A dog behaviourist once made an interesting statement in a lecture about the widespread use of dog collars: “ We call dogs “man’s best friends”, then we tie a noose around their necks and drag them around after us. Some way to treat a friend”. She was extolling the virtues of head collars, harnesses and other more humane ways of controlling dogs when out on walks.
Similar arguments can be made in the equine world over the use of the traditional snaffle bit, which is the conventional way to control a horse.
Anyone who has worked with horses will know how snaffle bits work. The basic construction is a jointed metal bar attached to a metal ring on either side. The reins attach to these rings. The bar sits inside the horses mouth, so when the reins are pulled, pressure is applied via the bar to the inside of the mouth. The specific area of contact is the part of the gums that have no teeth, known as “the bars” of a horse’s mouth. This area is between the incisor teeth at the front (which are used to pick up food) and the molar teeth at the back (which grind up the food up before it’s swallowed). The snaffle bit is meant to be placed just in front of the back teeth. The idea is that the bit does not have direct contact with the teeth: instead, it places pressure directly on the soft tissue of the gums.
If a horse is well trained, the bit is used in a gentle way, with very mild pressure passing on the wishes of the rider to the horse, in a similar way to a traditional collar being used to guide a well behaved dog.
However if a horse is unruly, or if there are other reasons why the rider may be having difficulties controlling the animal, a snaffle bit can present a welfare challenge, causing pain and irritation.
A recent letter to the Vet Record highlighted the fact that this was visible during the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Several horses were seen on television tossing their heads, mouthing and chomping and drooling in possible oral discomfort. The letter writer suggested that the Royal horse brigade should “get with the times and put animal welfare and respect before blind tradition”
A “bitless bridle” has been available for many years, and has become increasingly popular. Traditionally, the most obvious reasons for using such a device would be a mouth injury which would make a snaffle bit painful, or if a horse was “sensitive in the mouth”. However many owners now use bitless bridles routinely, because they believe that it’s just a kinder way to ride a horse.
While it’s true that “going bitless” may not be the right answer for every horse and every rider, it may be a more humane option. Proponents claim that its use encourages horses to be more forward going, with greater freedom of movement, and improved jumping technique. And at a welfare level, the bitless bridle tends to result in a happier and more willing horse that has closer, more sensitive contact with the rider. Riders who are familiar with the bitless bridle learn to use their seat and legs more when communicating with the horse, becoming less reliant on the reins to control the animal.
We should be guided by animal welfare and science when we decide how to work with animals: traditions may feel secure and natural, but if they have an adverse effect on animal welfare, surely it’s time to think again?