I bought my Welsh Cob, Penny as two year old, full of hope and ambition to be successful in the show ring. She had, and still has good conformation and movement, and she's a phenomenal jumper who always takes me to the fence – sometimes even when I don't want to! I had the M&M worker classes in my sights.
Penny then developed Sweet Itch, a minor fly in the ointment if you'll excuse the pun. At this time I had started my employment in the Blue Cross, working as a welfare groom. Seeing all the unwanted horses around me, no way was I going to turn Penny into an unwanted pony, being passed from pillar to post. So I hoped to be able to control the itch, but began to let go of the HOYS dreams.
After that, Penny's foundation training went well, I discovered how much she liked to jump, and then she sustained a whiplash injury to her neck. The subsequent muscle spasms, brought on by exertion or by throwing her head up increased her intolerance of the bit to levels that I finally took notice of.
I'd done most of Penny's foundation training bitless, this was matter of course for me. Since she knew of being bitless, and that she found it better than being bitted, I'm sure that wearing a bit made her only too aware of this contrast... And increased her tension levels. That plus exercise, horse flies, a spook, excitement over jumping, all led to a trigger stacking effect that I had to learn to keep to a minimum by riding her bitless, warming her up carefully, and using positive reinforcement more than pressure -release (negative reinforcement). Even now, many years on, if I put a bit in Penny's mouth she instantly freezes, and when persuaded to move, does so under tension. I haven't pulled that stunt on her in the last four years, and won't in future.
Working in the rescue and welfare environment helped me to shift my attitude away from dreams of competing, and compromising my horse to get there. Not for my own pleasure at any length. This has set me free, so I can live without competing a pony just because I can't use a bit in the competition of choice (working hunter). But I believe the choice to compete bitless should be made available to those who still would choose the show over the horse, especially when the costs to the horse are not as expensive as they would have been to Penny.
Another important horse in my bitless story is Khatani. I had the pleasure of the last four years of this horse's life when he retired from 11 years of racing: 2 on the flat, 5 over hurdles and fences, and 4 in point-to-points. At home we jokingly called him “Lightning McKhatani” because he always won the race. Or at least, won a lot of races but never quite in the class his breeding predicted. By the double Derby winner Kahyasi, and out of a mare who placed well in some of the other Classics, Khanata, Khatani was bred by HRH the Aga Khan.
I suspect his wind was the reason Khatani never lived up to his breeding, and that he was compromised by being raced in a bit. I noted from his pointing days that he was run in a tongue tie. He also whinnied like Bonnie Tyler, a little hoarse. Typical of horses who have had a tie-back operation, although I never did get around to asking his connections about this.
When I began riding Khatani, I put him in an LG bridle, set up as a side pull, straight away. I was well aware than some racehorses will go faster as the reins become tighter, so I thought a change of equipment would help him learn new things about slowing down if he did think it was all going to be “pull if you wanna go faster”.
I rode him like this without incident for a couple of years, then I thought I might like to do some dressage, he was shaping up well and I wanted to take a turn down at the Riding Club. I put a bit in his mouth and trotted off up the common. To my astonishment, and mild dismay, he was completely out of breath, the stuffing knocked from him.
To me, this confirmed what Dr Cook says in his literature. That foreign objects in the horse's mouth (aka bits) interfere with breathing. Imagine if racehorses were allowed to run bitless. What kind of form would Khatani have produced without a snaffle mugging him for breath? Would he have lived up to the legacy of his breeding?
Jenni is an equine behaviour and welfare consultant. You can find her website here: www.jenninellist.co.uk