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To Bit Or Not To Bit, That Is The Question...

Way back in March, the World Bitless Association made a formal request to the FEI to allow bit-free bridles to be used in international competitions, particularly dressage. The FEI is yet to respond. As bits appear to date back to ancient Kazakhstan, circa 3000BC, it could be argued that they’ve done well enough until now, so why bother changing things. In order to find out, MumsHaynet spoke to Dorothy Heffernan from the World Bitless Association.

World Bitless Association endorsed trainer, Dorothy Heffernan with her horse

WBA endorsed trainer, Dorothy Heffernan (Photo courtesy: EleanorDunlopPhotography)

Two years ago, the FEI banned the clipping of vibrissae around the eyes and noses of competition horses, on welfare grounds. The World Bitless Association says there’s an even stronger welfare argument surrounding the use of bits, yet the pushback has been far greater than the whiskers debate, and Dorothy Heffernan believes a large part of that could be history. 

“This is how it has always been done,” she says. “The whole language around how certain forms of riding happen are addressed in a way that makes it sound as if the bit is central to them, and it's difficult to back off from that. Even the whole concept of ‘on the bit’ – and there are different shades and nuances to this, depending on the translation – has become enshrined as being central to certain types of riding, and that certain type and approach of riding has become central to competition riding.

“When the FEI equine ethics and wellbeing committee recommended that double bridles should not be compulsory in dressage, it didn’t sound like an earth-shattering statement – they didn’t say don’t use a double bridle – yet the pushback from individual organisations within dressage riding and training revolved around the argument that any such rule change implied they were causing harm to their horses.

"It’s the same reaction to the bitless debate; it’s a rule protected by the group who have put their whole life and career into riding and training in a certain way, and they don't want to change because it puts them at a significant disadvantage. So, I think you have history and you have the status quo, that are both holding things in position quite strongly at the moment.”


While history and status quo are cited as possible reasons for opposition to change, Dorothy believes this resistance is tinged with a more personal motive in high-level dressage where bit pressure has become almost an integral part of how the sport goes about its business.

“Professor Andrew McLean once said that one of the foundations of how dressage is assessed is to do with self-carriage.  What I think you’ll find in a lot of high-level dressage is that it’s very difficult to assess self-carriage because of the way the horses are ridden and trained,” says Dorothy.

“A lot of training teaches the horse that they cannot change or relax when the rein is released because when they do there's immediate consequences. I won’t get into the Rollkur debate, but there are ways of training that show a horse that if they change what they're doing, something they dislike or fear will happen. Horses trained this way will continue to hold and work in detrimental postures, even when the rider releases pressure on the rein.”

“The technique known as Überstreichen or testing for self-carriage could be adopted throughout dressage tests at all levels. In this technique, the rider surrenders the reins forward toward the horse's head for 2 strides to demonstrate that the horse's speed, direction, and outline are not held by the rider but are, instead, trained responses.
"To detect whether Überstreichen has been contrived by excessive force, a further measure could be included in all dressage tests in which the rider surrenders the reins for more than 2 strides. The carefully and kindly trained horse may stretch his neck forward during this period as if he is, as dressage exponents claim, ‘seeking the contact.’ This stretching forward is unlikely to occur if the horse is fearful of the bit.”

– Andrew McLean and Paul McGreevy, ‘Horse-training techniques that may defy the principles of learning theory and compromise welfare.’ Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2010. To read the full article click here.


While there is a lot of talk about ‘feel’ in the equestrian world, as well as perceived expertise garnered from miles in the saddle, it remains largely anecdotal evidence in support of certain ways of training. In contrast, the WBA pin their own claims and concerns on academic evidence. 

Perhaps the most delicate and contentious issue highlighted by groups like the World Bitless Association is that bits cause pain to horses. Again, it’s a claim backed up by academic research. 

“In dressage, one of the evasions that tends to be marked down is the horse opening its mouth. So, you get into a situation where, in order to achieve a specific movement using the training style that a person has been taught, they will increase bit pressure on the horse’s tongue and bars and, in order to relieve that, the horse opens their mouth. So, what do you do?

