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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

Bit Blindness in Horses

Updated: Feb 16

A girl riding a horse standing in water yanking on the horses mouth with a bit
Not a Pretty Picture

Bit-Blindness is a huge problem for animal welfare on a global scale. The included photo is a great example of it. The photographer has set up a professional shoot, and the final photo chosen for a calendar was this one. No doubt they saw it as beautiful, and the girl and environment certainly are, but it shows a complete blindness to what is happening for the horse. The horse has the head tilted to the side, the eye closed and the mouth gaping wide open as the bit is pulled hard enough for it to come out the side of the horse’s mouth. The horses’ position, facial expression and open mouth are all indicators of pain in the horse.

Bits have been around for so long now, more than 5000 years, and a horse with their mouth open while ridden is now seen as ‘normal’. But in reality, horses don’t go around with their mouths open like this, in fact there are few situations where a horse will naturally open their mouth. Especially when exercising, when horses need the mouth closed to create a vacuum to allow for proper breathing. But this event is seen everywhere. Why? The horse is opening the mouth to try and relieve the pain from the bit. When I look at this photo, I see a horse in pain. There are numerous examples of this in the media, at the races and other horse events. It’s just a matter of opening our eyes to it. I could have included an image showing the damage inside the horses’ mouth or other gruesome bit effects. The real problems are happening inside the mouth where people can’t see it. The tissues of the mouth (gums, tongue, teeth, buccal mucosa, and lips) are extremely sensitive to pain caused by compression, laceration, inflammation, impeded blood flow and/or stretching, all of which the bit can do. But this picture is a better example of the everyday Bit-Blindness that is happening everywhere. So why would people cause pain to an animal they love? I feel the main reasons are tradition and fear, with perhaps a few lost souls who don’t care about causing pain so long as they get what they want. As I said before, it’s been around for a long time, and despite all our other advances, the design of the bit has remained pretty much the same. Traditionalists in the equine world insist on its use in competitions and other equine events, further ‘proving’ it’s necessity. Because humans have used pain in the form of bits, whips, spurs, tongue-ties, tie-downs and other mechanical devices to ‘control’ horses for so long, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot be safe on a horse without it. The catch 22 is that the pain is what is causing the issues that make the horse dangerous, so we feel the need to use a bit, which causes the pain and so on. It’s a cyclic process. I believe it’s time we break out of it and give the horse a fair go, and ourselves. Bit-induced mouth pain is clearly a problem for the horse. Today we have so much research that has measured and demonstrated the pain. Starting and transitioning horses to bit-free bridles is one solution. Many riders worry that without bits horses would be uncontrollable and a danger to themselves and others. They are concerned it would not be possible to give the precision or agility required for competition. These genuine concerns need to be addressed. But bit blindness in horses must also be addressed.

We are now in the lucky position of having a burgeoning population of riders worldwide in the last two decades who have addressed these worries and successfully transitioned horses to safe and effective bit-free riding. We can look to a supportive community to help us break out of this destructive cycle. I am here to support anyone who wants to go on this journey.

Suzy Maloney BEqSc Source Mellor D Mouth Pain in Horses: Physiological Foundations, Behavioural Indices, Welfare Implications, and a suggested solution. Animals 2020, 10(4), 572; Email: Web: Facebook: Happy Horses Bitless Bridles Lismore, NSW, Australia Ph: 0401 249 263

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