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...And What Is 'Real' Dressage?

August 19, 2017

To bit or not to bit, that is the question... And it is a question that your horse should be able to help you answer. People often fit into one of these two categories: People who are against using bits, and those that believe that you can’t get ‘real’ results without a bit. It usually isn’t a problem, the bit-less believers do their thing, and the bit believers do their thing. It gets interesting when they both want to do the same thing... And it gets very interesting when the thing they want to do is dressage. I know because I am right in the middle of it. 

 

 

This article seeks to shed some light on the pros, cons, and uses of some tools we have available. This topic also requires that we ask ourselves what we are really doing in dressage. After all, it is easier to know what tools to use if you have a very clear idea of what you are trying to create. Hopefully it will spark some questioning about whether the current rules of competition truly reflect what we would like to do in dressage.

 

Why should you listen to me? I think you need to listen to your horse more than me, but let me share a little about myself so you understand my perspective on this subject. I started as a little kid who learned to ride bareback, and in a halter. I then received formal dressage training with International rider, trainer, and judge, Anne Gribbons, who I studied with, then trained alongside as a professional for about 25 years. I have competed in all levels, Training through Grand Prix. I represented the USA in the NAYRC 4 times, graduated the USDF ‘L’ judge program with distinction, and was accepted into the USEF ‘r’ judge program. I developed students and horses from zero through FEI. I later immersed in ‘natural horsemanship’ which expanded my range of ways to view a horse, and options for talking to them, which included liberty and bridle-less. Now, in my Dressage, Naturally system I move freely between bits or no bits depending on the horse, with the ultimate goal still being dressage; the good kind... The kind that is about harmonious education, happy athletes, healthy biomechanics, and the partnership between horse and rider. 

 

 This description of my history may have already triggered some reactions. There is a huge range of images you may get from the term 'natural horsemanship', and there is a huge range of images you may get from the term 'dressage'. So to keep it simple, let's say that I put a priority on creating happy horses with healthy movement. I don't 'sack horses out' in round pens, or flop around with bad biomechanics. I don't have side-reins or draw-reins in my tack room, and I don't do rollkur.

 

Let's also establish that neither bit-less or bitted is inherently more gentle or harsh than the other; it is totally dependent on the heart and hands that are at the other end of the reins. It is possible to be cruel and unfair in a rope halter, (or regular halter for that matter), and it is possible to have the most magical and gentle connection in a double bridle.

 

I also believe that as far as disciplines go, dressage has some of the most gentle, horse-friendly rules regarding bits that are allowed, and I really respect that. Not every rider uses the equipment well, but at least the rules are written in a way that sounds nice. I think some of the basic intentions regarding the bit and contact really need to be refreshed in our minds. I will attempt to give my vision of the contact and my humble opinion about what 'real dressage' is, as I think it is critical to making a decision about whether bit-less is a viable option.

 

To be clear, when I describe bit-less I personally am referring to simple 'side-pulls' (yuck - I really don't like that term) with no leverage, and no cross over straps.

 

piaffe mysteryThe bitless I designed (pictured above) is a simple, comfortable nose-piece with reins attached on the side, with no leverage, and is made so the nose piece does not have to be tight on the horse in order to fit and be secure; it will not twist into the horse's eye. I call it a riding halter because I don't like the term 'side pull'. (You can learn more about it in my webshop)

 

I can tell you right away that I believe it is totally possible to do completely correct dressage up through Grand Prix without a bit. Some horses will do it better without a bit, and some will do it better with one, depending on their particular comfort level in carrying a bit.

 

Let’s look at some of the common arguments for and against bits. For the sake of this article, let’s assume we are talking about well fitting equipment that is legal for dressage competition, and equivalent type bit-less bridles (no sharp parts or twisted wires, or leverage of any kind, etc). Let’s also assume they are in the hands of competent horsemen. I never like to judge a technique based on how it is done by someone without skills, so let’s imagine it being done with a skilled rider so we can really isolate the use of the equipment itself.

 

 

Common arguments I have heard against riding with a bit (And my humble responses to them):

 

"Bits are painful to the horse"... Not necessarily, if selected, fitted, and used correctly. Some horses never feel comfortable in a bit even if they aren't necessarily in pain. Some horses practically put the bit in their mouths themselves when you come with the bridle!

 

"Bits are harmful to the horse"... Not necessarily, if selected, fitted and used correctly. I agree, though, that the potential for physical damage is greater with a bit due to the delicate nature of the tissues in the mouth, and the sensitivity of the Temporomandibular Joint. 