“You tighten the noseband, but by tightening the noseband, you increase the pressure of the bit on the tongue and bars, so now the horse has to find other ways of relieving the bit pressure other than opening their mouth.  That's when you see lots of conflict behaviours like nose tossing, head shaking, head tilting, tail swishing.”

“The evidence-based analysis conducted here shows unequivocally that bit-induced mouth pain is likely to be a significant cause of welfare compromise in the majority of conventionally bridled horses. Moreover, the greater the rein tension, whether abruptly applied, short-lived, sustained, or cyclical, the greater will be the following factors: the noxiousness of the immediate pain experience; the likelihood of tissue trauma and the associated continuing pain; the intensity of any pain elicited by later bit contact with the tissues injured previously; and the time required for those lesioned tissues to heal.
"Yet, there are even wider welfare consequences than the direct impacts of the pain experience itself. They relate to specific behaviours elicited by the bit-induced pain and involve the following factors: the horse’s open mouth; its tongue relocated over the bit or retracted behind it; and when initiated by the rider or driver, the presence of low jowl angles maintained by firm application of rein tension. In animal welfare terms, they all lead to compromised breathing and unpleasant, sometimes exceptionally unpleasant sensations of breathlessness, experienced by people as suffocation.”

– David Mellor, Mouth Pain in Horses: Physiological Foundations, Behavioural Indices, Welfare Implications, and a Suggested Solution

Dressage riding without a bit

Bitless dressage (Photo Courtesy: WBA)

For Dorothy, education is key in avoiding the spiral that comes from a lack of understanding about how the effect of bit pressure works in terms of achieving desired behaviour.

“We need to go back to the beginning and explain to people how horses learn. If you keep up constant pressure, what you’re going to get are negative emotions and conflict. People are not taught about that. It’s also a cognitive dissonance issue in that people don’t want to hear their horse is exhibiting signs of psychological conflict because in hearing it, they have to acknowledge that the horse that they want to use to display their attuned relationship with is actually not enjoying the process. That’s rather an uncomfortable realisation.

“If you look into higher level dressage, horses display even more psychological conflict because not only are they not enjoying it, but the rider is not winning.  If they’re not winning, they’re visibly increasing the pressure on the horse, and end up being judged by the public who are saying we don't like looking at this because the horse doesn't look happy. The reply is invariably, ‘of course, the horse is happy,’ but more and more evidence is available to show that the signs and behaviours that are obvious – even to non-equestrians - in these horses show they are not experiencing a positive emotional state.

“The fundamental issue is that when you’re using a bit, you are putting something in a horse's mouth and it's something which can cause discomfort. Bits don't work in any other way. There's no way of saying, ‘I put a bit in my horse’s mouth because my horse really enjoys what I do with it.’

“The function of a bit is based around negative reinforcement, which means that by doing something that the horse finds uncomfortable, irritating or just dislikes, you have a tool you can use to reinforce behaviour. You activate the bit in the horse’s mouth in a way the horse dislikes enough to want the sensation to stop, then once the horse changes their behaviour in the way you want, you can stop the bit action and the removal of the unpleasant sensation reinforces the horse’s behaviour. Behaviour that is reinforced is more likely to occur again.  Most of riding and training is based on this principle.

“People think there's something magical about a bit and bit pressure, but you can teach exactly the same responses using different approaches. You can teach a horse to stop by applying similar pressure on the nose using a broad flat noseband, for example – and releasing the pressure when the horse stops. And you can teach it using a positive reinforcement approach, where you teach the horse to stop using a verbal cue you’ve taught before you even get in the saddle. There’s a whole range of different ways to teach the horse the same response, but people aren't normally told about this. They have learned that there's some safety aspect to a bit; something magically different about bit pressure from any other pressure. However, there's absolutely no evidence of that.”


For bitless proponents such as Dorothy, the preferred way to train horses follows LIMA principles – Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive. It’s a way of training that acts in the horse's best interest by maximising choice and control and minimising unpleasant experiences, while ensuring welfare and safety.

