Some equine clicker trainers are convinced that clicker training and riding a horse using a bit are incompatible. For them, bits are aversive per definition. Their arguments are mainly based on personal preferences and anecdotes.
There is considerable research on rein tension in competition horses and, no doubt, many kilos are often pulling on a horse’s mouth. The amount of force depends on many factors; the riders’ position and skill, the gait and exercise, the horse’s training level and, to some extent left or right rein (Eisersiö et al., 2015).
Eisersiö et al. (2013) compared riding ‘on the bit’ with ‘loose reins’ but got very mixed results. They concluded that rein tension differed markedly between horse–rider combinations and confirmed the complexity of horse–rider interactions and the large variations between horses and riders.
I have no doubt that horses perceive high pressure on their mouth as aversive. Ludewig, Gauly and König von Borstel (2013) reported that by shortening the reins by 10 cm from a baseline of nose line on the vertical, the dressage horses showed behaviours indicating that they perceived this pressure aversive. The baseline in this case was a rein length that brought the nose line at vertical. The authors report only the mean increase of rein tension, not the actual tension. Also for the behaviours, they report relative changes, hence we can’t tell, how aversive riding with the baseline length is, only that it is less aversive as compared to shortened reins.
Cook has published articles on the negative effects of using bits, also in scientific journals (e.g. Cook, 1999), but we should consider that he has a conflict of interest since he is marketing a cross-under bitless bridle. His claims may still be true but need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Cook and Mills (2009) report that performance improved in horses when switched from snaffle bit to a bitless bridle, but there were only four horses, no control and only one observer.
A better study in terms of design and reporting is the one performed by Quick and Warren-Smith (2009). They compared horses’ behaviour in bitted and bitless bridles during bridling, long reining and ridden. The authors reported more chewing and mouth opining in horses with bitted bridles as compared to bitless. Unfortunately, chewing is not defined in the article. These horses had no prior experience to the bit but were accustomed to the halter. It should be no surprise that initially the bit will cause mouth movement. To take the bit requires opening of the mouth, so you can’t really compare the frequency of this behaviour with putting on a bitless bridle which is basically the same as a halter. The study did only cover 8 days (plus 2 days to get the horses used to the arena) which is short in terms of training time. Unfortunately, data are reported as a mean over the whole period, but in the conclusion the authors state that mouth movement decreased with training. Chewing is, in general, a desirable effect, however, given that these horses had very little training and that the behaviour is not well described in the article, I doubt any valid interpretation of that behaviour can be made. Head tossing was more frequent during bridling with bit (I dare say that you wouldn’t see that using clicker training) but more frequent during riding for the horses in a bitless bridle. But these horses (2-year olds! Really?) had only two rides in total, so how much can you interpret from that? The authors suggest that the ‘bitless’ horses learned the halt on rein cue quicker than the ‘bitted’ horses and had a lower heart rate variability. However, one could argue that the pressure applied through the bitless was better known since they were halter trained. They had only three days of previous training in a bit. And again, this study used only six horses, two groups of three.
So, why not asking the horse? Christensen et al. (2011) investigated how much rein tension young inexperienced horses are willing to accept in order to obtain a food reward. Fifteen 2-year-old, bridle-naïve mares were encouraged to stretch their head forward to obtain a food reward in a voluntary test situation. They found that the horses applied the highest rein tension on the first day, and apparently learned to avoid the tension, rather than habituate to it. Rein tension correlated with expression of conflict behaviour, indicating that the horses found the tension aversive. In this case, the reins were fixed to a lungeing roller. This situation is comparable to application of fixed side reins. In riding, the riders hand should ideally follow the horse’s movement; hence the results are not fully transferable to riding, unless the rider is bracing her arms, not following the movement.
So what do we get from science? Lots of studies on rein tension, which indicate that horses do not appreciate a lot of pulling on their mouth. But these studies were done either with untrained horses or sports horses, often dressage, which are generally ridden with a “heavy hand” (points are deducted for slack rein). I have not found studies with horses that are ridden with light contact. There are far fewer studies on bitless bridles (not authored by Cook). How much pressure is actually applied through a bitless bridle on the different places of the horse’s head? How about behavioural responses? Is the pressure applied through a bitless perceived differently from that from a bitted bridle? What is actually causing the aversive effect? Is it the pressure in the mouth/face or is it actually the restriction of movement, the loss of control? This is an important question because if that was the case, then riding in contact but giving the horse some level of control would maybe cancel out the aversiveness of the bridle.
First question to ask: How do you justify keeping a horse in the first place? Keeping a horse at a barn instead of open fields means that you are restricting his movements, his choices. Ok, but it’s also dangerous out there, so he may be better off kept in confinement.