 

"Bits are not necessary"... I agree. A bit is a tool of refinement, which means it should take something that is working well and make it feel even better. So no, they are not necessary, but for some horses a bit offers a level of refinement that is too amazing to miss!

 

"It puts too much pressure on the delicate mouth when you take contact to ask the horse to be 'round'."... I agree about taking contact. But I also believe in an excellent, healthy contact, but think it is the horse who should be taking it. This kind of contact can feel amazing and is an honor to feel, because the horse is trusting your hands with his mouth; the hands just receive the feel that the horse offers. The roundness and softness in the jaw and poll ought to happen as a result of a horse moving in balance and self-carriage. The balance is so good, and the rider's hands are so trust-worthy that the horse allows himself to go in this posture of trust. To take the head and pull it in the position of roundness is not the role of correct dressage contact. Whether bitted or bit-less, the contact must be excellent and achieved as a result of the balance of the horse. In my experience many horses who are described as 'hard-mouthed' are horses who have experienced too much contact and they brace their jaws, necks, and shoulders to protect themselves. Too often the 'logic' of the rider is to put a 'stronger' bit on, which just perpetuates the problem... (Oops, I was supposed to be talking only about skilled riders!). For the record, a horse or rider that leans on a bit-less bridle can also cause damage due to the contracting of the neck that can still happen.

 

 

Common arguments I have heard against bit-less dressage  (And my humble responses to them):

 

"You can't achieve real collection without a bit"... I strongly disagree. Horses can collect themselves all by themselves. Dressage is about enhancing movement that is natural to a horse. Nowhere in Article 417 of the F.E.I rule book describing collection, does it even mention a bit or the contact. I realize that earlier, in Article 401 it states that all horses need to be 'on the bit' and I'll talk a bit about that further along in this essay, but I think it is clear that collection is primarily about the body and balance of the horse. It is fair to say competitive dressage has decided that contact with the bit is something they want to be able to judge, but it is not fair to say that it is required in order to meet the description of what collection is. This is a big subject... Hang in there, I'll come back to it!

 

"Dressage is all about the contact with the horse's mouth."... I strongly disagree. Dressage is about biomechanics and communication. The quality of the biomechanics and communication will show up in the reins, and it is certainly part of the circuit of energy, but it is not the main part of dressage. Issues of the body will show up in the contact, and issues caused by bad contact can inhibit what is trying to happen in the body, but that doesn't make "dressage all about the contact".

 

"You can't judge dressage unless there is a bit in the mouth because it is the most important part of dressage. Without a bit, it is not real dressage."... Unfortunately it may indeed be true based on today's rules for judging, but we can still debate whether 'today's rules' are the determination of what makes 'real dressage'. Keep in mind that the Dutch spent 3 years testing bitless in competitions and decided there was no reason not to allow it. So as of April 1, 2014 they allow it in the lower levels. I just have a hard time believing that the bit is the most important part of dressage. I do agree that contact and connection through the reins is an important piece of the horse/rider connection; for me it just doesn't have to be in the mouth.

 

The Current USEF Rules for Judging state the following should be kept in mind when arriving at scores (This is based on Article 401 of the F.E.I. rules for dressage):

 

1. The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.

 

2. These qualities are demonstrated by:

a. The freedom and regularity of the gaits;

b. The harmony, lightness and ease of the movements;

c. The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating from a lively impulsion; 

d. The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness (Durchlässigkeit) without any tension or resistance.

 

In order for bit-less to comply with the rules, all that would need to happen is to change the word 'bit' to 'reins'. The acceptance of the bit is just one part of one part, of what is looked for. It doesnt' even get its own sentence here, but is intimately wrapped up with throughness, and lack of tension or resistance. With or without a bit, lack of throughness, tension or resistance will be apparent. I really have a hard time believing that a judge would not be able to tell how good the performance of the horse is if he was unable to see the horse's muzzle.

 

This brings me to my biggest question to today's dressage: If contact with the bit is so important in judging 'real' dressage, then why are nosebands allowed? Take off the nosebands and you will learn a lot more about the contact. 

