The horse is a nose-breathing animal that, at liberty, runs with a closed mouth and sealed lips. The bit is an Iron Age tool that breaks the lip seal, suffocates, and hurts a horse, explains Dr Robert Cook, Professor of Veterinary Surgery Emeritus at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
In horse racing, the bit is a probable cause of premature fatigue, falls, catastrophic accidents, and sudden death. Pain alone is evidence enough and a reason for change.
Equestrian sport administrators are urged to conduct bit-free trials and adjust their rules to comply with the physiology of the horse, and allow bit-free competition. A step that would get the process under way would be for administrators to discover for themselves the benefits of riding bit-free.
Equestrian sport’s social license to operate is at risk, and a change of equipment is needed to sustain its future. The bit is as aversive to a horse as daylight is to a bat. The bit is a shackle for a horse’s mouth, as a handcuff is a manacle for a man’s wrist. It is time to draw the horse’s “iron age” to a close.
Horses do not speak human languages but using their own behavioural language they are supreme communicators. Unfortunately, and all too often, their distress signals are not noticed. Many of the behavioural signs of bit-induced pain in the horse are so common that either they are regarded as being normal for the horse as a species and are overlooked or are thought to be an immutable part of the character of a horse; something that must simply be accepted. This common fallacy has been well named ‘bit-blindness’ (Mellor 2020a, b). I had been a ‘blind-to-the-bit’ veterinarian and rider for 45 years before recognising the bit as a foreign body in a horse’s mouth (Cook 1999, 2000).
A quick glance at the trend for change in horsemanship will help.
A chronology of bitting from the Iron Age to 2023
- 1200–1100 BC (Iron Age): The metal bit was introduced. It replaced fibre and wooden bits and facilitated the horse’s use as a weapon of war.
- 648 BC: Horse racing was one of the sports at the 33rd Olympic Games.
- 16th century: “The iron bit he crusheth ’tween his teeth, controlling what he was controllèd with.” (Shakespeare 1593)
- 17th century: Bit usage was adopted without question as a standard practice when rules were first drawn up for horse racing.
- 18th-19th centuries: As rules were made for other equestrian sports, bit usage was often mandated for these but without evidence to support such a decision.
- 1822: The Martin Act, UK, 1822 was the first animal welfare legislation to become law.
- 1824: Richard Martin, the attorney promoter of the law, together with a group of friends, founded the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. Since then, many countries have passed animal welfare legislation.
- 1877: Anna Sewell published “Black Beauty” (Sewell 1877)
- 1885/1890: Two books by veterinarians critical of the bit were published (Clark 1885, Mayhew 1890) (Fig.1)
- 1921: Founding of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) to govern Olympic equestrian sport and to receive core financing from the International Olympic Committee (Taylor 2022).
- 1927: The International League for the Protection of Horses was founded.
- 1980: Dr Hiltrud Strasser, founder of the barefoot movement, published the first of a series of books and papers on the welfare benefits of barefoot management.
- 1987: Cambridge University, UK founded the first University Chair of Animal Welfare.
- 2003: Publication of “Metal in the Mouth: the abusive effect of bitted bridles” (Cook and Strasser 2003) (Figures 2a-f)
- 2003: A group of riders in Norfolk, UK, formed the Norfolk Horse Training & Equitation Club (NHTEC) to investigate ethical and empathetic ways of training horses. NHTEC became a British Horse Society (BHS) affiliated riding Club that promoted ‘least intrusive, minimally aversive’ (LIMA) bit-free riding. In 2018, their work led to the founding of the World Bitless Association (WBA).
- 2005: First Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), in Melbourne, Australia.
- 2006: “Many riders believe that ‘bit’ and ‘control’ are synonyms, and they can’t imagine ‘going bitless.’ They worry that if they began riding down the trail without a bit, they’d quickly find themselves racing down the trail on an out-of-control horse. Giving up the bit doesn’t mean that you give up control. One of the greatest myths of horseback riding is that the bit stops the horse. The bit does not stop the horse. All a bit can do is to tell your horse that you’d like him to slow or stop – and you can tell him that just as clearly without a bit.” (Jahiel 2006).
- 2008: The International League for the Protection of Horses was re-branded as World Horse Welfare and became an Associate Member of the FEI.
- 2009: The performance of four horses transitioned from bit to bit-free significantly improved in two consecutive dressage tests. Average scores improved from 37 when bitted to 64 when bit-free (Cook and Mills 2009).
