I often wonder why so many people, of the horse riding variety, seem to be under the false illusion that they can control a horse…..at all. By what logic do we think that a mere human can control and contain a 450kg, 60kph, reactionary, emotion driven, flight response prey animal? Worse still, control them by strapping something to their heads and then pulling on it! If you stop to think about it logically, how could a tiny little human, not even a quarter of the size and strength of a horse, ever hope to get control of it, if it decided to be ‘elsewhere’? When you think about a horse’s power and speed coming from it’s hindquarter, and it’s emotional triggers coming from it’s instincts, what good is a bit of leather on a horse’s head and a piece of metal in it’s mouth going to do? About the only thing it can do, when a horse really wants to flee, is cause incredible amounts of pain. And if common sense then prevailed, no one would want to be sitting on the back of such a big, strong animal if it was scared AND in pain….so where is the sense in that?
Why would you want to control your horses? As a horse lover, I don’t recall ever thinking, or hearing any of my horse-loving friends saying, “Gosh, I can’t wait to get out there and control my horse today! What fun.”
In the more than 20 years that I’ve been teaching horsemanship, by far and away, the most commonly shared goal or dream with horses, is people wanting a better connection with their horse. Between this desire and wanting to be safe and confident, there is never a mention of more control. And yet that is what many people resort to when the connection just is not there. We dream of this incredible partnership, but are reduced to accepting what we believe is control, because that is the extent of our understanding of horses. After thousands of years of interacting with horses on a daily basis, it’s a pretty sad state I feel.
Being successful as a rider and surviving the ride isn’t about control. It isn’t even about the horse’s head. Why, for so many centuries have we continued to get it so wrong?
I ride in a bridle. Quite often. But I never use it for control, nor am I under the impression that it will give me any control. That is not what a bridle is for. I can also ride all of my horses, in varying degrees, without a bridle either bitted or un-bitted. Many of my friends and all of my students ride without a bit and bridle as do many thousands of people around the world, on all types of horses. I even ride my thoroughbred ex-racehorses without a bridle, or anything on their heads at all!
We all do this because we know that success with horses is not about control. In fact, horses (being prey animals) react very badly to any form of control and the more control you try to force onto them, the worse their response tends to be. Control, to a horse, equals lack of freedom of movement…which is a horse’s primary survival technique. I doubt that any human ever really achieves control. At best I would say they achieve containment. And again, containment of such a big, strong animal is the last thing you want, especially in the event they become scared or feel trapped. We’ve all heard a long-standing horse owner say things like, “He’s never done anything like this before, then one day he just…….(bolted, kicked, bucked etc)”. And they say it with some surprise! There should be no surprise. You can’t control a horse anymore than you can control the weather. You may be able to contain it for a time, or even direct it, again for a time. But sooner or later you’ll repeat those words, “All of a sudden he just…….”
Maybe you’re one of those people lucky enough to have a quiet horse who doesn’t need controlling? If so, that is wonderful. As long as your horse isn’t one of those who have simply surrendered their soul. One who realises that the fight is already lost, who has truly been ‘broken’ and who exists as a kind of shadow of the horse it was born to be. Believe me, there are countless of these and it is heart-breaking. The ‘Good Boys’ who just exist within the shell of themselves, having discovered how to keep their humans happy and off their case.
In this instance, you don’t need anything on your horse’s head anyway. Wonderful! Until the day he wakes up again.
But this is not an article about riding in a bit or with no bit. Whether you do or whether you don’t, is up to you and what you do with your horse. There are some who say that their horse is so strong, so impulsive and so hard-headed that they need a bridle and every kind of torture device known to man, to stay safe. To maintain control. I’m sorry, but that just speaks volumes about their lack of horsemanship knowledge. Or their lack of knowledge about horses even.
The point is, that it is not about bits or no bits – there are plenty of bitless bridles that are no better than bitted ones and that are still controlling, pain inducing devices. This is about the whole idea of controlling the horse by entrapping it’s head. Communication, safety and connection are about pretty much everything but the actual head, unless you refer to what is inside it! If you think riding horses somehow revolves around leveraging the head you’re way off track. Plenty of horses with the worst kind of bits, tie-downs, gags and so on, have still managed to run off with, buck off or lay down on, their riders. Inflicting more pain and more control on the horse, does not work and makes even less sense.
Have you ever stopped to consider why it is, that so many people nowadays can ride their horses, even their hot blooded Thoroughbreds and Arabs, with no bridle and nothing on their horse’s heads? And if so, why the rest of the horse owning world is so resistant to change, even to point of ignorance and stupidity? Horses are safe, simple creatures. If you take the time to truly listen to them and understand them, to build a relationship of trust and connection with them and teach them to think and to be confident in your leadership, you’ll find out what true horsemanship really is.
You can resist it all you want, if you persist in thinking that rider control and safety comes from containing a horse’s head. But each day, more and more people are discovering true communication with horses and are realizing what a dinosaur this makes you. Like the dinosaurs, this kind of thinking will also become extinct.
Time to change.