Horses performed better in a bitless bridle than a jointed snaffle in a study reported in the Equine Veterinary Journal.
The study compared the performance of four horses, none of which had ever been ridden in a bitless bridle.
The horses were ridden through two four-minute exercise tests, first bitted and then bitless.
An independent judge marked the 27 phases of each test on a 10-point scale and comments and scores were recorded on a video soundtrack.
The results showed the horses went better in the bitless bride. The mean score when bitted was 3.7 in each phase; and 6.4 when bitless.
The crossunder bitless bridle used in the study was developed by veterinarian Robert Cook, who carried out the study with another veterinarian, Daniel Mills.
“All four horses accepted the crossunder bitless bridle without hesitation,” the authors reported.
“Further studies are warranted and it is hoped that others will build on this new field of investigation.
“The authors are of the opinion that the bit can be a welfare and safety problem for both horse and horseman. Equestrian organisations that currently mandate use of the bit for competitions are urged to review their rules.”
Cook and Mills conducted the work with horses in 2008 at a riding instructors’ gathering – the Certified Horsemanship Association’s International Conference in Kentucky.
“The same horses had been used for demonstrations throughout the day, ridden in bitted bridles. The experiment was scheduled as the last event of the afternoon.
“The riders were four Certified Horsemanship Association riding instructors (Grade three or above), two of whom had never previously ridden with a crossunder bitless bridle.
“Each rider was assigned to one horse, riding it first in a bitted bridle – a jointed snaffle – and then, immediately after, in a crossunder bitless bridle.”
All other potential variables were, as far as possible, unchanged. The tests were carried out in a covered arena.
The judge was a Certified Horsemanship Association master clinic instructor, a grade four Centred Riding Instructor and a member of the American Judging Association with 25 years’ experience in judging dressage and other classes.
“She had used a crossunder bitless bridle occasionally when teaching at clinics but was not a committed user.”
Following standard protocol, she stationed herself at letter ‘C’ in the arena and scored each of the 27 phases of the tests on a scale from 0 to 10.
“None of the riders experienced any communication problems as a result of switching their horse to an unfamiliar bridle. On the contrary, their scores indicated that communication was enhanced.
“Percentage improvement in scores from bitted to bitless ranged from approximately 45-109 per cent, with an average of approximately 75 per cent.”
The authors discussed the possibility that the horses did better when bitless because they were doing the test for a second time (having already completed it in a bit).
“These horses had been in work throughout the day and were fully warmed-up at the time of the first test.
“That improved behaviour could be attributed to the greater familiarity of the horses with the test on the second occasion and not to the change of bridle is considered unlikely, given both the short latency and the magnitude of the improvement.
“In addition, such an explanation is not consistent with the sustained improvement that occurs with long-term usage of the crossunder bitless bridle observed by the authors in other contexts.
“Fatigue as an explanation for improved behaviour might also be considered but, in man, fatigue increases the frequency of error in sport performance and it seems unlikely that horses are any different.
“The videotape showed that, when bitless, all four horses were more willing and alert than when bitted, so this, too, is inconsistent with a fatigue factor.
“While there are some weaknesses in the objectivity of the methodology, for example the absence of ‘blinding’ by judge and rider, these are balanced to some extent by the presence of witnesses and the availability of a videotape recording.
“It is hoped that other researchers will build on this preliminary study, improve its design and conduct some of its many permutations.”
The authors said a recent review of tack-induced riding accidents listed more than 200 negative behavioural responses and 40 different diseases caused by the bit.
“Yet current competition rules for dressage, show hunter, hunter jumper classes and racing mandate the use of a bit.
“Applying the precautionary principle, there is strong evidence to suggest that an amendment of these rules is necessary. For the sake of both equine and human welfare a crossunder bitless option is recommended.”