- 2011: Publication of The Horse Crucified and Risen. A book about the bit and the history of “equestrianism” in which the author wrote about the horse’s “primary misfortune – his association with man” (Nevzorov 2011).
- 2011: A museum survey of 66 domestic horse skulls revealed bit-induced bone spurs on the bars of the mouth in 62% and dental erosion in 61% (Cook 2011). (Fig.2f)
- 2013: Norfolk Horse Training & Equitation Club filed a rule change request with the British Horse Society to permit the choice of bit-free riding in all disciplines. Based on the above, an open letter to the British Horse Society was published, emphasizing the need to repeal mandated-bit rules (Glendell 2014).
- 2013: The FEI Veterinary Regulations were overhauled. Among the changes made was the removal of the ban on riding de-nerved horses (Taylor 2022).
- 2014: NHTEC issued a public statement and sent it to the British Horse Society, with copies to the British Equestrian Federation, British Dressage, and British Eventing.
- 2014: In response to the NHTEC statement, World Horse Welfare issued the following statement: “From a welfare perspective we can see no reason why bitless bridles should not be accepted into competition. We believe that whether a bridle is bitless or bitted, the most important consideration for horse welfare is that it is the right tack for that horse. We do not consider bitted bridles to be an inherent welfare problem, nor bitless bridles necessarily to be more welfare friendly. Clearly, if bitless bridles are to be accepted into competition, then the sports’ governing bodies would need to regulate which bridles should be allowed, as there are examples of bitless bridles that could constitute a welfare issue due to the leverage and pressure applied to the horse’s nose, jaw and poll areas.”
- 2014: A UK Member of Parliament, Norman Lamb MP, Minister for Care Services, supported the World Bitless Association’s request for a rule change to allow bit-free dressage.
- 2014: Dr Bernd Paschel (Department of Sport Sciences, Frankfurt University, Germany) wrote an open letter about horse abuse in Olympic equestrian sport to the President of the International Olympic Committee. On the same topic, he also wrote to the FEI and to His Holiness Pope Francis. He has, since then, published a series of books about his work (Paschel 2023)
- 2015: Delegates of NHTEC and the British Equestrian Federation met to discuss the NHTEC request that bitless bridles be allowed in competition.
- 2017: The concept of bit-induced breathlessness was published (Mellor and Beausoleil 2017). The authors concluded that the information provided “a basis for considering the circumstances in which breathlessness may have significant negative welfare impacts on horses as currently ridden wearing bitted bridles.”
- 2017: “The art of bitless riding” was published. The author, Jossy Reynvoet was interviewed by Dr Paschel (Paschel 2017).
- 2018: The NHTEC founded the World Bitless Association, a registered charity of the Charities Commission, UK.
- 2018: By removing the bit, an 87% reduction in 69 aversion-to-the-bit behaviours in 66 horses was documented (Cook and Kibler 2018). From the same population, 45 of the riders answered 10 questions based on how their own feelings changed when riding bit-free (Cook and Kibler 2022). The total number of their negative feelings when ‘bitted’ was 200 and when bit-free 18; a 91% improvement. The data indicated that riders’ feelings about riding were negatively influenced by their horse’s aversion to the bit. On the other hand, “removing the bit significantly reduced the prevalence of bit-induced aberrant behaviour in their horse, increased their pleasure in riding, improved their riding skills and gave riders the chance to achieve that sense of harmony with their horse that is the goal of horsemanship.”
- 2019: Welfare during bit-ridden exercise was addressed in two videos with the title “Do we have a bit of a problem?” (Mellor 2019a, 2019b). Professor Mellor introduced here his mind-changing pen test, enabling riders to experience bit-induced pain for themselves (Cook 2019b)
- 2019: “Clearing the Air on the Bit-free Debate” an illustrated article for the general reader in Horses and People Magazine (Cook 2019c).
- 2020: The FEI General Assembly mandated, on welfare evidence, that vibrissae around the nose and eyes of the horse could not be clipped for horses in competition.
- 2020: A global survey of 1600 equestrians, carried out by the World Bitless Association, showed that 9 out of 10 equestrians thought bitless should be allowed in competition.
- 2020: The basic science of bit-induced mouth pain was described (Mellor 2020a).
- 2020: Publications identifying bit-induced mouth injuries when oral examinations were carried out immediately after competition were comprehensively reviewed (Mellor 2020a).
