Ari Krause from Haven Horsemanship takes the time to discuss the proposed FEI ban on bitless bridles in the cross-country phase in eventing, what it means for our sport, and most importantly, our horses.
Bitless bridle options are already banned in many of the competitive equine disciplines. Now, the FEI is proposing a ban on bitless bridles in the cross-country phase of eventing to begin in 2020. This proposal is due to a single bitless bridle failure (an “old style” hackamore that “failed”/”fell apart” on approach to a jump) that occurred in Australia in 2018 where the rider was injured when she bailed after being unable to regain control of her horse. Equestrian Australia is the organization that originally presented the ban. Understandably, they are interested in risk mitigation after this incident and a couple of others in the last few years (that did NOT involve bitless bridles) and proposed stricter tack regulation to reduce risk. However, there is no research proving that bitted bridles are safer than bitless bridles. In fact, all research and anecdotal evidence points to training as being the best way to avoid accidents and injuries.
The World Bitless Association has been petitioning the FEI as well as the national governing bodies for equine competition around the world to halt this proposal. They have consulted with numerous equine welfare organizations, academic institutions and national governing bodies for equine sport and cannot find any evidence to uphold the ban. Many of these organizations have expressed alignment with the WBA that the proposal should be set aside.
Moving forward with this ban has significant implications. For equine welfare, forcing horses to wear a bitted bridle who are more comfortable in a bitless bridle compromises equine welfare and good horsemanship, creating a conflict between horse and rider. Further, some horses that are otherwise competitive may no longer be able to compete because they are ridden bitless for health reasons. For safety, a horse more comfortable in a bitless bridle that must wear a bitted bridle to compete increases risk of an accident due to the horse’s discomfort in a bit. Lastly, for the sustainability of the sport itself, banning bitless bridles will cause some current competitors that compete bitless to no longer compete because they cannot do so in the tack that is safest and most appropriate for their horse. The ban will also dissuade future competitors who wish to ride bitless because it is the most appropriate tack for their horse or must ride bitless for their horse’s comfort.
The WBA believes that, because there is no scientific evidence to support further tack regulation as a successful means of risk mitigation, that the FEI, national and local governing bodies for equestrian sport should instead be focusing on rider technique and horse training methods. For example, it is common to see a horse and rider clearly out of control or barely within control before the event begins or early on in the event. Instead of expecting tack to keep an accident from happening, excuse those who are clearly unprepared in their training for the event. Perhaps tack failure should be an immediate elimination in the case of bit, bridle or rein failure? Furthermore, highly suggest or even require that all participants have trained a means for halting their horse that does not require the bridle (for example, cuing with a neck strap that is attached to the saddle).
The WBA strongly believes that horses and riders should be able to compete in whatever tack is most appropriate for them, not just in cross country, but in all events within the limitations of scientific evidence. Allowing freedom of tack choice would increase equine welfare, improve training methods, and increase the viability of equine sports in the future by being more inclusive of an ever-diversifying population.
In the spirit of emphasizing the importance of training methods to improving equine welfare and reducing risk to both equine and human participants, Haven Horsemanship introduced “It’s not the tack, it’s the training” for World Bitless Horse day in September 2019. "It’s not the tack, it’s the training" is a reminder and commitment to:
Address any undesired behavior or problems whether on the ground or in the saddle with TRAINING, not with changing tack, and DEFINITELY NOT by increasing the aversive quality of the tack.
Honor our horse’s tack preferences. Which means being open to experimenting with various equipment to see what is least invasive and minimally aversive to them (LIMA).
Honor other people’s/their horse's tack preferences. This one goes much further. In line with the WBA (World Bitless Association), it is to encourage others to experiment with different tack options to find what their horse most prefers and encourage your local, national and international governing bodies to allow freedom of tack choice in competition.
Without this freedom of choice, everyone’s motivation and ability to discover their horse’s preferences will be stifled. What’s the point of finding what your horse likes if they may choose something that isn’t “allowed” in your chosen discipline? IF scientific evidence comes to light that justifies any rule against certain tack in a discipline, that is one thing, but, currently, to my knowledge, there is no scientific evidence that supports the current regulations on tack in the competitive disciplines.
“It's not the tack, it’s the training.” t-shirts and hoodies are available through Haven Horsemanship. Get yours here. Fifty percent of proceeds are donated to the World Bitless Association, a registered charity in the UK, to support their efforts in petitioning for freedom of tack choice for horses and riders in competition and raising awareness around more humane and effective equine management and training methods.
You can read full details on the FEI’s proposed ban and the WBA’s campaign to have it set aside here.
“By giving up the use of a bit, you don’t sacrifice any control – but you DO make it less likely that the horse will bolt, buck or bite because of mouth pain.
One of the great myths of horseback riding is that the bit stops the horse.
A bit can hurt a horse, frighten a horse, cut through the horse’s tongue, or otherwise damage the horse.
A bit can be used to signal a horse, crudely and harshly or gently and lightly, depending on the skill of the rider.
But no bit ever stopped a horse. All the bit can do is to help you tell the horse that you would like it to stop. – and you can say that just as clearly WITHOUT a bit.” – Jessica Jahiel
Haven Horsemanship promotes natural horse care, holistic horsemanship and positive reinforcement training. They specialize in honoring what horses need to lead a happy and healthy life as well as what humans need to connect with horses and other people in a mutual, harmonious and respectful way. To do this, they educate about equine behavior and psychology, demonstrate how this is applied to keeping and handling horses, and discuss the thought and behavior preferences of horses and humans.