Horses Prefer Bridles That Have A Bit Missing

July 01, 1998

An ex-cowboy has found a way to make a horse's life more comfortable with a bridle that does not need a bit and which significantly improves on other bitless devices.

Bits have been used since before 1600 BC to help riders steer, slow down and stop their mounts. Their basic design has stayed virtually unchanged: a metal bar or chain, attached to rings on either side of the horse's mouth. By pulling on reins connected to the two side rings, the rider exerts sideways and backwards pressure to move the animal's head. But some horses dislike having the bit pressing on their tongue, and misbehave as a result.

Now Allan Buck, a horse trainer from Ramona in California, has worked out how to control a horse without interfering with its sensitive mouth. In his bitless bridle, the reins run through the side rings to a third ring, which hangs below the jaw. A loop passes through this ring and up over the horse's head (see Diagram). Any pressure exerted on the reins gently squeezes the horse's head behind its ears and under its jaw, rather than pulling it down and back.

Buck, whose company American Spirit is patenting the bridle, believes that this design will eliminate behavioural problems in horses that are upset by the discomfort of wearing a bit. It might also improve the performance of competition horses, and reduce the risk of respiratory disease, he says.

Buck's bitless bridle has been tested by Bob Cook, professor emeritus of surgery at Tufts University veterinary school in Massachusetts, who has spent more than forty years researching disorders of the equine ear, nose and throat. He says the bridle may be the biggest advance in equine technology since people started riding horses. It will significantly improve the welfare of horses, he says.

Putting an object in a horse's mouth confuses the animal, stimulating salivation and other feeding reflexes. Cook points out that because a horse cannot breathe and swallow at the same time, it has to stop breathing to swallow excess saliva, otherwise it may choke. The bit also interferes with breathing by changing the angle of the head and neck. Normally a horse runs with its head outstretched, to produce a long straight airway. Bending the head also bends the airway, causing turbulence and increasing the effort needed for breathing.

While most horses get used to the bit, some fight against it. Cook believes that the behavioural problem known as "head shaking" may be a response to discomfort caused by the conventional bridle. He also suggests that breathing difficulties may be a cause of bleeding in the lungs, which in severe cases can end a racehorse's career.

While bitless bridles are not new, says Cook, current devices flex the joint where the horse's head and neck meet-the "poll"-and often restrict the animal's breathing and movement in the same way as a bridle with a bit.

Kerstin Alford, welfare officer with the British Horse Society, has given Buck's invention a guarded welcome. "Some horses do resent having a bit in their mouths. If this provides an alternative for those animals, then all well and good. But any type of riding tack can cause problems for a horse if it's not fitted and used correctly."

If the new bitless bridle is to be widely adopted, the rules of dressage would have to be changed-as the bit is currently required under the rules of the sport.

Author: John Bonner


New Scientist

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