Bridles, bits and behaviour
Updated: Apr 22, 2018
Snaffle, happy mouth, rubber or bitless – the debate around bridles and bits will go on forever but really it's all about what is the best fit for you and your horse; and your horse will be the first to let you know when they are feeling unhappy. It's your job to listen and act.
The more I work around and observe horses, the more I have become interested in the importance of correctly fitting and comfortable tack to avoid pain and long-term physical damage to a horse’s face, neck and body. #Micklem (ergonomic) and #bitless bridles can be used to avoid damage to a horse’s mouth but are not always appropriate for competitive riding. However, comfort is key in whatever bridle and gentle bit combination you go for. In the communications and healings I've completed, tight or painful tack has a lasting effect on a horse’s welfare and state of mind – leading to phobias and handling issues if the guardian fails to read the signals.
Tight or painful tack has a lasting effect on a horse's welfare and state of mind
Bridles – in general
According to Wikipedia, a bridle is a piece of equipment that we use to direct a horse. However, how effective this communication is depends on how properly fitted or suitable the bridle elements are. The equine skull is a jigsaw of 26 individual plates of bone joined together with sutures acting like joints between them and includes 12 pairs of cranial facial nerves. Any pressure applied long term from tight nosebands, pressure from bits or improperly fitting bridles can impact the health and working of these bones, nerves and the sinuses.
Common problems with bridles – prevention and cure
If a horse or pony associates its bridle with fear or discomfort it will see it as a threat; therefore prevention is always better than cure. Bridle issues start when a horse does not feel good about what is happening to him/her and associates it with the bridle. Problems could include:
· Throwing head up at the sight of a bridle;
· Refusing to open mouth for the bit;
· Refusing to allow the headpiece over the ears.
A horse that exhibits these behaviour is either unhandled or reacting out of fear. This fear that could be due to pain to the skin (pinching or too tight behind ears, nose or cheek), pain to the teeth (too tight noseband causing cheeks to rub on sharp teeth, wolf teeth or hooks), restriction or pain to the nasal bone or breathing, and finally but by no means least, issues caused by the indirect association of bullying/aggressive training and riding techniques or being asked to consistently do too much during work. Grinding teeth and head shaking are normally not bit issues but manifestations of pain and discomfort elsewhere in the body with head shaking associated with hyper-sensitivity in the nervous system.
· Putting tongue out or over bit when riding
Holding, pulling and tugging of the bit can be considered as more of the horse trying to fight back or actively resist the rider. A horse will generally hold the bit if it wants to control direction and block the rider’s aids or grip the bit as a reaction to a rider who may grip the reins too tightly all the time.
How to prevent bridle issues:
1. Be sensitive – react as soon as you see a problem. If your horse reacts in a bad-tempered or anxious way when it sees/has as bridle put on, start to listen and investigate what the issue might be.
2. Good bridle fit and bit comfort. HappyHorseTraining.com recommends a Micklem bridle as it has been ergonomically designed.
3. Regular and good equine dentistry.
4. Healing or contact therapy: Horses with hyper sensitivity around ears/poll might have been roughly handled in the past or have pain in that area. Gently massaging the base of the ears (if they are pain free) can help them overcome suspicion. Be patient and respect the boundaries shown by the horse.
5. Retrain with positive associations: Make the bridling process as pleasant as possible, staying patient and calm and being as gentle as possible.
Horses are prey and flight animals and restricting these natural impulses will cause them stress, especially if the restriction causes pain. An extreme trauma reaction is likely to be caused if they cannot cope any more with how they feel about the bit (pain) and its restrictions (inability to obey instincts). Training a rider not to rely on reins/bit for control and balance is key to problems with the mouth, encouraging pressure for control and its release as reward.
Are bitless bridles the answer?
Bitless bridles can prevent damage and trauma to the mouth but they still work by applying pressure – this time on the nasal bone and, if misused, can cause trauma to this bone. So whether you choose simple bit or bitless, the real difference is madeby training a horse to respond not out of fear but out of a willingness to work with its trainer and by applying pressure only when needed.
Fairhorsemanship.com explains that fear causes the release of beta-endorphins which numb and reduce emotional and physical pain. So, if your horse is bolting out of fear, even if you pull with all your might on a strong curb bit, the horse will not feel the pain in its mouth until the endorphins have stopped acting.
In my opinion, the bitless bridle is kinder because it reduces pain, which reduces stress which means a horse is less likely to bolt because of #triggerstacking. Trigger stacking occurs when multiple stressors or stressful events occur at the same time. The stress level of the animal rises as stressors are added, ie if a horse feels pain at the same time as fear, then the triggers are stacked higher and the horse is more likely to have a strong reaction (bolting, aggression, bucking).
Dr Robert Cook has researched diseases of the mouth, ear and nose and has published two books including “Metal in the mouth”. His Youtube video, “Effects of the bit” explains with anatomical detail what a bit does to a horse’s mouth and why a horse opens his mouth or develops behaviours as a result:
Studies have shown that horses are more relaxed (lower heart rate) when long reined in bitless rather than bitted bridles (eg Jessica Quick et all, 2009). So in effect, limiting the amount of stressors, prevents trigger stacking and the horse going over its threshold with the resultant unwanted behaviours.
As with all forms of equine care, I believe how the bridle and bit are first introduced and then used is the real crux of the issue. If tack is introduced with patience, gentleness and positive associations, a horse will work with you to accept these methods of control. Simple bits are fine as long as a guardian or trainer is sensitive to a horse’s reaction; watch for any little indications of discomfort and take immediate steps to discover and remedy the discomfort and use pressure and release techniques so that there is as little discomfort in the mouth as possible. This approach develops trust. Everything should be about promoting a happy and harmonious relationship with your horse and that simply boils down to mutual respect.
Correctly fitting a bridle
Cheekpiece correct fit: To measure for the correct size for crown and cheekpieces, measure from the corner of the left mouth around the back of the ears to the corner of the right mouth.
Throat lash correct fit: Once fastened, a full fist or four fingers should be able to fit inside the strap (unless you are using an ergonomic bridle). If the throatlash is too tight, it can interfere with breathing and your horse’s ability to flex at the poll; too loose and it won’t perform its job. The buckles of the cheek pieces, noseband and throatlash should sit parallel when fastened.
Browband correct fit: The band should sit in the natural groove below the horse’s ears and lie flat against the head. If it is too tight, it will pull the headpiece forward onto the horse’s ears and if it is too loose, it will gap in the centre or hang down over the eyes. Measure from ear to ear below the ears to determine the correct size to buy.
Noseband correct fit: Usually the villain of the bridle,the noseband should sit 1-cm below the cheekbones (unless is a grackle/flash noseband). If it is too high, it will cause pain, and if it is too low it will press on the soft part of the nose and interfere with the airway. The strap should fasten one finger width under the cheekbone and under the cheekpieces in the groove of the chin and two fingers should be able to fit within the noseband when fastened. For figure 8 (grackle) snaffle bridles, the soft fluffy part should rest higher on the nasal bone – the flash should fit over the bit with one finger width of space. The ring next to the cheek piece should be one finger above the cheekbone.
The correct fit for a bit: The bit should sit in interdental space in the mouth and at the corners of the mouth on the outside, creating one to two creases in the lips. The bit should be wide enough to see about a quarter of an inch visible at either side, otherwise it is likely to pinch or rub the corners of the mouth or, if the bit is jointed, the angle of the bit will be too acute.