Second question: What do you do with your horse to keep him happy and healthy? Some sort of activity needs to be done. You may choose to walk with your horse or do ground work. I really enjoy riding and that’s why I got my horses. But do my horses enjoy being ridden? I would say yes. Why? They come to me as soon as I appear at their gate. I can tack them up without tying them anywhere, despite free access to grass in the field and hay in the feeder. My older horse nickers every time I bring out the saddle. In the arena, I step on the mounting block and they bring themselves over to let me hop on. Every time. They have the choice to leave but they don’t.
Third question: Using a bit or a bitless? (No question about the saddle, we have to stop somewhere. But I‘m personally convinced that a well-fitting saddle is more comfortable for the horse then my pointy seat bones – in general, there are always exceptions. And I sit better in a saddle, any help is needed there.)
When I got Asfaloth, I changed to bitless. He was ridden in a terrible twisted bit before and clamped his mouth shut during riding. No chewing whatsoever. I tried different versions and ended up using an LG-bridle. I was happy enough with it for trail rides. When I started getting more interested in classical dressage and experimented with lateral movements, I became less and less enthusiastic about the bitless. It didn’t give me the fine communication that I needed. So I taught Asfaloth to take the bitted bridle with clicker training. Since then he always immediately puts on the bridle when I present it to him. The more I learn about weight shifts and balance, the more I appreciate the communication through the bit. And it is a communication in the true sense. Through the rein, I can ask for a small weight shifts (in addition to other cues) and I receive my horse’s response. He can send me an approving give or chewing or a disapproving tension. Since I am directly connected through my hands, I can feel that immediately. I can land a click on a give or release of the jaw, even the tiniest movement and get more of it. I don’t need to wait for a big movement. The request is precise and the response is small. Doing lateral work, I often click as soon as he starts chewing. I may not know the exact level of bend needed for him at that moment, but I know that I found the right bend the instant he starts chewing, click and treat. I started out with a very stiff horse that kept his mouth clamped shut. Now he starts chewing right when I sit in the saddle and ask for the first leg yield, also on a loose rein. No doubt, there is a risk of unintentionally applying some level of aversive pressure from time to time, because I am a mediocre rider. But overall, we made much more progress with the bit. From time to time, I go back to riding in a bitless or neck ring. I like the neck ring to check if our lateral work is “real” or held by the rein. But I am always disappointed by the bitless. Asfaloth gets tense and moves terribly.
Another aspect to think about is the aversiveness of imbalance and unhealthy movement. Asfaloth came to me with a severe crookedness. He is so crooked, that his body literally blocks movement under a rider. He has no working trot. I always envy those riders who hop on their horse and off they go in a light working trot. We don’t have that luxury. A good trot for us is the result of good preparation and is very precious. And at all times do I need to keep him balanced and round with a good level of collection. If we lose balance, he stops in his movement and if he loses collection, he drops his back and loses his hind feet. When this happens, it feels to me like nails on a blackboard. I don’t think it is painful for him, but it must be uncomfortable. But when I get the right level of balance and collection before asking for a transition, I get a beautiful elevated trot – until we lose that balance again (hopefully I have clicked before that).
So, my question somehow is, what is the cost-benefit analysis for my horse between no bit in the mouth with poor balance or bit with good balance (most of time), I would think that he chooses the latter option.
It is certainly not the same for every horse and for every rider. But thinking about these aspects is useful for everyone. And if there are better ways to train balance, I am always willing to learn.
You can find abstracts of papers cited and many more articles on the Clickertrainingpferde goes scientific Mendeley group.
Christensen, J.W. et al., 2011. Rein tension acceptance in young horses in a voluntary test situation. Equine Veterinary Journal, 43(2), pp.223–228.
Cook, W.R., 1999. Pathophysiology of bit control in the horse. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 19(3), pp.196–204. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0737080699800677 [Accessed May 25, 2016].Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8(2), pp.e15–e16. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787812002511.
Cook, W.R. & Mills, D.S., 2009. Preliminary study of jointed snaffle vs. crossunder bitless bridles: Quantified comparison of behaviour in four horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 41(8), pp.827–830. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.2746/042516409X472150 [Accessed May 25, 2016].
Eisersiö, M. et al., 2013. Movements of the horse’s mouth in relation to horse-rider kinematic variables. Veterinary Journal, 198(SUPPL1).
Eisersiö, M. et al., 2015. Rein tension in eight professional riders during regular training sessions. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(5), pp.419–426. Available at: http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558787815000787/fulltext [Accessed July 28, 2015].
Ludewig, a. K., Gauly, M. & König von Borstel, U., 2013. Effect of shortened reins on rein tension, stress and discomfort behavior in dressage horses. Journal of Veterinary
Quick, J.S. & Warren-Smith, A.K., 2009. Preliminary investigations of horses’ (Equus caballus) responses to different bridles during foundation training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4(4), pp.169–176. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787808002839 [Accessed May 25, 2016].