 

"You can’t talk to the horse directly to soften his jaw without a bit.”... True, but... It is the one conversation you cannot directly have with the horse without a bit. However, you can still influence their jaw indirectly by eliminating the reason for tension in their jaw that comes from their bodies/minds. Keep in mind also, that much of the tension in horses' jaws are created by uncomfortable, or poor use of bits. Most supposed 'jaw suppling techniqes' I see being used are not really suppling the horses' jaws and would likely cause a gaping mouth if the noseband were not on. (I could go on about that, but that is a different article!). The technique to actually soften and relax the jaw is a specific move which involves raising the hand up and forward, so the bit acts upwardly in line with the line of the mouth, not against the jaw. This puts no pressure on the jaw itself, and so creates no additional tension or brace reflex. It causes the horse to unclench his jaw, allowing a relaxed release and opening of the mouth.

 

If I am riding a horse without a bit, and I sense there is tension in the jaw, and that tension in the jaw is the source of problems with his biomechanics, I will choose to use a bit to help him relax his jaw. Some horses have formed habits of tensing their jaw or holding tension there even once the reason for it is gone, the same way humans may need to be reminded to breathe or relax. In reality, this is a small percentage of cases, and is usually used for moments of refinement. Most jaw tension arises from the bit itself, or somewhere else in the body/mind. If the horse has tension in his jaw and the source of that tension is imbalance in his body or mental anxiety, then I don't need a bit; I need to solve his balance and anxiety issues. If the horse is fine bit-less, and the tension shows up in his jaw only when there is a bit in his mouth, then I may realize that the bit and bit alone is the cause of the tension. This is the horse that is a candidate for bit-less option.

 

"Riding bit-less allows the horse to tolerate bad hands, so riders will not develop good hands." ... Yes and no. Yes, the nose is not as sensitive as the mouth, but for the lower levels or young horses we could look at it the same way we look at allowing rising trot. Some young horses with some riders feel better at the rising trot, some feel better sitting. Rising trot is allowed much more in the lower levels than it used to be, because not every young horse or inexperienced rider can deal with sitting trot in a healthy, happy way. Did the dressage world say that "riders will not learn how to sit the trot if we allow rising throughout Training and First Level"? No, it was agreed that it was a nice way to allow horses and riders to feel more comfort and ease of movement and therefore confidence, to set them up for later. At the very least you could consider bit-less in this way as a nice thing to do for the lower levels. (Then later I will do a push for extending that courtesy for upper level horses too!) :-)

 

Upon hearing the arguments against bit-less, I have some questions:

 

1. If quality of the contact is such an important thing to judge, why are nosebands allowed? Nosebands (try to) hide what is going on in the mouth. From a training perspective, if your horse 'needs a noseband' because he is evading the bit, the trainer needs to be motivated to solve the reason for the evasion rather than simply covering it up. I realize that not all people use tight nosebands, and there will be talk about how it 'stabilizes the bit' in the horse's mouth, etc. Nosebands are another article in itself, so I will try to control myself here, but the bottom line is that if you say 'dressage is about the contact with the bit', then the rules should be such that the judges can really be able to assess the quality of the contact by not allowing nosebands.

 

2. If you say that 'you cannot achieve real collection without a bit', then are you saying that riding bit-less is a disadvantage? Then why not allow it, and the scores will work themselves out.

 

3. If you say that 'riding bit-less allows horses to more comfortably tolerate bad hands" and it avoids the requirement of acceptance of the bit, then are you saying that riding bit-less is an advantage. Are you saying that there could be a situation where if someone riding bitless scored higher than you, he would have scored lower if only the horse could feel how bad the rider's hands were? To me, the biomechanics and the movements will tell the real story. A judge will be able to tell the bad hands from the good, and the really bad hands in a bit-less bridle will still mess up the quality of the dressage (the gaits, the movements, etc) just as much as they will in a bit. Besides, if the rider's hands are that unsteady, isn't it just a very wise decision to go bitless (the same as it is wise to choose to rise at the trot, or not use spurs if your leg is unsteady)? The rider score will give the judge an opportunity to mark down any 'bad riding'.

 

4. Is it an advantage or disadvantage? When I ask people who are 'against bit-less' they usually mention all of the above arguments, so what is interesting is they conflict themselves regarding whether bit-less is an advantage or disadvantage. If you can't figure out which it is, then it is neither or both, and so it doesn't matter! 

 

5. If dressage really is all about judging the contact with the horse's mouth, then why are nosebands allowed? Oh wait, I already asked that. It was worth repeating.
 

 

Some more thoughts about dressage, posture, and the contact:

 

If we are going to try to decide whether one can do 'real dressage' without a bit, I should see if I can describe my idea of 'real dressage'. But first, let's look to the FEI rule book. In Article 401 we learn that: The object of Dressage is the development of the Horse int