Somewhere along the line, dressage seems to have got itself a bad name with animal cruelty campaigners with the rollkur/hyperflexion debate coming to the forefront in the last few years, along with its subsequent rule changes with the FEI and National Federations. Add to this the rising popularity of natural horsemanship, and ‘metal-free horses’ and you arrive at the debate which is developing daily within internet chatrooms worldwide.
But how relevant is bitless in competitive dressage and are the errors of a few dressage professionals reflecting badly on the majority in our sport with regards to the use of bits? And where does this leave us moving forwards?
What clinched it for me in choosing to write on this topic was an unfortunate, unnecessary and surprisingly heated exchange on a recent internet forum here in Spain. A woman replying to an advert for second hand bits with a picture of a particular double bridle set she wanted to buy for her horse was met, within an hour, with a barrage of comments and abuse about why on earth she needed the bit set and that bitless bridles were the way forward. To which she replied, she had to comply with the rules of the federation to be able to compete and that her 17.2hh warmblood stallion would be preferable in competition in a bit! The final response to this was that she simply needed to castrate her stallion!
Whatever happened to having reasonable discussion and respecting other peoples’ views? Is it time to worry when you dare not mention you are using bits (or shoes) on your horses without getting an aggressive response from the advocates of metal-free horses who claim to just be offering people the choice. Horses have always been and will be an emotive subject that divides opinion on endless matters from training and shoeing, to feeding and stable management. Our love for these four-legged creatures has developed a seemingly endless range of sports, equipment, training methods and opinion. But where does it end and who is right? Is any one opinion the correct one and ultimately, with such a wide variety of breeds, sizes and personalities of our equines, can ‘one size’ really fit all?
On researching this article, I have attained wide opinion of the bitless supporters from many internet forums and websites from around the world (which I read with great interest), although how many of these are competing dressage horses at a higher level or have experience of the type of dressage athlete many of us do actually ride on a day to day basis, was not known. Really, the internet allows us to give our opinion in a faceless manner – only the person writing the post can know what kind of experience they have. And how many of these bitless horses were the feisty, willful primadonnas that so many of us ride at higher level dressage? How many of the horses ridden bitless were broken in this way too? And why seemingly, it is only dressage where the bitless campaign seems to be centred? Unless I’m searching in the wrong places, show jumping and eventing seem to have been left alone – why? It could be because of the plethora of gadgets already allowed in these sports, or that dressage is more accessible to the pleasure rider wanting to compete at a lower level.
Having also asked fellow professional dressage colleagues to give an opinion if they thought horses could perform bitless, they all seemed to be of the same opinion. "It depends on the horse" are their first words - many point to the fabulous examples of liberty exhibitions seen at competitions but make reference to willful, highly strung dressage athletes standing in their own stables and say "well maybe not for mine though!". Truthfully, the examples are few and far between and certainly as yet, none have been able to give an example of an Advanced level bitless dressage horse, although this is probably a lot to do with the rules of competitive dressage.
So, can you really train a horse up to Small Tour or Grand Prix bitless and get the same results as those doing so with a bit? Honestly, why not, everything is possible with enough time and the right horse. But would you really get the same results? Having ridden in a bitless bridle, on occasion, I found it was possible to get the flexion from the seat required for a good lateral movement but not possible to get the exact same flexion from the poll that you would from a bit, the final little part to make the movement totally correct – to get the "7" instead of the "5". I also found that with the sensitivity of my horse, he was far too easily behind the vertical in a bitless bridle. And was he a happier athlete with no bit in his mouth. Honestly, no, he seemed no different from the happy horse being ridden in a bit.
