Jumping in the fray: Bits and Dressage, a story of development and principle

There seems to be a pretty fun kerfuffle circulating in the horse world right now, and I can't help but leap right out here and disagree with just about every damn person who's written something. What's the fuss about?

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. 
Response to Aimee's point aside, I believe bits are integral to dressage, and I think I have some good points. First, a couple of counter points to the common "but bitless bridles!" discussion to launch me into my main pro-bit argument:
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?
Contrary to popular belief, the start of dressage was not to train military horses and riders. Nope. It was developed as a way for blue-blooded noblemen to prove and show off their superiority. Did this bleed over into the military? Uh, yes. As noblemen were in charge of the military, bleed over of training techniques was a natural progression. However, military practices changed pretty drastically from the 1500s to the 1700s. As did other things. Like sanitation practices and men's fashion (anyone for a pair of men's high heels?). The ties between the development of dressage and the changes in military riding style are a bit tenuous until much later in history, after dressage was well established.

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.)
Sons of the wealthy were sent to schools to learn from masters (such as Grisone, Pignatelli, de Pluvinel (you've heard of him. Right?), and La Guérinière) the skills of fine horse training, later horsemanship. By the 1600s, a nobleman's ability to train and ride a horse effectively was seen as an indication of excellent leadership skills. Yeah, that's right!  Dressage made you cool and desirable. It also, apparently, made you good at your job. If your job was leading men into war and governing nation states.
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.)
The popular correlation between a talented rider taking a highly strung animal (often one unsuited to warfare due to its hot temperament) and managing to convince it to dance around like a fool without force, and the qualities desired in a man capable of making good decisions when people's lives are at stake isn't so far fetched. After all, how many of us have said something along the lines of "my horse has taught me patience," or "my horse teaches me to think rationally," or simply "my horse requires that I think, not react". I know my horse has made me a better and more conscientious leader. People during the 1600s definitely agreed, and they would know as most of them had dealt with a hardheaded horse or two.

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.
François Robichon de La Guérinière demonstrating the slack curb rein and ultimate self carriage in a piaffe, though I am reasonably certain La Guérinière is actually the dude on the ground at whom the horse is rolling it's eyes. It's most likely a nobleman under Guérinière's instruction in the saddle.
François Robichon de La Guérinière is credited as the inventor of 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.
The idea of using a severe tool to such a degree of fine and light communication appealed to the point of dressage: to convey a superior skill in critical thinking and leadership. At the same time, riders using these tools in this way could encourage their horses to relax, sit and arch their necks in a such a way as to develop the high degrees of collection and self carriage required to complete upper level dressage movements. Their judicious application of the bit in junction with the aids of their bodies shaped the collection and lightness that is the goal of dressage training even today.
Some modern horse in a double bridle. Three guesses which one.
Photo by Redline Photography
In the years after Guérinière, François Baucher came onto the dressage scene. He was a controversial trainer and instructor, but for reasons perhaps more political than you might realize. Credited often for inventing both early rollkur and the one tempi changes, he was disparaged for his lowly birth and his time spent training horses to spectacular feats for the circus instead of stroking the egos of the rich and famous. However, Baucher is the man who gave us the theory of "leg before hand." His time spend with exceptionally hot circus horses and thoroughbred types led him to believe balance and relaxation was the key to training. He based his personal training on the theory that a horse cannot relax with a tense jaw, poll, or neck.

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.
James Fillis, a student of Baucher's developed the "fillis hold", a way of separating the action of the curb and snaffle reins to an extreme degree. This illustration shows the use of the snaffle rein to create a flexion of the poll, as described often by Baucher.
Today, relaxation is touted often as the key to good dressage training. However, instruction of the feel of the horse on the bit is often distracted by talks of headset and talk of proper "poundage in the hand" needed for "good contact." That discussion flies in the face of development of the sport and the principle of less reliance on force and heavy handed communication on which the training was founded.

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.
What are your thoughts?


  1. 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.

