Sometimes I think I’m really stupid. Like back when I thought that metal shoes nailed to a horse’s hoof seemed to be the right thing to do. I didn’t question it. In fact, I wanted to know why Cash came to us with only shoes on his fronts, none on his backs, when everyone was saying a horse’s hoof would disintegrate without the protection of a metal shoe. That’s precisely what I was told. Enough said. And I didn’t question it. That’s what makes me feel so stupid. I didn’t question it. At least at the moment.
Then one day I read that a horse’s hoof is supposed to flex. And that flexing has a purpose. It circulates blood, which promotes a healthy foot, and provides a hydraulic type of shock absorption for the joints, ligaments, and tendons of the leg. And it helps the heart pump blood back up that long leg. The ramifications of shutting down that flexing by nailing a shoe on the hoof are huge and onerous (see Why Our Horses Are Barefoot). The horse has survived for millions of years quite well without shoes, and being a prey animal, a flight animal, his hoof is about the most important thing he has for survival. Suffice to say all of our horses are now barefoot with rock crushing feet, good to go on any surface. We are doing well by our horses.
I received a note from Sheila Thompson in the UK praising our website… then asking me if I had tried a bitless bridle. Here I go again feeling stupid. I am professing to care about our horses, how they feel, what is best for them, and yet I never blinked at placing a piece of metal across a bone in their mouths (call it “bars” if you want to. It’s bone. With lots of nerve endings.) and leaving it there for hours on in, never mind how light I thought I was with the reins. I had simply never thought about it.
Without realizing it, Sheila shamed me into giving one of Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridles a try (she’s the UK rep for Dr. Cook).
I ordered two, and his short but powerful book Metal in the Mouth. Holy moly! There are so many things wrong with a metal bit in a horse’s mouth that I really felt ashamed. I won’t re-write Dr. Cook’s book here. It’s all available on his website http://www.bitlessbridle.com but I’ll relay a couple of concepts that got to me right off the bat:
Metal on bone. Think about it. Picture a couple of your teeth missing on both sides and a metal bar resting on the remaining bone. A horse has a bunch of nerve endings running through that part of his mouth and a bit just resting there must be terribly uncomfortable at best, painful at worst. Now picture the way many folks jerk around on the reins. Pain-induced compliance. Instead of teaching. I can only blame fear for my resistance to removing the bit. Fear that if my horse ran off with me, no matter how much I cared for him and wanted to do right by him, I wanted to be sure I was able to stop him.
Is a bit necessary to do that?
When anything goes into a horse’s mouth (anything!), it triggers a “food-is-coming” reaction in the brain causing the brain to open the flap between the lungs and the stomach so the “food” it thinks is coming will go to the stomach, not the lungs. Thus a horse with a bit is in his mouth is not getting the full load of oxygen that he would be getting if the flap were fully open to the lungs. And, of course, the bit is usually present when the horse is exercising, often heavily, and he needs that oxygen.
Have you ever seen a horse running with the herd, without any tack on? Was his mouth ever open?
With a bit in his mouth, he almost always has his mouth open. Ask yourself why, and what problems that can cause. Dr. Cook answers those questions in depth on his website.
There are so many more negative issues caused by the bit, but I was won over in a fraction of a moment for one simple reason. Cash had always had issues that I had written off to his Arab-ness. As much as he was a lovely gentleman when on the ground with him, under saddle he liked to go, and I mean go (or so it seemed). He didn’t like to maintain gait because he always wanted to go faster. He didn’t like to stop. And he didn’t like to stand still. We worked on those things a lot, Cash and me, and there was progress, but not a lot. He was, after all, an Arab.
When it finally quit raining enough for me to try this new fangled bridle, I was instantly amazed. Astounded, actually. All of those issues I had been writing off to Arab-ness were gone. Seriously. Vanished! Cash would stop on a dime with just a sit-back, no pressure on the reins at all. He would stand there happily for half an hour if I didn’t nudge him forward. And he would maintain whatever gait I asked for.
Dr. Cook wasn’t surprised when I told him. Not even a little. He knows all the researched and scientific reasons why such reactions are caused by the bit, and he has heard thousands of stories like mine. But I’m still grinning. Cash was suddenly the same wonderful guy under saddle that he was on the ground. We were truly one.
I urge you to not ignore this. For the sake of your horse, and your sake as well. And, as I always say, don’t take my word for it either. Gather the information. Read Dr. Cook’s book and/or the information on his website, then give it a try. You will be amazed.
I would love to see this Bitless Bridle spread like wildfire so I gave Dr. Cook a small piece of marketing advice: “Forget the no-more-metal rhetoric, forget the pain, forget the cruelty – all of which are true – the darned thing just works better than a bit!”
Now all of our horses are bitless. And we ride a lot in just a halter or soft hackamore. Trying to use our legs and body cues instead of the reins. We both want to be Stacy Westfall when we grow up :)
If you don’t know Stacy you must go watch this video: Stacy Westfall, Bitless, Bridleless, and Bareback!
But don’t try this at home without a lot of good preparation. Which is what we’re doing now, trying to use the reins as little as absolutely possible. Building our communication with our horses through legs, seat, and body language. And wishing we had more time to work on it :)
We strongly recommend Dr. Cook’s Cross Under Bitless Bridle. Definitely as a place to start. And maybe a place to stay, depending upon what your goals are. But in any case, please, please experiment with getting that nasty piece of metal out of your horse’s mouth.
You and your horse will seriously love the result.
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The story of our journey with horses (to date) is told in the two books that follow: the national best seller The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd and its sequel Born Wild – The Soul of a Horse.
And what a story it is as two novices without a clue stumble and bumble their way through the learning process so that hopefully you won’t have to. If you haven’t read both of these books already please do because with that reading, I believe, will come not just the knowledge of discovery but the passion and the excitement to cause you to commit to your journey with horses, to do for the horse without waiver so that your relationship and experience will be with loving, happy and healthy horses who are willing partners and who never stop trying for you. Horses like ours.
Read the National Best Seller that started it all.
Now in its 17th Printing.