The Bit: is it a Baton or a Lever?
After watching a video of Stacy Westfall giving a horse riding demonstration without the aid of either a saddle or a bridle and bit, one could get the impression that the bit could be done away with ; after all she gives a very creditable exhibition of ring craft without the use of one. Sadly most of us are not as gifted as her and I for one would not discard this very useful item of a horse’s tack. Neither would I choose to fit any harsh acting bit, because for riders such a myself the value the bit as a communication aid far exceeds its value as a brake. If I want to communicate discreetly with my horse then it is appropriate for me not to use a bugle when all I should need is a tiny flute. In the broad scheme of things, note that the reins are irrelevant, since all they do is to attach the hands to the bit ie a 5 inch long bar or chain of metal links. Interestingly the bit is like a light switch - it can be “On” or “Off” . It is thus a two speed control.
Let us consider the use of the bit in action,
The use of the bit starts from the moment the English style rider mounts up holding the reins short, when a handful of rein and mane are taken up at the rider puts his foot into the stirrup. The bit acts as a hand brake.
Moving off the rider, gives a squeeze and at the same time releases the subtle back pressure on the bit - thereby asking the horse to move forwards. The hand brake was thereby released.
The rider then chooses to ride collected or long and low. If being ridden collected then the rider shortens the reins, or in other words makes a positive contact with the mouth to bring the horses head up and perhaps rounded.. The bit is here a baton ie telling the horse which way to play the tune.
The trained rider follows the action of the horse’s neck at the walk by following the movement either with the hand or with the fingers according to competence. A steady pace can thereby be established. - again the bit is a conductor’s baton.
A turn would be indicated to the horse by a slight restrain of the hand on the side of the turn - here the bit is a steering wheel.
A slow down of pace is requested by a back pressure on the bit - which is now acting as a foot brake.
A halt is called for by a strong resistance of both hands and the bit is a decelerator and a positive brake.
A stand is requested by a brief dab of the bit and then a relaxation. The bit is here a combo foot brake and hand brake.
Going from walk to trot, the rider first takes up the rein and brings the head and neck of the horse into position for the trot - could we call this a clutch movement after all it is a change of gear?.
The trot is controlled by the rate of the post and by the slight pressure on the bit. The length of pace is similarly controlled where by the horse is held back at the same speed but perhaps the rider has asked for a quicker but shorter length of stride. The back pressure applied is never sufficient to bring the horse to a halt - so could it be said that we are “slipping” the clutch.
The canter is entered into by relaxing the bit so as to allow the horse to lengthen its neck but there has been no instruction to slow - indeed there has been no resistance on the part of the rider to a speeding up of pace. So in this instance the bit is acting as an assistant accelerator.
Similarly with the gallop, there is no back pressure, so that means if the horse is urged by the seat and the legs without resistance from the hands though the bit then the horse can lengthen and accelerate.
When coming back down through the gears the procedure is mirrored in reverse. Each change down of pace from gallop to canter to trot to walk to stop is proceeded by a brief touch on the bit as an indicator that a change of speed downwards is imminent but the very fact that there is no significant resistance from the bit informs the horse to change its gate.
Of course the sudden stop calls for more forcible indication. Here the bit is applied as a brake and the pressure is maintained until the horse starts to slow. But the rider is also giving another indication by the action of the feet and stirrups being pushed out forwards and also from the rider’s crutch and butt bearing down on the horse‘s back through the saddle.
An experienced rider would be able to make a long list of aids/cues in which the bit is brought into play. Stacy probably uses the handful of the horse’s mane as a partial replacement for the bit but the mane can only perform some of the functions of the bit. To deliberately take this highly useful tool out of the rider’s hands is akin to taking the hammer away from the blacksmith. The smith is left with the hot piece of metal in one hand but has no means of shaping the hot metal into something useful.
There is an associated distortion in the use of the bit which comes to mind. That is the concept that it is purely a brake and that for a weak rider to get the horse to slow or stop, the shortest route is to up the power of the bit. We thereby address the symptom of the disobedience and not the cause of it. To replace a soft bit such as a snaffle with a fierce bit which may submit the horse to pain is a gross misuse of what should be seen as a sensitive tool - the horse‘s mouth. The continued use of a harsh bit will in time deaden the feeling in a very sensitive part of the horse, especially if a curb chain is also employed. Oh yes, by pulling back on the reins the bar and the nut cracker action bring an inescapable pain to the horse, thereby in theory causing the horse to slow down. But if the reason for the horse’s misbehaviour is fear, just how can the applied pain help the situation other than to teach the horse that its fear is painfully justified. It would be far better to disengage the horse’s hindquarters by turning the neck and head to the left or right.
The subtlety made available to the rider by the bit is lost when the bit ceases to be less a communication aid and more a nut cracker. So surely the answer to the original question is:
that the bit must be a baton for giving a signal to the horse for a movement to be made whereas the rider who uses the bit merely as a levered brake deserve nothing other than to come to a grinding halt, not least in the relationship with the horse.