“If you can find a way to train any behaviour using a lower intrusive and lower aversive approach you should always choose that in terms of welfare. So, if there’s a way of training the same behaviours using a bitless bridle and it is less intrusive for the horse in comparison to a bit in the oral cavity, then you should choose that approach. When I work with clients on ridden problems, I would always want to see if we can achieve the same outcome using a less intrusive approach from the horse's point of view.

“A skilled rider will do nothing more than make a horse mildly uncomfortable or irritated with the bit. So the horse won’t open their mouth, won’t shake their head, won’t resist in those ways. However, most people aren't skilled riders. They're people who are learning from scratch, rapidly improving and wanting to do their best by their horse. What they’re not taught is how to minimise the horse’s negative reactions to the action of the bit. Evasions and resistance are usually addressed by increasing discomfort, rather than finding a less aversive way of changing behaviour.

“So, again, one way to increase equine welfare would be to allow people like that to start with bitless bridles. My feeling is that if you do that, you'll get lots of people who want to continue using bitless bridles because they realise that you can train exactly the same behaviours, and you see less of the conflict behaviours people don’t want to see: bitless horses don’t gape their mouth open, for example.”

learning to ride a horse without a bit

Bitless riding (Photo courtesy: Dorothy Heffernan)

One of the most common arguments that accompanies any debate about bitless bridles is the damage they can cause to the horse’s nose. For Dorothy, it’s an apocryphal tale that needs to be challenged.

“I’ve heard people say: ‘you can break a horse’s nasal bone using a bitless bridle’, but you know, there is a large and increasing volume of evidence looking at the damage that bits cause in the horse’s oral cavity – damage to the tongue, damage to the bars of the mouth, damage where the teeth have been pressed against cheeks by nosebands holding bits in place – yet I have searched both the behavioural and veterinary literature for reports of horses whose noses have been severely damaged using bitless bridles and I have not found any reports.

“While it may happen, and people may have evidence of it happening, it’s very clearly not widespread. I appreciate that there are fewer people using bitless bridles than there are using bridles with bits so there will always be fewer cases, but there should at least be some cases reported in the veterinary literature, and I have found none.

“If you look at the literature covering the behaviour of ridden horses, and especially the literature looking at behaviours denoting pain or discomfort in ridden horses, there’s a whole range of them that you will see in horses ridden in bits that you will not see in horses ridden with bitless bridles. Bob Cook looked at that.”

Sixty-six horses switched from being ridden with a bit to a bitless bridle showed dramatic reductions in 69 behaviors linked to bit-related pain. Researchers Bob Cook and Matthew Kibler, in a study published in the journal Equine Veterinary Education, reported that the total number of pain signals for all the horses when bitted was 1575. When bit-free, just 208 were recorded – an 87% reduction. In total, 65 of the 66 horses benefited from removal of the bit.
The 87% reduction in pain signals with the removal of the bit showed that the bit was the main cause of pain among the horses, they said. The pair said that when the horses were graded on the Five Domains welfare model, it was judged that, when bitted, the population showed “marked to severe welfare compromise and no enhancement”.

– excerpt from, click here for the full article or to read the study, click here.

Dorothy volunteers as one of the WBA’s endorsed trainers however her professional background lies in psychology and she works in the field of equine behaviour. As such, Dorothy firmly believes in the power of positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement to achieve the best results for both rider and horse.

“For the last 18 years or so, I've been building a practice where I work with people whose horses have behaviour issues.  In many cases, ridden behaviour issues are linked to people’s lack of understanding about how horses learn. I'm focussed on trying to explain to riders exactly why their horses show resistances to their aids, and evasions. Getting them to understand that it’s a sign the horse is not feeling good about the process, is not understanding how to stop the pressure in their mouths. Teaching people how horses actually learn, and how to ride in a way that is based on those principles can make a huge difference in the horse’s willingness to participate in ridden work. Horses who understand the clear and non-conflicting signals from their rider are happier – and safer – horses”.


The World Bitless Association (WBA) is a UK-based charity with global partners and is registered and regulated by the UK Governments Charity Commission. It aims to help improve global horse welfare by affiliating trainers that promote and deliver horse-centred training, that is evidence based, embedded in learning theory and LIMA (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive) principles. To find out more, click here.



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