On another point, having recently sat and watched the Olympia London International Horse Show on BBC, I was fascinated by the comment from Tim Stockdale to Clare Balding about the Italian Show Jumper – Luca Moneta, who when riding a horse round the World Cup class in a hackamore made a mistake and knocked a jump down. Tim said that its not easy to ride a horse round a course of jumps that big in a bitless bridle because the line of communication to the horse gets lost and that to turn the horse round the tight corners, he almost had to ‘neck rein’ it. So if a show jumper of that calibre mentions that the control is needed when show jumping a grand prix course, then why do us dressage riders get so much bad press about our riding in bits where the same absolute control is necessary for the elegance and correctness of the movements? And, by control, we don’t mean dominance over our equine partner, we mean the same control needed by a ballerina to perform their graceful and powerful movements, for example.
One of the other comments made from many dressage colleagues is that natural horsemanship and bitless riding seems to largely consist of a very different type of horse than is ‘normal’ for dressage. Iberian horses, for example, are widely used – although with the number of PRE horses in dressage in Spain, this is also a moot point! Is this partially due to their kinder nature and smaller size, which makes them suitable for this? How successful might the bitless rider be with a bolshy young dressage horse who simply wanted to be ‘leader of his herd’?
Is it so wrong to ride your horse in a correctly fitted bit with a kind hand? Really, it shouldn’t be. The vast majority of dressage riders, who ride and train their horses in bits, in a sympathetic way show a happy athlete when competing and training. So, is it a little unfair that when promoting the bitless methods in pictures, there are only a handful of the same old pictures going round, of Rollkur? Perhaps there should be a few more photos of the ‘average Joe’ – a happy athlete with a closed soft mouth? After all, there has been a great deal of science involved in the design of bits just as there has been in the design of various bitless bridles. Again, divided opinion!
Looking to the future, will it be a fair competition pitting bitless against bits? And will one side be unfairly judged? Some bitless advocats have argued that it would be riders with bits who would be ‘shown up’ when riders in bitless bridles were able to beat them! Absolutely, but the reserve could also be true. For example, having recently watched a video on Youtube of a ‘bitless dressage championship, the lady who won overall had, for dressage purposes, an incorrect outline, ie. the nose was behind the vertical and the poll was not the highest point. Now if she were to be riding in the same test against riders with bits who had the correct head and neck positioning, then would it not highlight a training problem with the bitless rider?
So then, how do we proceed? There seems to be growing pressure for allowing bitless bridles in federated dressage, with Holland being the first federation to allow bitless bridles from 2014, as a trial. But what has to be mentioned is that this rule change is ONLY for the very lowest levels. There is now a petition circulating to allow it in British Dressage and other governing bodies. Would it be fairer for all concerned if they had their own class? As the rules stand now, there are very few types of bits and nosebands allowed in federated dressage – the snaffles are all the mild simple kind and approximately the same with the double bit sets. This evens the playing field a great deal; by not allowing pelhams, gags and many other stronger bits, competitors start from a more level playing field, the only difference being the hands using the bits! And where will it all end? Will the poor soul trying to ride round a dressage competition on a highly strung 18.2hh warmblood that’s as boisterous as he is big, then start to petition to be allowed a gag or some other equivalent….?
To add bitless into the fold, surely, the federation would have to allow the other extreme as well, as in the case of show jumping where there are a multitude of contraptions permitted in competition that most of us dressage folk have no idea about! Also, the very basis of the rules on judging horses, the movements and the way of going would all have to be changed, meaning that the whole sport would have to have a complete overhaul.
I feel like I have raised more questions than I have answered but this is going to be the case for a very long time until the FEI give a definitive answer to a rule change for bitless competing. This subject probably merits hundreds of pages, going into the science and welfare aspects of bits versus bitless! And it really is ‘horses for courses’, they are all so different, just as we humans are. Whilst some people enjoy riding their horses in bitless bridles (if that’s their preference, it’s perfectly acceptable), its hard to imagine a time where you might see a rider passaging down the centre line at the Olympics in a bitless bridle. In the meantime, perhaps a little more understanding from both sides would be a good starting point, along with better regulations for riders thinking rollkur is acceptable in our modern sport!
(Editor's note: You can also read Jane's blog on Horse Hero.)