- 2020: Thoroughbred Racing New Zealand developed racehorse welfare guidelines based on the Five Domains model (Mellor and Burns, 2020, Mellor et al 2020). These same guidelines were immediately adopted by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA).
- 2021: Four books on the advantages of barefoot and bit-free were published in Germany (Paschel 2023).
- 2021: The illustrated anatomy of bit-induced airway obstruction was updated (Cook 2021a).
- 2021: The bit-ridden horse quickly learns conflict behaviours because of the bit’s ‘positive punishment’ effect (Cook 2021b). To claim that a horse recognizes the ‘release’ of bit ‘pressure’ as a reward is a euphemistic interpretation of learning theory and fails to justify bit usage. The situation of a bit-ridden horse at exercise is not analogous to that of a rat in a Skinner-box. The rat learns how to prevent an aversive stimulus from occurring by pressing a lever. The bit-ridden horse has no such magic lever. Instead, a horse learns many ways (i.e., conflict behaviours) to try to limit the pain from occurring and recurring daily throughout a working life. None of these are entirely satisfactory and, anyway, they lead to a rider’s loss of control and an arms race between rider and horse that is even less satisfactory.
- 2022: The bit as a probable cause of sudden death in the racehorse was explained (Cook 2022).
- 2022: In an open letter to the International Olympic Committee, the case was made for dropping Equestrian from the Olympic Games (Taylor 2022).
- 2022: The World Bitless Association submitted evidence to the FEI Equine Ethics & Wellbeing Commission in September 2022.
- 2022: Examined after competition, 84% of 219 trotters in Finland were shown to have bit-induced oral lesions, as had 52% of 109 event horses (Tuomola 2022).
- 2022: Formation of the FEI Tack and Equipment Group, and the Danish Equine Welfare Commission. The French Parliament published 46 recommendations for equine welfare at the Paris Olympics 2024.
- 2023: Results of a questionnaire study of 399 horses showed that the 20 horses which had been ridden without a bit “had fewer ridden hyperreactive behaviours (bucking, spooking, rearing and bolting) and better relative welfare scores for management, and during riding and handling” compared to the 379 horses ridden with a bit (Lake et al 2023).
- 2023: “Quit Horsing Around”: RSPCA Australia held its second two-day international seminar on equine welfare. One meaning of the seminar’s idiomatic phrase title is ‘quit abusive behaviour.’
- 2023: In the USA, the Horse Integrity and Safety Act and its Anti-Doping and Medication Control Committee (ADMC) came into effect in the US on March 27. Medications will be administered by a separate but related Federal agency, the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit.
- 2023: The World Bitless Association wrote to the FEI requesting that modern bitless bridles be mandated for inclusion in FEI competition (particularly Dressage) on welfare grounds. FEI veterinary director Göran Åkerström confirms a meeting has been called with World Horse Welfare chief executive Roly Owers, together with relevant FEI officials, to consider the request and the evidence supplied.
Bit usage quickly teaches a young horse an abundance of unwanted, bit-avoidance behaviours, for example gaping mouth, headshaking, tongue-retraction, tongue-over-bit, and choking-up. Attempts to eradicate the last three of these behaviours in the racehorse have led to the frequent use of the ring bit (two bits), often in combination with the painful practice (Figure 3) of tying a horse’s tongue to the lower jaw with a rubber band or strap of various materials (Vandermark and Wilkins 2019).
The erroneously assumed need for a tongue-tie is to prevent a horse from retracting the tongue and putting it over the bit, something a horse does to control that by which it is controlled; a defensive strategy like grabbing the bit between its teeth. Both options instantly put the horse in control rather than the rider; a switch in horse/rider power dynamics succinctly expressed in a 16th-century poet’s first publication (Shakespeare 1593). Both unwanted behaviours are caused in the first place by the pain the bit causes. To prevent such behaviour, its cause needs to be removed.
Horses are immensely sensitive animals and demonstrative to a high degree (Hanson 2019). Bits frighten horses, making them nervous and more inclined to spook. During recreational riding, a bit-ridden horse may shy, buck, rear, panic, and bolt. When raced, bit-induced obstruction of the airway causes shortness of breath, premature exhaustion, and bleeding from the lungs due to negative pressure pulmonary oedema (Cook et al 1988, Bhaskar and Fraser 2011, Mellor and Beausoleil 2017, Cook 2022). As with suffocation in man, racehorses will experience acute chest pain and a sense of drowning when their lungs become waterlogged, and their heart begins to fail. Consequently, I hypothesise they fall, break bones, dislocate joints, and die sudden deaths. Current rules prevent the hypothesis from being tested but sudden death from strangulation is a known cause in man.
