Are Horse Bits Cruel? Do They Cause Pain? [Pros & Cons]

Are horse bits cruel? Does a bit hurt a horse? Do bridles hurt horses?

There are no straightforward answers to this thorny question, but I shall delve into the pros and cons of using a bit versus various bitless options.

Some people believe that all bits are cruel and cause physical pain, while others believe that the right bit in the hands of a sympathetic rider does not cause undue discomfort to the horse.

The evidence is confusing and contradictory, and passions on both sides run high.

Why Do Horses Wear Bits?

The actual reason horses wear bits is for communication, preferably refined. However, many people would also say they are for control. And in many cases, they are, whether it is truly correct horsemanship or not.

rider on a horse with bits but are horse bits cruel

That is one of the hot topics of debate.

To better understand the question ‘are horse bits cruel,’ it is good to learn how they developed and worked. Then I will go through the pros and cons of bits or bitless.

CHECK: How to Get the Horse on the Bit?

Quick Bit History

Humans first domesticated horses as transport or draught animals on the Mongolian steppes during the Bronze Age. Before that, they were used for meat and milk.

A nose-ring or halter enabled nomadic herders to move animals from one place to another, but it did not offer enough control for riding at speed or driving.

The earliest evidence of bit usage comes from burial sites, dated around 2000 BC.

Archeologists attribute wear patterns or damage in the equids’ premolars to bits, surmising that the role of domestic horses and donkeys shifted from food animals to transport animals around that time(1).

The invention of the bit and bridle changed the course of human history. Peter Turchin, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Connecticut, writes, “[Nomadic herders] combined this technology with a powerful recurved bow and iron arrowheads to deadly effect.’ (2)

‘Horse archers became the weapon of mass destruction of the ancient world. Shortly after 1000 B.C., thousands of metal bits suddenly appeared and spread within the Eurasian steppes.” (3)

So with a little history, how do bits for horses work, and does this make them cruel? Let’s take a look.

How Do Bits Work?

Bits work by applying pressure to the soft tissue inside the horse’s mouth. They rest on a sensitive area called ‘the bars,’ the interdental space between the molars and incisors.

In other words, they rest on the gums, which only have a thin layer of tissue covering the bone.

Depending on the bit type, it might also apply pressure to the jaw, the chin groove, or the poll. Broken mouthpieces and mouthpieces with ports apply pressure to the palate as well.

Most are pieces of metal, but they are also made out of plastic, rubber, leather, and, historically, wood and rope.

Horses are trained by pressure and release. Long before a trainer puts a bit in their mouth, they teach the horse to move away from or give to the lightest of pressure.

When the rider moves the rein, the horse should respond by flexing whichever way the rider has asked.

The rider should then give the rein, rewarding the horse for responding correctly. The horse experiences a release of pressure in his mouth.

The mouth, palate, and cranial nerves are so sensitive that horses can feel and respond to the slightest movement of the reins.

A gentle, tactful rider should not, ideally, cause the horse any pain. Indeed, a well-trained horse should trust and seek out the rider’s hands.

However, the sensitivity of the mouth means that any bit has the potential to hurt the horse in rough or inexperienced hands.

For more information about how bits work, check out this video from a bitting expert.

Does that mean there are any actual pros to using a bit?

The Pros Of Using a Bit

As I’ve already discussed, bits have been used for thousands of years. If used correctly, they can help the rider communicate with the horse using imperceptible signals.

It also goes without saying that some horse bit types, like twisted wire or bicycle chains, are designed to cause extreme pain. There is no ‘pro’ argument for these bits.

When I discuss the reasons for riding with a bit, I only refer to ones intended as a tool of communication. These are the standard curb bits or snaffles with smooth mouthpieces or rollers.

Modern horse sport predominantly uses bits, and in the case of some disciplines, notably dressage, bitless is not permitted at competitions.

Eventing, showjumping, and most Western disciplines allow bitless bridles, but they are still in the minority.

Zurich-based classical trainer Maria Cooke explains, “When used knowledgeably, [bits] can allow us to affect and improve the horse’s movement and release tension in the horse’s body.” (4)

She goes on to say, “By communicating directly with the mouth and tongue, we have the opportunity to influence the rest of the body through chains of muscles and fascia in a way we would not be able to otherwise.” (4)

Dressage trainer Karen Rolfe adds, “A bit is a tool of refinement. A tool of refinement takes something that is already working well and makes it work better.” (5)

A horse who willingly gives his rider his mouth shows the ultimate trust and training.

It is commonly believed that a bit allows the rider more control in high-adrenaline sports, like racing or eventing, but bitless advocates point out that training gives the rider control. After all, horses can bolt with or without a bit.

