by Linda Chamberlain
This is allowed…
And yet…this is not…
You might think you’ve misread that or jumbled up the photos but no…bitless bridles are effectively banned in dressage competitions around the world. There is no rule against them as such but judges award points to horses that are ‘submissive’ to the bit and so if you ride without one, you can’t join in. And it doesn’t matter how good your horse is; or how well you ride.
Pressure is mounting across the globe for a re-examination of the rules – there’s already been a relaxation in Holland in lower levels of competition. But you won’t find many more traditional places than the equestrian world which is hostile to change.
A top-level meeting was held last month in the UK following pressure from a group of riders – a David-against-Goliath situation if ever there was one. The group are members of a British Horse Society training club in Norfolk. They have support from their MP, Norman Lamb, who is a former government minister; they ride their horses bitless and it’s a testament to their persistence that the talks took place at all. Round the table were key people from the sport – British Dressage, the British Equestrian Federation, the British Horse Society and World Horse Welfare. The horse world is eagerly waiting to hear what will come from those talks and whether the UK will provide a catalyst for change. A press release has yet to be issued.
Dressage, which is proudly sponsored by numerous feed manufacturers, is all about the horse displaying a high level of training. The horse must be ‘on the bit’ – a rough translation 100 years ago from the French ‘dans le main’. Even from my rusty grasp of the Gallic language I know there’s a possible error here because the literal translation means in the hand.
Carl Hester the Olympic dressage rider, is quoted on social media as saying he has no problem competing against those who ride bitless.
But a change would need to come internationally for the system to work because national competitions feed into international ones. If a bitless horse became a British champion he wouldn’t be able to represent his country on the world dressage stage. I can see that’s a problem but the issue isn’t going away. More and more riders are turning to bitless bridles and finding they can achieve high levels of equitation. Not surprisingly they are frustrated at the exclusion – even at amateur events and local competitions.
There are welfare concerns about using a bit to control a horse but the UK campaign group – A Bit More Choice – is calling for riders to be able to choose what bridle they use; they don’t seek a ban on the bit which is said to be a development of the Bronze Age. I’ll give you a link to the group’s Facebook page at the end of this blog.
But let’s look at those welfare worries and see whether they are convincing. Anyone with blood in their veins can look at the two photos above and see that one horse is ridden in a strong bit and is foaming at the mouth. He’s performing to a very high level and the rider has him held between the leg and the hands as the sport requires. Is there pain involved? Your guess is as good as mine.
My other rider (photographed by Sallist Lindqvist) is bitless. There is no foaming, the rider has no spurs but the horse is performing at a high level and it’s a beautiful sight. All appears relaxed and pain free.
Scientific evidence is available from the renowned vet Dr Robert Cook who has developed a cross-under bitless bridle. He’s from the US but graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in the 1950s. He compared skulls of the domestic, ridden horse with those of its wild cousins. The majority of domestic horses showed evidence of bit-induced damage – bone spurs in the jaw. Cook says on his website that the horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of its anatomy. The application of pressure from a steel rod inserted in this cavity inflicts unnecessary pain and can frighten a horse, he says.
Bracy Clark, who is the subject of my novel The First Vet, was vehemently against the use of strong bits 200 years ago. He was also concerned about metal horse shoes – but that’s another subject. Clark wrote that a ‘horse that is free of pain will lead from the thinnest piece of cord’.
In the 21st century, should we be using such bits for our sport…or our pleasure…when there is an alternative?
I asked members of my favourite Barefoot Horse Owner’s Group on Facebook to send me some photos of them working barefoot and bitless to illustrate this blog. I’m going to let them all inspire you; I couldn’t leave any out.
The recent talks might offer hope of progress. The rider’s group is hoping to meet MP Norman Lamb again soon and at least a dialogue with the dressage authorities has been opened. If you are a member of British Dressage or the British Horse Society, now is the time to make your views known on bridle equality.
Dressage is a beautiful art. It’s wonderful to watch but if it wants to win the hearts and minds of today’s forward-thinking horse lovers it might need to leave the Bronze-Age equipment to the history books.
You can find A Bit More Choice on Facebook.
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BOOK NEWS – just published – A Barefoot Journey, my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. The First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book, which has more than 30 five-star reviews and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society, sold out at the prestigious international show at Hickstead! Still available on Amazon though…
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