Bits are quickly becoming obsolete in the equestrian world, as more humane methods are developed for communicating with the horse, and knowledge of learning theory expands among horse-people. To create effective alternatives to using a bit, we must first understand why the bit is used and what it does. Bits have long been considered essential to successful communication with the horse, but with advancements in force-free training, behavior is no longer contingent upon equipment.
Traditionally bits have been used to send signals to stop, steer, slow down, and back up. In some situations, the bit is also used to encourage a certain head carriage from performance horses. Bits act on the sensitive tissues of the mouth and face, making the bit innately aversive even when using a "mild" device. Ultimately there are 3 main categories of the bit; Snaffle, Curb, and Combination. Snaffle bits apply pressure to the tongue, jaw and mouth, without additional leverage. Excluding additional leverage roughly means that the amount of pressure that the rider applies is equal to the amount of pressure that the horse will feel. Snaffle bits are often jointed, which exerts a "nutcracker" type of action on the jaw of the horse. The combination category encompasses bits that contain any combination of the effects of the other categories. Curb bits include a shank, and often a chain which rests under the lower jaw. When pulled, the chain exerts and upward force on the lower jaw, and pressure is felt in the poll to encourage lowering of the horse's head. The shank of the curb bit increases the leverage based on its length. More leverage, means more force exerted on the horse, with less effort from the rider.
The width of the bit further determines the severity, while a wider bit may spread force more evenly throughout the horse's mouth, a thin bit provides a sharper pressure. Some bits are twisted to increase the effect on soft tissues, while others include longer shanks to further increase leverage.
If this is all sounding rather barbaric to you, you are not alone. The equestrian industry seems to be slowly working its way to the same conclusion with the production of new bit-less bridles. These bridles, however more humane, still exert pressure on the noseband, poll, and cheeks when used traditionally. Although this is a step in the right direction, these devices still encourage a reliance on pressure based cues rather than refined behaviors cued by a small tactile signal. For a more in-depth look at this dilemma please see the post "The Pressure Problem" (Coming Soon). However, with advancements in training we can now teach incredibly precise behaviors, and shift the locus of control from external to internal.
Traditional riding relies on an external locus of control, the rider molds every aspect of the horse's movement using pressures from their body and equipment. The bit is used to pull the horse's head in one direction or another. To halt, pressure is added so that the horse will want to evade the pain. Horses move away from aversive stimuli meaning that pressure from the front, is likely to stop forward movement. The problem is that external control does not promote learning, instead it breeds dependence. Horses that rely on "signals" to avoid aversive pressure. Without pressure however, the horse cannot perform properly. Because the horse cannot escape the aversive pressures, we see horses that will tolerate pain to avoid more pain, although there is a limit to the horse's tolerance. Switching to a bitless bridle does not eliminate these problems although it may cause less pain, it still relies on the "pressure = performance" model. Pull harder to turn further, pull harder to slow more, etc.
On the other hand, training using positive reinforcement creates internal control. The horse learns how to behave without relying on the strength of the stimulus to encourage a certain level of performance. Instead the horse becomes internally motivated to perform by earning the things s/he likes. The clicker is an invaluable tool for communicating with the horse by punctuating the moments in which the horse acts correctly on their own accord. Of course, with the addition of positive reinforcement these moments quickly multiply, thusly creating horses that perform in ideal form because they want to, rather than have to.
Through shaping, capturing, and the numerous other force-free techniques we can teach horses to carry their heads in the desired position without the application of pressure. Not only does this increase reliability of the behavior by decreasing reliance on the rider, but it improves safety for the horse. The number of cervical injuries that come from riding horses can be astounding. By placing head position under control of the horse, riders can be careful not to push the horse out of their comfort zone resulting in injury. This also breaks the "pressure = performance" loop, as better performance is achieved with less effort from the rider, whereas traditionally effort from the horse was contingent upon effort from the rider or equipment. All in all this will make horseback riding as a sport less dangerous as control is established separate from the equipment. Ultimately this means that if equipment fails control will not be lost. Bits are quickly becoming obsolete. With creativity, critical analysis and collaboration we will continue to find new and creative ways in which we can make training more effective, and more humane without the need for outdated equipment.
For more information regarding force-free training of behaviors without a bit, please see the posts:
"The Pressure Problem" (Coming Soon)
Strickland, C. (1998, October 1). Bits: Protect Your Horse's Mouth. Retrieved January 27, 2016, from http://www.thehorse.com/articles/10525/bits-protect-your-horses-mouth
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