The origin of the current crisis in equestrian sport can be traced back to an equipment change in the Iron Age. Enamoured by the discovery of how to make metal, metal bits replaced fibre and wooden bits and weaponised the horse as an instrument of war. For thousands of years, the use of the metal bit has been ‘standard practice.’ The principle of a modern bit is identical to that of a Bronze Age bit. Its design and continued use derive from a mistaken belief in the idea that the infliction of pain controls a horse. However, the evidence of bit-induced conflict behaviours reminds us of the contrary. Bit-induced pain is the most common cause of loss of control. A horse is hardwired to avoid and reject anything in its mouth that is neither food nor fluid. To ride with one or more bits is to hook a horse in the mouth with armour-plated ‘fingers’ and to manipulate these from a distance while horse and rider are both in motion. It is as though we are ‘fishing for horse’ with a rod in each hand and have a ‘bite’ on both lines.
Inevitably, the signals that the horse receives, even from a rider with the kindest of intentions, vary in degree on a spectrum of pain from slight to severe; transient or prolonged (Mellor 2020a). A horse’s natural reaction to the foreign body is to open its mouth and let the ‘fingers’ fall out, but this cannot happen because the bit is strapped in place. When bit-ridden, i.e., oppressed, hurt, and harassed, a horse’s mind will be focused on how to prevent or limit the pain. All too quickly, a horse learns many ways to do this. Some 37 aversive and conflict behaviours have been documented to date, but many more will be revealed when bit-free competition is permitted (Cook and Kibler 2018, Mellor 2020a).
The pain is bad enough, but suffocation is another fundamental problem. At liberty, a horse runs with a closed mouth and sealed lips (Cook 1999, Mellor and Beausoleil 2017). A bit breaks the lip seal and prevents a running horse from maintaining a negative atmospheric pressure in its oral cavity. When running at liberty, this crucial ‘negativity’ acts like a suction cup to keep the long soft palate firmly ‘locked down’ on the root of the tongue. It also keeps the elastic buttonhole of the soft palate ‘buttoned-up’ with another airtight seal around the larynx. Together, these two vital seals ensure that the throat airway is not obstructed by an ‘untethered’ soft palate being drawn upwards (dorsally) by the negative pressure generated at each inspiration. Because a bit breaks the lip seal, a bit-ridden horse has difficulty breathing, i.e., suffers strangulation (Cook,1999, 2003, 2019, 2021a.b; Mellor and Beausoleil 2017). At the gallop, an unstable soft palate may flap like a wet blanket in a gale. In addition, the tongue has the property of a hydrostat. Like a squeeze ball, whatever its shape, its volume is unaltered. When a horse avoids the bit by retracting the tip of its tongue, the root of its tongue bulges upwards and further obstructs the throat airway.
Poll flexion brought about by bit-armed rein tension (the common strategy whereby a jockey restrains a racehorse in the initial stages of a race) adds to the pain, the suffocation and the life-threatening barometric damage to the lungs that causes racehorses to ‘bleed.’ Exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage, a regrettably universal disease of the bit-ridden racehorse, is akin to a respiratory emergency in human medicine called negative pressure pulmonary oedema (NPPE), caused by airway obstruction (Bhaskar and Fraser, 2011).
In dressage, bit usage results in the hyperflexion, suffocation and pain known as Rollkur and by the synonym LDR (low, deep, and round).
Lastly, because there is a neural connection between head and heart, bit and tongue-tie pain in the racehorse may be a cause of heart attacks and sudden death by triggering the trigemino-cardiac reflex (Chowdhury and Schaller 2015, Cook 2022).
In summary, the use of the bit causes pain, loss of control, suffocation, catastrophic accidents and fatal injuries to both horse and rider.
Since 2000, a burgeoning bit-free movement has developed worldwide, led by pioneering recreational riders of all ages and experience, with horses of all types, ages, and stages of training. Reports of rider injuries have been noticeable in their absence.
Though the bit is not mandated for Thoroughbred racing, use of the bit is regarded as standard practice, so the effect is the same. Many a racehorse is encumbered with two bits and, even worse, has its tongue tied to the lower jaw.