    MY ARGUMENT EXACTLY. But you know, you put it into better words than I could. Bitless bridles use nose pressure to communicate which is not the same. While pulling the horse's head in would be rightly penalized if they were made legal, it still is getting away from the end goal of dressage. Everyone I know that laments not being able to use their hackamore/bitless bridle in dressage because their horse goes better in it, they can't get a horse reliably on the bit in a regular bridle. They lack the skills or training to do it. I know, because that was me with the first horse I rode in a dressage ring. I do think we could talk about exceptions for horses who have damaged mouths and are unable to wear a bit so they could participate.

    1. My hackamore mare had massive scarring on her tongue from a previous life. We should have experimented with bits that use zero tongue pressure, but being a complete noob at that point in my riding, it never occurred to me a different bit might help her.

    2. Damaged mouths and issues like your mare's bring up an interesting set of issues that I do think need to be considered. But also, maybe the place for that horse isn't competive dressage?

      Fun fact: Laura Graves horse Verdades shattered his jaw and had to have it surgically repaired. She rode him carefully in a bit during his recovery. Crazy!

    3. Yah I think this is really sad that we're throwing people out of our sport (and therefore reducing entries and support for the organizations that put on shows for us) because we think that you can't ride dressage properly without a bit. First, is this not real dressage? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5XUq56P_I0&app=desktop and second, why not let the judge decide if the horse isn't truly on the bit? If riding bitless really cannot produce a good dressage horse, great, now you get first out of seven people rather than first out of two.

    4. So, I do think that's a great video. I wonder, though, when we start legalizing demonstration riding for competition purposes if we lose something. Plus, Uta herself has stated she does not train her horses without a bit. She uses it as a demonstration of their training.

      See a quote here: "The bitless bridle is not a regular part of my training. We tried it out more than a year ago on Le Noir because we wanted to demonstrate to the public that it’s possible to ride Grand Prix without a double bridle if a horse is correctly trained and carrying himself. I didn’t train any of my horses through the levels with it. Our dressage horses should be light in the bridle and carrying themselves, and you can easily prove whether this is the case when riding in the bitless bridles. We did demonstrations on this at Equitana, German FN seminars, and at the Bundeschampionate in Warendorf."

  2. I bow to your nerdery but maintain that snitty paint drawings also make an excellent point.

  3. GURRRL you are a WIZARD at history lessons!!!! You should be a professor! And like SB, I bow down to your dressage nerdery. Loved this post and 100% agree!

  4. Wow, I learned a lot! Very interesting post.

    1. The history of the sport is ultra fascinating! Being a history person myself, I always feel like knowing the background of something helps me better understand the changes approaching in the future.

  5. "Lightness and effective communication are the ultimate goals and proof of dressage training" Preach it!

  6. I started yesterday firmly in the camp of "why not bitless?" And had a somewhat negative reaction to Aimee's post. But after talking with you about it and reading this, I'm feeling enlightened and educated about WHY bits are important to dressage. My viewpoint has changed! Thanks for teaching me and being such a vault of weirdly detailed dressage history.

  7. Thank you for taking the time to share all of this. Very interesting!

    That said I don't think that just because something is different always means it's bad or wrong... and I also want to say that some people seem to have missed that a side pull is not the same as a hackamore with shanks. I too disagree with the idea of someone being able to use that leverage.

    1. Oh I agree that a sidepull IS very different. There are lots of different ways to do bitless (neck rope anyone?). I'm not saying there isn't value in bitless training at all! I just think that the communication between horse and rider using a bit held in the mouth gives the feedback looked for to create a dressage horse. Another aspect is that dressage, as we all know, means training. Part of that training is the quiet acceptance of the bit and development of communicative understanding.

    2. That argument could be then applied to all aids in dressage then since the horse must accept all aids, a fundamental aspect of dressage. So a para dressage rider who rides with one leg isn't doing real dressage?

      Needless to say, I'm pro bitless for dressage. I don't see how it harms anyone not wanting to ride bitless. I see the argument in the same way that I saw the gay marriage argument- don't like bitless dressage? Don't do it. People beating you in shows without using a bit? Ride better.

    3. Definitely ride better. Always ride better. I think that's something we all can and should strive to do. I don't think riding bitless hurts anyone, and I don't think I implied that at all. I just don't think it's for competition. I also think you shouldn't just ride bitless because. Just like you shouldn't put your horse in a double "just because" or ride in a fat snaffle "just because". You should make conscientious choices about your training, know why you make those decisions, and how it changes your training.

