Our Bit vs Bitless Philosophy

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Somewhat regularly, people comment on our hackamores in the context of the bit vs bitless debate. These comments range from curious to mystified to laudatory. They usually boil down to, “I can’t believe you can / are you sure you’re safe doing? / it’s so nice you can accomplish … X, Y, or Z without a bit.”

These comments always surprise me. They surprise me because they remind me how much the way I think about the tools I use to communicate with my horses has changed over the years.

Because I, too, used to look at people riding, notice a piece of equipment, and think that tool had something to do with the way the horse was moving or behaving. I fell into that wormhole myself plenty of times: the one where I thought this bit could solve that problem.

It’s true, I love the hackamore

It can’t be denied we mostly ride our horses in the hackamore these days. The hackamore is a band of woven rawhide that loops around the horse’s nose. The reins are a single rope of woven mane-hair that’s 22 feet long. The texture of the reins, the movement of heel knot, the balance of the hackamore on the nose—these are factors in the thing I like most about the hackamore. It’s a signal device. Used properly, it can lead to subtle, nearly invisible communication between horse and rider. I love the simplicity of the tool and the quality of the connection it facilitates between me and my horses.

But it’s not about the bit

To be clear, though, I have nothing against bits. Just a couple weeks ago, I forgot to bring a spare hackamore to the barn when I was teaching a lesson. So my student rode Steen in a snaffle. Of course, he’s perfectly fine with that. He goes just as nicely with a bit as he does without one. All our horses do.

That’s the first misconception I sometimes find myself trying to correct. We don’t ride our horses in the hackamore because they can’t accept a bit. We don’t ride in the hackamore because we think bits are cruel or inhumane. A bit cannot be cruel. A bit is an inanimate object. It’s not capable of causing pain except in the hands of  a human.

That said, I’ve seen some bits I believe should never have been created, much less used on a living being. And it’s definitely far easier to harm a horse with a bit than a hackamore.

Still, every trainer I most admire uses  some type of bit in one way or another. Some of them ride young horses in a snaffle. Some don’t use a bit until a horse is ready to carry a spade. As with everything, there’s nuance here. I don’t believe there is only one correct way to train or ride. I do believe bits cause a lot of unnecessary pain and fear. Again, though, this is not the fault of bit. It’s the fault of the person using it.

Is the hackamore safe?

People ask me this sometimes. I think it comes from the misconception that a bit can somehow prevent a horse that’s out of control from becoming dangerous.

A few weeks ago, one of the pasture horses needed to be brought in for some extra feed. As our barn’s owner was busy and the herd was way out on the hill, I offered to ride out and bring the horse in.

The horse was a mare, and she was in heat. One of geldings in the pasture herd had recently become super possessive of her. The two of them were caught in the throes of full-on spring fever. I rode out with a halter, dismounted, and tried to approach the horse. She ran away and the gelding went with her. They were kicking up their heels and flagging their tails. So I got back on Steen and we worked the mare, cutting her from the herd, driving her towards the gate, turning her back when she tried to escape up the fence.

It took some time. The gelding mostly went with her, complicating matters. Steen and I had to stop on a dime, turn quickly,  and open up to a dead run many times. All the while we had to work around the rest of the herd, keep to safe footing on the hillside, and avoid the electric fence.

At last, the mare had enough. She stopped and turned to face me. I was able to ride up, give her some rubs on the neck, and finally put the halter on.

Was I in control?

From a distance, it probably looked like a chaotic scene. But all throughout our merry chase, Steen went where I wanted, at the speed I wanted. The whole thing was a good deal of fun. After galloping all over the pasture for 20 minutes, when Steen needed to dial it back and calmly side-pass up to the mare so I could pet her, he could do that too. Though I did all this while riding in the hackamore, never once did it cross my mind that I might be safer if Steen had a bit in his mouth. Because Steen is not kept in line because he’s afraid of something that might cause him pain if he makes a mistake. Steen is trained to respond to my seat and my legs. And yes, my hands. But it’s the boundary set by my hands that he respects, not the tool that sets it.

Could Steen have gotten caught up in the excitement and run off with me? Yes, I suppose he could have. But Steen is trained to listen to me no matter what is going on around us. We’re a decade into this process, and our partnership is solid. I trust him. He trusts me. The hackamore is not how I keep him from running away with other galloping horses. I do that with our relationship.

It’s not about force, it’s about communication

No human is strong enough to pull a horse to a stop. Pain won’t stop a horse that’s in a panic. A horse that’s motivated to do so can run through the harshest bit in the world. So while it’s undeniable that a human can more easily inflict more pain on a horse with a bit than a hackamore, in my opinion, that does not make riding in a bit a safer way to ride.

Still, when people approach me  and tell me they are thinking of going bitless to solve a problem, it seems to surprise them when I offer the perspective that the bit might not be at the root of their trouble. As with so many things to do with horses, there’s no silver bullet. Anxiety about bits is a common problem in horses manifest by rooting, head-tossing, prancing, and all sorts of other common symptoms. Unfortunately, the anxiety behind these behaviors is almost always caused by habits in the rider, not the equipment the rider is using.

So bit vs bitless isn’t the right question in most cases. If there is a communication problem between horse and rider, ditching the bit won’t fix anything. A change might temporarily alleviate the symptoms due to the novelty of the new tool. But until the rider changes, a horse that’s fussy and frustrated in a bit will end up fussy and frustrated in a hackamore as well.

You can’t learn if you don’t try

That said, riding horses is about nothing if not learning. I most definitely wasn’t ‘ready’ to use the hackamore properly the first time I climbed on Steen with one. Did I make mistakes in the beginning? Oh my goodness. Yes I did. Do I still make mistakes sometimes? Yes. Yes I do.

But all these years later, I  have learned so many important things from riding in a hackamore. I have learned other important things from riding in a bit. The most important thing I have learned is about learning, and that it never stops. Not in me. Not in my horses.

Sometimes changing a tool can reset a situation. The horse can let go of anxiety while the human learns better habits. The important thing is to listen to the feedback from the horse and focus always on learning how best to support the horse with the tools you choose.

It’s a process that lasts a lifetime.

Scene from 2011 – Steen’s first time in the hackamore, my first time using one.

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