READ MORE: What is the Softest Bit for a Horse?

Cons Of Using a Bit

Any bit, used with rough hands, can cause significant discomfort to the horse.

Some types of bit, such as leverage bits or double bridles, are undoubtedly damaging and painful to the horse in the wrong hands.

However, it has been hypothesized that all bits cause pain and physical injury. Dr. Robert Cook from Tufts University has conducted the most well-known studies, urging that bits lead to compromised welfare.

One of his most notable papers argued that the sudden death of racehorses due to pulmonary edema could be attributed to its interfering with the airway (6).

The study argued that horses, obligate nose breathers, are physiologically designed to run with their mouths tightly shut. When you put a bit in its mouth, you break that lip seal, and the horse cannot perform to its athletic potential.

Cook concluded, “By breaking the airtight lip-seal at exercise, a bit dissipates negative pressure in the oral compartments; destabilizes the soft palate; and obstructs the nasopharynx.’

‘Bitted rein pressure, kinking the airway and rendering parts of it flaccid, is a further cause of asphyxia.”

Dr. David Mellor, an animal welfare scientist from New Zealand, took Cook’s hypothesis one step further.

In a paper published in the journal Animals, he argued that any bit use which breaks the lip seal leads to a sensation of breathlessness, stress, and compromised welfare (7).

The study did not, however, compare bits to bitless bridles.

Furthermore, a 2020 Norwegian study comparing horses in snaffle bits to horses in bitless bridles found no difference in the severity of dynamic laryngeal collapse in horses already susceptible to it (8).

Mellor published another paper in 2020 in which he argued that mouth pain was a serious welfare problem throughout the equestrian industry, identifying pain behaviors like head-shaking, mouthing, and tail swishing as more prevalent in bitted horses. (9)

The sensitivity of the gums, tongue, and palate, he argues, means that any amount of bit pressure will cause pain and injury.

He also observed physical damage in the mouths of domestic horses, writing,

“The mandibular periostitis (bone spur formation) observed in the interdental space of horses wearing bitted bridles and its absence or virtual absence in free-roaming or feral equids, when taken together, provide evidence of significant traumatic impacts of bit use.”

In another study, Dr. Cook surveyed 66 mandibles belonging to domestic horses and 12 belonging to wild horses. He found bone spurs in 62% of the domestic animals but none in the feral or wild horses (10).

They are most likely associated with heavy-handed riding. 62% of horses are not all horses, but a significant number of them.

Uncover the benefits of horse eye covering and learn why horses wear them with our comprehensive article on ‘Why Do Horses Wear Eye Covers‘.

Does That Mean Bitless Is Better?

David Mellor and Robert Cook have asserted that it is (Dr. Cook has designed his own bitless bridle), but many types of bitless bridles cause extreme pressure on the trigeminal nerves.

A recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour measured the pressures underneath the noseband and headpiece of a side-pull, a cross-under bridle, and a snaffle bridle.

The side-pull showed a significantly higher noseband pressure than the snaffle, which could damage nerves and soft tissue if that pressure was sustained (11).

The study also found resistance behavior in some horses ridden in a cross-under, which acts on the sensitive area underneath the chin and the mandibular nerve.

Arguably, removing the bit just shifts the rein tension forces to other facial structures and sensory receptors around the head.

English hackamores, a popular bitless option, apply leverage action, just like a curb bit, acting on the nose, curb groove, and poll.

That means the pounds of pressure the horse experiences in these areas will be amplified. Thus only riders with extensive training should use one.

Can I Ride My Horse Without Pain?

This brings us to the ethics of horse riding, questioning whether it’s animal abuse or if it’s possible to ride and train without any horse pain or coercion.

Horses are big animals. No matter how gentle horse riders try to be, there might be inevitable moments of discomfort. Still, riders should minimize that as much as they can.

That means choosing the bit (or bitless) type that he finds the most comfortable, but you also need to make sure that both his bit and bridle fit.

rider on a horse with bits but are horse bits cruel

An ill-fitting bit or bridle can cause pressure points that should not be there. If you’re in doubt, you can find a qualified bridle/bit fitter to visit your horse and adjust your tack.

Ultimately, you should listen to your horse. Is he telling you that the bit is painful? You don’t want your horse to spend most of your ride telling you that he’s unhappy.

Sue Dyson recently published an equine pain ethogram, which identifies 24 ridden behaviors associated with pain (12).

Her study mainly looked at lameness and musculoskeletal pain, but some of the behaviors she noted, such as ‘pain face’ or head tossing, can indicate mouth discomfort as well.

Horses evading the bit will raise their heads like a giraffe, curl up behind the vertical, grab the bit between their teeth, or put their tongue over it.

