A petition to British Dressage to allow bitless bridles in dressage. (This story was picked up by Eventing Nation. It is also not the first time such a petition has been discussed or proposed as this 2015 article in Dressage Today reminds.)
I had been blissfully ignoring the whole damn issue until I read this post on Aimee of SprinklerBandits blog. Go read it real quick. Don't worry, I'll wait... after all, I apparently have a lot of words to compose on this topic.
Done? Good. Now... In response to Aimee: She states that the reasons to use a bit in competitive dressage are for communication, balancing the horse, and control. I agree that bits are integral to communication in dressage, however I disagree completely that their requirement is also about holding the horse's balance or having control over the horse. In fact, I disagree with that on a pretty fundamental level.
Mainly my disagreement with the need for a bit to establish control is based in the fact that the point of the development of dressage training was to show that you could train the horse in such a way as to NOT have to exert control with the bit (as they needed to do in traditional warfare. No one in the middle ages would have suggested taking a horse into war without a huge ass spiked nasty leverage bit. Pretty sure I wouldn't have wanted to either. It was necessary.).
|One for each of my massive freight train war steeds, plz and thnx.|
1. Nose pressure is NOT bit pressure. The communication is 100% different. Can you train one to mean the same as the other? Maybe? But... that's kinda counter to the whole thing. To me this is death of the bitless bridle argument because...
2. Lightness and effective communication are the ultimate goals and proof of dressage training.
Let me explain #2 in more detail:
Back to that development of dressage thing...
|Yeah. This... remember this?|
Fun Fact! Dressage until the 16th century was mainly practiced in high walled indoor "schools" with windows up high so the horses wouldn't be distracted, and in parades and ceremonial displays by and for the wealthy and powerful. It was considered a type of riding separate from, but related to, that required in warfare.
|William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle's riding school at his Bolsover Palace, built in the early 1630s. (Fun Fact! This place is still around, and they do riding displays there! Someone go and tell me if it's cool.)|
|Diego Velázquez say "Toddler good at making horse do cool stuff. Toddler make good king someday."|
(Actual true story. This is legitimately Spanish propaganda of the 1600s. Don't make me pull out my footnotes. I WILL DO IT! This is not an idle threat.)
Now stay with me because I'm getting to how this development relates into the integral tie between dressage and bitting horses.
As dressage training was explored and developed, the masters discovered the key to this sort of training was lightness. You couldn't haul a horse on the bridle, intimidate it with spanks on the ass, and expect it to calmly and happily perform countless piaffes and levades in front of your adoring crowds. Instead, the horses had to be systematically trained to accept the barest of aids from the leg, seat, and bit.
Driving for ultimate lightness led the masters to begin to lessen the harsh bits of the time. Gradually removing the spikes, twists, high ports, and immense size and weight (horses often had to have teeth pulled to accommodate the massive curbs designed for ultimate control in warfare) from their leverage bits. They started to discover that when a horse is properly engaged and relaxed, you can feel that relaxation in the hand. The horse softens to the bit... goes "on the bit." The goal of training became to achieve this ultimate lightness in the hand. A voluntary submission of the horse to the bit, without pressure.
the double bridle, uniting the cart horse bit (the snaffle) with the bit of the highborn and educated (the curb). Why? Most likely Guérinière was intrigued by the amount of communication you could convey through the combination of bits. With the snaffle bit, a rider could give fine motor commands to the horse, dictating how to high to place its head and at what degree to carry its bend and flexion. With the curb, the rider could explain to the horse exactly how far out it should extend its neck, and keep the snaffle from restricting the motion of the nose inward. The eventual goal of all "high school" riders was to ride effectively on the curb alone, with a light feather touch on the curb and a slack snaffle rein.
|Baucher on Parisan in the Passage. Note the slack snaffle rein and light contact on the curb.|
|Some modern horse in a double bridle. Three guesses which one.|
Photo by Redline Photography
The bit was integral to Baucher when it came to releasing this tension. He instructed the on the use of "flexions" off the bit to teach a horse to release this tension and allow forward movement to flow through. Later in his life, he remanded some of these teachings, realizing overuse of the bit and flexions could back a horse off and restrict it's desire to move forward. Still, the feel of the bit in the hand indicated the relaxation of the jaw and poll of which Baucher never rescinded importance.
Personally, I think the feel of the bit in the hand on good contact is absolutely necessary to the sport. The communication conveyed through a truly light and relaxed mouth is sublime and effortless. The horse carries the bit(s) on its own, arching the head and neck to engage the abdominal muscles and drive the hind end under to allow more power generation. The contact in the hand is alive, vibrating with the energy between rider and horse. There is absolutely no pulling, maybe only a feather of weight in the hand. Sometimes even a slack in the rein.
Once the training of the horse and/or rider has reached a degree where each understands the concept of collection, the frame needed and the cues from the rider's body, the bit may be unnecessary. (Though a look at this video and the one prior makes me wonder just how much harder one must "shout" to be heard bitless, even on a trained horse.) But for competitive dressage, the goal should be a level playing field where all competitors work to display their mounts training toward the goal of lightness and obedience with as close to near imperceptible action of the aids as possible. I, for one, appreciate seeing a test where a rider has all the tools at hand, but needs only the lightest hand to achieve results.
|No dressage master here, but I can vouch the feeling on that bit was absolutely relaxed and sublime.|