater degree of relaxation and suppleness that he immediately demonstrated. I do still have him carrying the bit, as with any sort of competitive driving I want to do with him he will have to be driven with a bit, but I have to wonder if he would be even better without the bit entirely.
I have another horse, Sonic, who is being put back in harness after a couple years off. He is very uncomfortable with the bit, a new issue that I expect is the result of a dental problem. I have the vet booked for my fall old folks teeth day this week and he’ll be on the list (even though he’s not old), but in the meantime I’ve been working him off the halter instead and he is going beautifully. If it works out that I want to hook him before his teeth are fixed, then I will feel comfortable driving him off the halter.
There was a time, not that many years ago, when I was pretty skeptical about the idea of driving a horse without a bit. I think I even remember saying, “It isn’t like a riding horse, when you have your legs and seat to control your horse. Your hands are all you have, so you need to have a bit.”
What I didn’t properly understand then, is that we aren’t “controlling” the horse with the bit at all – at least, not if we are trying to do right by our horse and have a confident partner. Instead, we are communicating with them through the bit, and if they properly understand the language of communication that we’ve taught them, using it through a metal bit or a bitless bridle or a sidepull or a halter, makes no difference other than the preference of our horse.
If you have a horse that won’t stop, don’t get a stronger bit. Instead, refine your communication. Go back to the ground, make sure they understand the cues and response. Make sure you are consistent on your end, always using the cues in the same order, giving your horse the warning and time they need to respond in balance and comfort.
I definitely don’t think bits are inherently bad. I think that a person with harsh hands will be hard on the horse regardless of what tack is involved. Most horses find a bit an excellent, clear method of communication. But some horses are simply not comfortable with a bit, and I think it’s great to be able to explore other methods, especially if the alternative is to tie their mouth shut with a tight noseband and make the situation more painful for them.
You’re not controlling the horse through the bit, you’re communicating through their brain.