Can bits be used ethically? Or are they decidedly cruel no matter how skilled the rider? Let’s take a deeper look at the impact bit usage has on horses—both physically and psychologically.
There’s a saying that “a harsh bit in good hands can be mild, and a mild bit is only as harsh as the hands controlling it.” Is it truly a matter of a rider’s skill? Or are bits patently cruel devices? Today we’re going to take a deeper look at the use of bits and their effect on horses both physically and psychologically.
Horse riding is a rather controversial topic amongst vegans and animal lovers, as well as within the animal rights community. It’s a complex subject with many facets.
My first video on horses addressed the basic ethics of horse riding itself, with a cursory nod to horse riding tack—or equipment—like saddles, bits, bridles and whips. I pointed out that because horses do not need to be ridden, doing so constitutes using another being for our own entertainment, an action that is decidedly unethical from a vegan perspective. This stance does not even take into account how a horse is treated or what equipment is used; the appropriation of the horse’s body alone is an unethical act.
Not everyone agrees with this stance—including some vegans—so it is important to talk about the effect of horse tack like bits and whips—both for those who are still going to ride horses, as well as for those who don’t find the act of riding itself objectionable, but may not know the true impact of these devices.
There is quite an array of bit types and variations, each made to apply pressure to a horse in a specific manner. All bits are designed to control a horse through this applied pressure—meaning pain. There exists the argument that when properly fitted and controlled, even the most severe of bit styles can transmit subtle, nuanced signals to a horse without any pain. However, even the gentlest of hands still exerts extreme pressure on a horse’s mouth and nerves—around 50 to 100 kilograms per one square-centimeter of mouth surface.
Horses have a complex array of cranial nerves, which are impacted by the use of a bit. (Figure 1)
Trigeminal action bits inflict pain on the mandibular and maxillary branches of the trigeminal nerves. The maxillary nerve division comprises the principle functions of sensation for the maxillary teeth, nasal cavity, palate and infraorbital nerve, among others, and the mandibular nerve runs along the bones of the horse’s lower jaw and further branch off to the buccal, lingual, and inferior alveolar nerves. Additionally, the mouthpiece of the trigeminal action bit hits the horse’s palate and squeezes down on his or her tongue.
Dental action bits impact and damage the 1st and 2nd premolar teeth and bars—the area of a horse’s mouth where there are no teeth—causing the development of bone spurs. The joint of a dental bit also hits the horse’s palate when pressure is applied on the reins, causing the inferior alveolar nerve and infraorbital nerve to transmit pain signals. (Figure 2)
Horses will often insert their tongue in between the bit joint and the roof of their mouth in an attempt to escape this pain. (Figure 3) Unfortunately this just results in the tongue being pinched or pushed back towards the larynx, impacting the lingual nerve and causing pain. The mouth is one of the body’s most sensitive areas and these bits are designed to inflict pressure onto this delicate area.
Bits also obstruct a horse’s airway and interfere with breathing, which is especially problematic seeing as bits are used mostly when making great physical demands of a horse.
In his article “Pathophysiology of Bit Control in the Horse,” published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Dr. Robert Cook states that, “the bit method of control is invasive, physiologically contraindicated and counterproductive [and it] frightens a horse and causes pain, suffering and injury.”1
In his 2002 study, “The Effect of the Bit on the Behavior of the Horse,” Dr. Cook concluded that:
The bit is responsible for at least 50 problems. The four most frequently cited effects were to instill fear, to make the horse fight back, to trigger a flight response, and to cause facial neuralgia (headshaking). These and other behavioral effects were associated primarily with oral pain. However, the responses were not limited to the oral cavity, for they included a whole cascade of systemic effects. Predominantly, these involved the nervous system and resulted in adverse behavioral responses. Musculoskeletal system effects interfered with locomotion and respiratory system effects caused dyspnoea. It was concluded that a bit is harmful to the health and safety of both horse and rider, and an impediment to performance.2— Dr. Robert Cook, “The Effect of the Bit on the Behavior of the Horse”
Dr. Cook’s studies show that the impact of bits reaches far beyond a horse’s mouth. Now it should be noted that Dr. Cook is not opposed to horse riding in the slightest. He advocates natural horsemanship using a bitless bridle and his analysis of the impact of bits is from the perspective of bettering the riding experience. While his studies and findings are very important, I feel he has missed the mark with their application. However, for those individuals who intend to continue riding horses, I think it’s important to note that using a bit is not only detrimental to the horse, but also the rider.3 A bitted horse is in a state of pain and fear and much less likely to respond accordingly to direction, often leading to the injury of both horse and rider.
Aside from the physiological and anatomical impact of bits, the simplest indication of how a bit affects a horse is the horse’s reaction. You will often see bitted horses opening their mouths. This is an attempt to escape the pain inflicted by the bit. They will also shake their head and perform other neurotic behaviors in an effort to stop the pain. Unfortunately, riders often respond to this behavior by applying even more pressure to the horse’s bit, causing even more pain and acting out on the part of the horse.
This cycle is remedied, so to speak, by the application of a noseband to close the mouth. While this certainly stops a horse from opening his or her mouth, he or she remains in pain.
Janene Clemence, of the Academy of Equine Performing Arts, sums up the bottom line of the bit debate saying,
Whichever way a person tries to argue, science can lay the truth on the table. In the end, it is only a choice…a choice to not cause pain to the horse, or, to choose to knowingly inflict pain.4— Janene Clemence
So whether or not you believe that riding horses is ethical, it’s clear that the use of bits is most decidedly not.
— Emily Moran Barwick