      Another example would be: can I do a 3rd level test without a saddle? Yep. I can. Cause the horse is trained to do it. Sometimes. Do I think I should be allowed to show without it? No. I do not. Why? Because riding in a saddle is different than riding without. The rider's balance points are different, and the communication with the horse via the seat and legs is different. Plus, for a level playing field, everyone is in a saddle. Doesn't mean I don't think bareback dressage is cool. I do. I practice it. I wouldn't show that way, though. (Even though it means having to practice in a saddle more and more often because I'm out of practice riding in one!)

      My questions when it comes to allowing bitless dressage in competition relate to keeping the playing field fair and the judging effective and the standards consistent. Those are special considerations when you approach competition. When judging a ride without a bit, how do you determine the submission and connection? What's the effect on the training if you allow riding without a bit earlier in the horse and rider's career? Does it lower the overall training? How much is being able to get a horse on the bit and establish connection integral to developing a pair for competitive dressage? You jump into difficult territory when you start adjusting standards. There's a lot more to organized competitive dressage than just "let them show without a bit". It's pretty tied to the sport, and there's a lot to consider. That's my point.

      I don't think this debate really has a lot in common with gay marriage. In fact, I think it kinda cheapens the fight for gay marriage to even make that comparison.

    4. Well I don't know if we'll come to an agreement then because I'm staunchly for allowing riders to ride without stirrups and hey without tack too, sure- it's a disadvantage and a judge will likely slaughter you for it, but if you've got an injury or something going on that prevents you from showing, go for it. I'm all for allowing tack/bits/etc that are a disadvantage (and not harming the horse- not that there aren't people that harm their horses with a fat snaffle) if it allows more people the opportunity to show. This is supposed to be a fun hobby after all, and I like assuring that it's inclusive. But I don't really care about tradition and I know a lot of people do.

      I'm happy to change the gay marriage metaphor if it helps my argument, I don't care about a lot of things. How about: I feel similarly about pineapple on pizza- don't like them? Don't get them on your pizza, but don't prevent me from getting them on my pizza since it doesn't affect your pizza.

  8. I think everything you said is a great using to choose not to do bitless dressage, though I don't necessarily see any specific reason that tells me it shouldn't be allowed. I think as far as rules like this go, it should be more about whether there is any evidence that allowing bitless dressage will pose risk to the horses, and not necessarily about tradition. Do I think you can do correct dressage without a bit? It sure seems 10x harder at least, but other than the fact that it's a lot harder (and the normal risk for horses with any equipment in the wrong hands) I don't see why it should be illegal, at least at the lower levels. That being said, I think inevitably those in bitless bridles will have a harder time scoring well on certain aspects since, as you mentioned, nose pressure isn't the same as bit pressure and being "on the aids" simply isn't quite the same, but I think it's worth at least allowing people to compete. If nothing else, it will bring in more membership fees, help keep class sizes up a bit, and allow for more people to get into the sport and excited about it that otherwise might not be able to compete and aren't interested in other horse sports for whatever reasons.

    1. *A great reason to choose. I'm sure there are a myriad of other typos in there too...

    2. Really great points! I'd be interested in seeing some studies into what increased membership/showing revenue could be with this change, vs changes in judge/steward training and updates to all the back end association things would cost.

      If it would really bring in that much more revenue, I think there's a way to do it. For me, personally (something I honestly didn't touch much in this blog post, but might do another one hitting on) I think using a bit makes the playing field more level and the judging easier/more consistent. You aren't allowed to have the horse escape the aids in other ways in the sport (i.e. no elastic inserts in the reins, or draw reins/side reins/martingales allowed). The horse's comfort is taken into consideration with the wide variety of bit sizes and shapes allowed, the amount of padding allowed in the curbs/crownpieces/nosebands, and the use of ergonomic bridles. But all tack changes are carefully evaluated for the way they change the horse's ability to relate to the bit in a straightforward manner. There's a lot of thought that would have to go into such a change, but I just don't think it makes the playing field very level. Honestly my personal opinion is that the FEI requiring doubles makes the playing field a bit more level at the upper levels. My personal opinion. I'd be fascinated to hear a judge's stance on the issue, though.

