Monday, August 23, 2010

The power of the bit

I used to subscribe to mainstream equestrian magazines such as Dressage Today. I also used to regularly read Finnish publications such as Hippos and Hevoset ja Ratsastus which are geared towards the average horse enthusiast. Just a few years ago I found the articles in these magazines helpful and informative. However, since I have found my way onto the less beaten path (of the horse), I haven’t bothered to read such publications as I know they have nothing to offer for someone with my conviction.

So, having only half-heartedly followed the mainstream equestrian world, it has been easy to imagine that some real changes are happening, that people are looking for alternative solutions for their horses. But are they really? Or is it just an illusion created by the fact that I have surrounded myself by a minority which shares my world view? People who want no harm, use no force and base their relationship with their horse on trust and companionship.

Perhaps I’ve been living in a bubble.

To unconsciously prove myself right, I happened to run across one of the main publications in Finland geared toward the horse-loving public. This magazine has a circulation of over 35.000 which is quite a lot in a small country like Finland. And not only that, the magazine is the official publication for the National Equestrian Federation. Very influential, in other words.

The cover supports a picture of the country’s most famous dressage rider walking down a wooded path with her longtime four-legged international dressage partner. Inside I find a short article written by this rider. I turn to it enthusiastically, since I, too, have admired this woman most of my life. She was and still is, after all, the idol of so many aspiring riders. And once upon a time I was one of them.

Her article is titled “Avoid dangerous situations” which is an important subject. We all want to stay safe around horses. I start to read through, but already the first line makes me wince. “A horse is a big and powerful animal, and it does not think or act like a human.” This is all true, of course, but somehow I am starting to get a premonition of where this is going. I read further.

The article is about the competition season and how to minimize the risks of having an accident with your horse while competing and traveling. There is advice about using gloves while lunging and teaching your horse to stand still when you mount. But there is also advice on how to handle the said animal when loading. “I always load my horses with a bridle and a lungeline. With the aid of the bit I can control each step the horse takes.”

With the aid of the bit I can control each step the horse takes.

The words stare at me from the page. When we talk about horses, it always comes down to the same subject, doesn’t it? Control. We must have control. And, according to the article, the way to gain control over this strong and powerful animal is with a bit.

To tell you the truth, I am sort of shocked. This woman, an international competitor, teacher, horse trainer – dare I say: guru - who has been living and breathing horses for the past 40 something years, must use a bit to control the horse’s every step. What happened to trust and kindness? What about learning more about this strong and powerful animal, his language, his mind, instead of immediately using a forceful piece of equipment to get him to behave exactly like we want? Yes, he does not act and think like a human (thank god for that!), but that is why it is crucial for us to find the tools to achieve a two way communication with him. In my book this does not include putting a metal piece in his mouth to inflict pain (nor does it include competing with the horse, but I'll get to that in another blogpost).

The article continues to explain the use of the bitted bridle. “I always use the bridle (with bit) when I take my horse out of his stall in strange places. No matter how calm my horse is, I cannot predict what will happen around him or what others will do. Stallions should never be led without a bit and this should be added to the competition rules on all levels.”

Wow. Never is a strong word. Does she mean never as in not even at home? The article does not explain this, it merely says never. I turn back to the front cover, where this rider is walking leisurely down the path with her beloved stallion, a horse she has ridden and trained for nearly a decade. He is in a bridle, with a bit. And more over, he has a metal stud chain running through the left bit ring and under his chin. Just in case.

I can now see the enormity of the problem people like myself are facing.

After reading this article written by the most influential Finnish rider of all times and published in one of the biggest horse magazines in Finland, I realize that it will take a very, very long time for the entire equestrian community to change and abandon bits. As long as people believe it is absolutely necessary to have a bit to control a horse’s every step, they surely won’t consider riding in bitless bridles any time soon.

In fact, it wouldn’t even cross their minds since their idol and the person they most look up to has announced that the bit will guarantee control, every step of the way. And this saddens me beyond words. Because, having used a bitless bridle for over two years, I can only marvel over the difference it makes in the character of the horse, the relationship between the rider and the mount, and the overall well being of the animal. And, since the horse no longer is reacting to the pain in his mouth, it even helps us gain the coveted control. And when I say horse, I mean stallions as well.

Ok, I admit that it’s not only the bitless bridle that has transformed so many horses. Because, truth be told, going bitless sort of has the power to open your eyes to so many things. When you take the bit away and see the changes in your horse, you suddenly realize that you never really knew who your horse was in the first place. And once you see a glimpse of him, the real him, you want to see more. And then some more. And suddenly you are looking at other ways to improve his life, to help him free himself from the repressive life humans destined him from birth.

On the other hand, in the past two years I have witnessed so many riders crossing over to the “other side” that I have lost count. I still want to remain carefully hopeful that there will be a day when all horses are freed from the oppressive use of a piece of metal in such a sensitive area as the mouth. If people just open their minds to something new and innovative as the bitless bridle, soon we will have masses of riders trying this new way of riding. And I believe – I have to believe – that this is just the beginning of something that will someday become a norm.

As much as articles such as the one described above might discourage me, they also point me to the right direction. It certainly would be easier to get my message across if I was a world famous dressage rider, but I’m not. Perhaps I am a nobody, but when a nobody meets another nobody and then the pair of them run into somebody and anybody, a group has formed. And what was that quote by famous cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Walk with me,



  1. love the blog...especially the concluding quote:)

  2. Until now, this is the only magazine I have found worth reading