Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bone spurs

The horse dentist came to check Little Love’s teeth a few weeks ago. I wasn’t there, but I heard from her owner that Little Love’s mouth was doing well and there was no longer noticeable irritation on the gums. There were, however, visible bone spurs on the “bone bars” where the bit had sat for some ten years before she transferred to the bitless bridle.

This information leaves me stunned. It’s not that I haven’t known about the possibility of bone spurs before, I have read Dr. Cook’s Metal in the Mouth and seen the pictures of horse skulls – along with the bone spurs. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? When a metal piece rubs back and forth on the gum and bone for years some abnormalities are bound to happen.

I watch the women and men at the barn ride their horses in the arena and cannot but notice the bared gums, the open mouths, the tongues hanging on the side, the tense muscles on the faces of the horses. Do these horses too have bone spurs? Did any of the horse I rode during the past three decades have bone spurs? All of them?

Dr. Cook writes in Metal in the Mouth that “[the] survey of 74 jaw bones in 4 museum collections, from horses 5 years old or older, has shown that bone spurs on the bars (generally both bars) were present on 55 of the specimens, or 74% (Cook 1999e). As some of the 74 horses were feral and had been bit-free all their lives (the feral horses had no bone spurs), the real incidence of the problem in the bitted horses was actually greater than 74%.”

Suddenly I remember my beloved friend Socks and how he used to bare his front teeth when we were doing dressage and how I bought a two piece noseband to keep his mouth closed. I think of Hunter who used to curl himself under to lose contact with the rider and then take off when you regained the contact. I think of Sebastian and how he played with the bit, jingling it back and forth and De La Chance who hung his tongue out and tossed his head. These are all signs of discomfort.

Why is it that we are so innovative when it comes to other areas of our lives, but when it comes to horses, we hang on to thousand year old traditions tooth and nail?

I recently was reading a horse book my son had brought home from the library and on the page where they were talking about equipment, there was a picture of a snaffle bit from 490 BC. Apart from the darkened color of the metal, it looked exactly like every other snaffle bit I see in the tack room of the barn next door. For at least 2500 years the snaffle bit has stayed the same? Yet during just the last century we have managed to create trains, cars and airplanes, invent the television, radio and internet, cure lethal diseases and visit the moon among other things?

And even now, in the age of change and critical thinking, when I tell people about the harmful effects of the bit, they nod and say: “But if it truly is so bad, why does everyone then use it?” Why? Because it works so well – for us humans.

Little Love’s owner has slowly started to use the bit again, because, I believe, she is encouraged by how accepting of it her pain-free horse now is. I can see that it is tempting, as riding the mare’s big and powerful movements is a lot easier when you can rely on the “control” of the bit, instead of your body. “I’m only doing it once or twice a week,” she defends her actions as if this makes a difference. And I suppose it does. Causing pain to an animal only once a week is definitely better than causing it every day. But if I told you I beat my dog only on Tuesdays, would you think it was alright?

I can understand people’s resistance to my bitless ideas. I agree, it is scary, because once you give it a little more than a minute of your thought it hijacks your entire brain. Not many people want to look in the mirror and admit they have been causing pain to their horse. I should know; I used the bit for over thirty years. Heck, I have even used the double bridle, draw reins, side reins, standing martingales, crank nose straps and what not. What does that make me? Ignorant? Stupid? Cruel?

Perhaps I was all that and now I am like a recovering alcoholic, admitting to my past mistakes, apologizing to the appropriate parties and trying to redeem myself through all the guilt that weighs me down on a daily basis. I know I can’t change what I have done in the past, but I can try to change the future even if it means I have to do it one rider and one horse at a time.

Growth is the only evidence of life. ~John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, 1864


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