To improve health and safety for horse and rider, and sustain the social license of equestrian sport, I join my colleague Mellor (2020a) and many other colleagues (see the multi-authored publication Mellor Beausoleil Littlewood McLean McGreevy Jones and Wilkins 2020) in urging all administrations to sponsor bit-free trials and permit bit-free competition. A bit-armed rein is a mouth whip (Figs.4-7).
The deliberate soring of shins (as in Tennessee Walking Horse competitions and show jumping) is an illegal practice in many countries. Bit usage (the soring of mouths and the bruising of lungs) is a more dangerous and more widespread practice.
Increasing comfort for the horse improves control and reduces risk for rider and horse. Once bit-free racing is permitted, I predict that the bit will be revealed as the cause of several common respiratory diseases currently classified as of unknown cause. These include dorsal displacement of the soft palate; epiglottal entrapment; dynamic collapse of the larynx and trachea (the most severe obstruction occurring at the entrance to the chest); scabbard trachea deformity; exercise-induced hypoxemia (hence recurrent laryngeal neuropathy, a possible hypoxic neuropathy); negative pressure pulmonary edema; and sudden death. The evidence indicates that a foreign body in the mouth of a horse exerts a negative effect on the function of multiple bodily systems.
On being retired from racing, horses that have been raced bit-free are likely to be in better health than those that were bit-ridden. This will facilitate their transition to a second career and ease the after-care problem.
The stewarding of a smooth transition to bit-free riding offers administrators the opportunity to improve both horse and human welfare, to safeguard the future of equestrian sport and make a landmark contribution to the history of horsemanship.
Some administrators have already taken steps in this direction. For many years, the Royal Dutch Equestrian Federation has permitted bit-free virtual dressage in all grades short of Grand Prix. Pony Club Australia permits bit-free competition, by request, on a case-by-case basis. As the New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing welfare guidelines have been adopted by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), this means that – with the backing of the IFHA – welfare issues such as the use of whips, spurs, bits, tongue-ties and tight nosebands can now be assessed using the Five Domains Model (Mellor 2016, Mellor Beausoleil Littlewood McLean McGreevy Jones, and Wilkins 2020). This is a major step forward (Ledger and Mellor 2018).
The groundwork has been laid and the evidence is compelling. Worldwide, many equestrians are already riding bit-free. The trend for change in equestrian sport moves steadily towards health and safety for humans and horses. Leadership from equestrian administrations is now urgently needed for the sport to thrive.
In a review of mouth pain in horses (Mellor 2020a), the author concluded, “So, how might we proceed? We cannot simply ignore the bit problem, which has now been identified so clearly. Inaction when a problem is not apparent is understandable. Inaction once a significant problem has been recognized is unacceptable. Recognition of such a problem brings with it an ethical responsibility to act.”
It is possible that some evidence critical to a better understanding of the cause of death is currently overlooked in the mandatory autopsy examinations of sudden death in the racehorse. I have recommended seven additional steps that could be added to the standard autopsy protocol (Cook 2022).
The FEI ‘Code of Conduct for the Welfare of the Horse’ (accessed April 9, 2023) closes with “… the views of all are welcomed” so here are mine in parenthesis on some line items from the code:
- Horses must not be subjected to training methods which are abusive or cause fear. [Bits are abusive and cause fear]
- Tack must be designed and fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury [Bits cause pain, injury, and suffocation]
- Any surgical procedures that threaten a competing horse’s welfare or the safety of other horses and/or athletes must not be allowed. [To mandate the use of a bit is to mandate an invasive surgical procedure of a sensitive body cavity. Etymologically the word ‘surgery’ derives from a Greek word ‘kheirourgia’ with the literal meaning ‘a working (ourgia) with the hands (kheir)’ (Partridge 1958). The procedure is repeated daily over a period of years, without anesthetic, while horse and rider are in motion.]
- Particular attention will be paid to new research findings. [A substantial body of research on the bit over the last 24 years has been overlooked]
- At all times the welfare of the horse must be paramount. [The reality falls short of the intention]
Bitting a horse that is about to run is akin to muzzling a horse that is about to eat. In a word, my suggestion for sustaining equestrian sport’s social license is ‘emancipate,’ i.e., remove the manacles. Once riders give bit-free a trial they will often vow to never again put a bit in a horse’s mouth. The strongest resistance to the idea of riding bit-free comes from those who have never given it a trial. For this reason, I urge administrators to gain this experience for themselves or to witness the process in others.
Article first published on Horses and People.
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