These behaviors indicate unhappiness with the bridle or with the hands at the ends of the reins.

FAQs

Do horses hate the bit?

horse with bits but are horse bits cruel

Not necessarily. It can cause great discomfort and pain, so you should ride with care and tact. But some horses willingly take it into their mouths and seem happy and comfortable.

Do horses naturally like to be ridden?

No one knows for sure. Some find it stressful or painful, but others seem to enjoy the companionship of their riders and learning how to use their bodies in harmony with the rider.

Are bits unethical?

Ones designed to cause severe pain, like wire and bicycle chain mouthpieces, are certainly unethical. With many others, it depends on how you use them.

Conclusion

Most of the studies I cited used small sample sizes. The nature of academic publishing itself also skews some of the data. People usually don’t publish papers supporting the negative hypothesis – that bits don’t cause pain, in this case.

For the bigger picture, we have to rely on lived experience when looking at whether horse bits are cruel. Equestrians know that horses vary so widely, which is why we have boxes full of unused bits and bridles.

I’ve met horses who find the bit quite aversive, no matter if it’s the gentlest snaffle mouthpiece. I’ve also had ones who were more relaxed with a bit than bitless.

Some horses seem happiest in a curb or hackamore. Others go better in a snaffle, a Waterford, a side pull, or a bosal. There’s a setup for every horse somewhere.

I have ridden both bitted and bitless, depending on the horse. My Highland prefers a hackamore, but my Shire-TBX was happiest in a double-jointed snaffle.

Whether bitted or bitless, individual horses prefer some types of pressure over others. You might need to experiment, trying a range of bits, sidepulls, or hackamores.

By being attentive to your horse’s body language and facial expressions, you can find the bit/bridle combination that he finds the most comfortable.

However, all horses prefer kind, light hands, so the very best thing riders can do to avoid cruelty to horses is to improve their riding.

It’s just as important to train our horses well so they know how to respond to the lightest rein aids.

Perhaps the kindest bridle out there is none at all. Trainer Stacy Westfall has shown what’s possible bridleless in multiple reining championships over the years.

Unfortunately, most of us are not Stacy Westfall and need some apparatus on the horse’s head to aid communication.

Whatever that is, think of it as a communication device that lets you whisper to your horse rather than a way to shout and strong-arm them into obedience.

horse with bits but are horse bits cruel

So, what about your horse? Does he hate bits? Let us know in the comments section!

Resources

  • 1. Taylor WTT, Cao J, Fan W, Ma X, Hou Y, Wang J, et al. Understanding early horse transport in eastern Eurasia through analysis of equine dentition. Antiquity. 2021;95:1478–94.
  • 2. The Horse Bit and Bridle Kicked Off Ancient Empires: A New Giant Dataset Tracks the Societal Factors that Drove Military Technology [Internet]. UConn Today. 2021 [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from: https://today.uconn.edu/2021/10/the-horse-bit-and-bridle-kicked-off-ancient-empires-a-new-giant-dataset-tracks-the-societal-factors-that-drove-military-technology-2/
  • 3. Turchin P. A theory for formation of large empires. Journal of Global History. 2009;4:191–217.
  • 4. The Benefit of Using Bits | The Hyoid Connection [Internet]. Maria Cooke. 2019. Available from: https://mariacooke.com/the-benefit-of-using-bits-the-hyoid-connection/
  • 5. Rohlf K. To Bit Or Not To Bit [Internet]. blog.dressagenaturally.net. Available from: https://blog.dressagenaturally.net/69-to-bit-or-not-to-bit
  • 6. Cook R. Bit-induced asphyxia in the horse [Internet]. Research Gate. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science; 2002 [cited 2022 Nov 10]. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248868771_Bit-induced_asphyxia_in_the_horse
  • 7. Mellor D, Beausoleil N. Equine Welfare during Exercise: An Evaluation of Breathing, Breathlessness and Bridles. Animals. 2017;7:41.
  • 8. Fretheim‐Kelly Z, Fjordbakk CT, Fintl C, Krontveit R, Strand E. A bitless bridle does not limit or prevent dynamic laryngeal collapse. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2020;
  • 9. Mellor DJ. Mouth Pain in Horses: Physiological Foundations, Behavioural Indices, Welfare Implications, and a Suggested Solution. Animals. 2020;10:572.
  • 10. Cook WR. Damage by the bit to the equine interdental space and second lower premolar. Equine Veterinary Education. 2011;23:355–60.
  • 11. Robinson N, Bye TL. Noseband and poll pressures underneath bitted and bitless bridles and the effects on equine locomotion. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2021;
  • 12. Dyson S. The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram. Equine Veterinary Education. 2021;
Emily Donoho
Emily Donoho

Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.

Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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