    3. Wait so are we arguing that using a side pull makes it harder or easier to get a horse to do dressage with? Since I've seen both sides argued. If we're talking about a level playing field then we should clarify that. I can't imagine how a side pull provides the ability to force a horse's head down more than a snaffle bit would. Same with allowing a snaffle at the FEI levels... Are we talking easier or harder because IME it's harder to get to those levels in a snaffle so allowing them doesn't create an unlevel playing field because you still have the option of the double.

      Like, if the side pull is a disadvantage, how does allowing it create an unlevel playing field? Draw reins and the sort would theoretically provide an advantage but IME a snaffle at the FEI levels or a side pull merely provides more access (though at a disadvantage) to those with horses who must go in them.

    4. Wow typing on my phone makes for incoherent comments. Basically my questions are: is a snaffle at the FEI levels and a bitless at the lower levels an advantage or disadvantage? If they're a disadvantage then how are you creating an unlevel playing field?

    5. I think advantage or disadvantage isn't the way to think of it. It's more that judging is based on determining "development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As
      a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider." This is determined through several categories, one of which is defined as "The acceptance of the bit, with submissiveness/throughness (Durchlässigkeit) without any tension or resistance." While the other signifiers are "freedom and regularity of the gaits" "harmony, lightness and ease of the movements", and " lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters", it is the tension-free submission to the bit that defines the training involved. The goal is to have all those aspects in place along with the tension-free submission to the bit. As in, the way dressage is judged, you must do the dressage with the horse accepting the bit. Otherwise, the horse is not displaying it's training to do these things along with acceptance of the bit. Acceptance of the bit along with everything else is the point.

      (All quotes pulled from the USDF Judges Checklist)

  9. Hmmm... I think if you read the various late 16th c sources (and some earlier ones as well), you'll find that the use of different bits and the evolution of warfare to something more akin to modern dressage was somewhat different than what you describe. For example, snaffle bits were commonly used up to and through the entire medieval and renaissance eras. Young horses were started in a metal or rope cavesson, much like Western horses today. When they were switched to a curb bit, the rider used "false" reins on the snaffle ring of the curb, and only gradually was the horse moved to the curb rein. You'll see lots of images portraying two reins on a single bit (even two reins on a snaffle!), even in warfare. And while there are certainly extant examples of very aggressive curb bits, there are even more examples of curbs with a simple snaffle mouthpiece. Plus, those crazy bits were thought to help fix certain faults, much like we would use draw reins today. As for the advent of dressage, it had rather a lot to do with the decrease in use of knights on horseback in battles (since the infantry figured out how to break a shock charge), the decrease in popularity or complete ban of spectator sports like jousting (killing a king while jousting is an altogether bad idea), and the increase in use of mercenary troops for light calvary... along with half a dozen other factors, like increased use of black powder. Anywho. Let me know if you want some fun reading material for all your spare time!

    1. Ooh! Great comment.

      Very, very true about the use of snaffles. I didn't want to get into too much detail in this blog post, mostly because bitting for war isn't something I wanted to touch on or know much about. I love the pieces I've learn about though, like multiple reins. So interesting! Especially because reins were often a target in battle (yay armored reins! The early armored car, maybe? Lol!). I do especially love how easily historians can demonstrate a link from jousting to "manage" riding following the injuries of prominent kings and noblemen in jousts and other mounted war games. That sort of thing is so uncommon in history, especially history so questionably documented as equestrian history! Grisone's writing alone is very interesting, as his training manual is written right as that change was starting to cross over. Really interesting (though, not necessarily very practical advice).

      My main point was that for a highborn person the practice of dressage developed in training the horse to go in the bit, in their case a curb. The point of the training was reliant on the bit. The same way a western rider might have an ultimate goal of training a horse to go well in a spade bit. For specifics, you wouldn't have seen Louis XIV performing on his horse in a snaffle, though maybe he trained in one at times. The point was to show you could train the horse to that high level and not have to haul on the bit to get the job done. Bit specifics aside, I think the development shows the training to have revolved around demonstrating proper training with a bit rather than without one.

  10. Loved reading the history behind it!

  11. I don't care enough to have an opinion.. I do need more coffee though


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