British event rider Mark Smith, wants to have the choice to compete his horse bitless and he wants your support. Mark and his team 'Bitless Not Brainless' are regulars of the Team Chasing circuit. They originally competed in pink headcollars but this obviously ruffled a few establishment feathers which meant a rule change was made, effectively banning them from doing so. Undaunted they purchased pink Dr Cook's bitless bridles and rode forth in those instead. Why in pink? Because, apart from trying to change hearts and minds about the way we ride horses, they also raise money for Breast Cancer Campaign.
But, Mark wants to push the boundaries still further and be allowed to compete in all disciplines at a British Eventing event without a bit. Last Summer he took the Happy Monarch (Harry) to a BE competition at Ascot-under-Wychwood (see video above) and he told us what happened:
'When I warmed up for the showjumping in my Pink Doctor Cook bridle, it caused a stir. Not because the horse was not under perfect control but because the BE Steward, Jan Cottan, decided that it contravened the rules. When I produced the rulebook, as she did not have one, she refused to allow me to compete. The rule that states that "any form of bitless bridle is allowed" did not apparently include a pink Doctor Cook. I was told that if I did not change into a bridle with a bit I could not compete. As I pointed out to her " Hell would freeze over before I did that."
As reported in the horse press at the time, BE made a full apology for the mistake and behaviour of the steward, Mike Etherington-Smith assured me that she would be contacting me to apologise. She never did, but BE themselves refunded the entry fee - NOT the organisers - the mistake was not theirs. BE confirmed that the tack I attempted to use was completely within the rules.
Within this furore, my tack for the dressage was NEVER mentioned. When I had arrived at the dressage I expected a problem. The rules state that I must have one of the permitted bits in the horses mouth - it does NOT say that I must attach the reins to the bit. As you can see the reins are attached only to the noseband.
The judge, who can be seen within a yard of the horses head did not notice the rein attachment and allowed me to compete in this way. I think the video shows a completely relaxed partnership working in a harmonious way.
My ethos in training is to get horse and rider working together, not fighting with each other, and that a hunk of metal in his mouth is not necessary in order to get such an understanding.
I want people, riders and non-riders to appreciate what a wonderful creature the horse is, that even with all of that strength and size, he is perfectly willing to try and do anything for us. As soon as he understands what we want, he will try to do it for us, even if it doesn't really make sense to him - trotting around in circles with white dressage markers would not immediately make sense to a creature who is a wandering herbivore who survives by flight, by instinct.
The sooner we can get away from the concept that he can be bullied (he is 15 times our size) into understanding us the better. Surely it is obvious to all intelligent humans that everything we do with these amazing creature has to be done with their CONSENT. Pick a fight with such a powerful creature if you want ... the alternative is to understand them and thus ask for their co-operation ... you will never find a more willing partner!'
If, like us, you believe British Eventing should allow Mark Smith to compete in all three disciplines without a bit in his horse's mouth, then voice your support and help him lead the way to change!
This post first appeared in Trot On's blog here.