Are Horse Bits Cruel (and Do they Hurt Horses?)

Horse owners are usually caught up in the dilemma of whether horse bits are cruel or do the benefits outweigh the cons.

The thing is, not all horses are the same and the same can be said for horse bits. The effects of the bit vary, depending on the usage. So, there isn’t one answer that fits all situations.

Some say horse bits are cruel, some say they aren’t. Let’s dig deep into the argument and find out the answers you’re looking for.

Anatomy of a Horse’s Mouth and the Application of Horse Bits

A horse bit or snaffle bit is specifically designed to have the most impact on the horse’s mouth to invoke an immediate response. This mechanism works so effectively only because the mouth is one of the most sensitive areas of the body.

The bit, no matter what sort of design, exerts pressure on the cranial nerves of the horse. A dental bit rests on the area of the horse’s mouth where there are no teeth. Yet, the first and second premolars still bear damage. Moreover, this type of bit causes the development of bone spurs.

A trigeminal action bit presses down on the horse’s palate. It mainly affects the mandibular and maximally nerves which directly inflict pain in the maxillary teeth, palate, nasal cavity, and the entire lower jaw. Some horses use their tongue to push the bit away but this only ends up hurting their tongue as well.

Some say that if the placement is right, the effect of the bit is very minimal. However, if this is not done, the smallest movement wields a pressure of 50 kg to 100 kg per square centimeter!

Issues with Using Horse Bits

Do bits hurt horses? More often than not, they do. But, if you are extremely careful with the placement, there is a possibility that the pain can be minimized. Horse experts who are adamant that bits are cruel have more arguments than just the pain aspect of it.

So, if you ask these people are bits and hackamores cruel to horses, they’ll answer with a clear yes for all the following reasons:

Impair Breathing

A bit in the mouth of a horse causes unusual stimulation and hence, leads to unusual behavior. The closed lips, stiff jaw, extra salivation, and, hence, extra swallowing are all signs of chewing. However, the immobile tongue and dry oral cavity signal the brain to think the horse is exercising which causes rapid breathing.

This confusion and unexpected stimulants affect the breathing of the horse adversely.

Interfere With Striding

A horse with a confused mind and impaired breathing is unable to perform even the most basic tasks like striding. On top of that, the pain further adds discomfort and so, the movement of the horse is hampered.

Hinder Performance

Ironically, bits, that are used to enhance a horse’s performance, can end up diminishing it. With so much going on in the mouth, the horse is unable to focus on what’s ahead. It fails to perform to the fullest due to the distracting discomfort and pain.

Drawbacks of Not Using a Horse Bit

You may wonder, if bits are cruel, why would horse owners use them?

Of course, there are advantages you get from using bits that you be able to avail otherwise.

Lack of Control

The one thing that a bit guarantees is control over the horse, especially if you use gentle options like these.. Since it exerts enough pressure with the slightest movement, it is very unlikely that the horse will ignore the command.

A bitless bridle is a big no for beginners. Even the experts need to be extra cautious because the communication between the rider and horse is not as accurate, especially when the horse you’re riding is new and you don’t have a solid bond.

Difficulty in Training

Training without a bit and bridle is a challenge. In fact, it is close to impossible for novice riders to train without a bit. Alternatives like the hackamore aren’t safe options either because even trained riders find it difficult to stop a horse with a hackamore.

This may make you wonder if horse riding is cruel. While that isn’t true, it also can’t be denied that to make the process of training easier, you have to bear some cons.

Choosing the Right Bit for Your Horse

Whether or not horse bits are cruel actually depends how cautious you are with them. If you keep the following factors in your mind while choosing a bit, you can minimize the disadvantages for the horse:

  • Type of sport: the activity of the horse and the level of control you need
  • Your experience as a rider: novice riders cannot risk it but advance riders can use alternative options such as a bitless bridle or hackamore
  • Training of the horse: a well-trained horse can take command even if it’s a gentle movement
  • Horse’s mouth: the structure of each horse’s mouth is different and so, what might suit one horse may exert excruciating pain on another

Types of Bits

There are quite a lot of options available for bits depending on the various functions each one offers. You can compare each of them in a horse bit severity chart to choose the gentlest one for your horse.

The first type is a snaffle bit. It applies pressure to the horse’s mouth. There are rings attached to the sides of a snaffle bit. This is where the reigns are attached. This allows complete pressure transfer from when the rider moves the reigns to the mouth of the horse.

Hackamores keep the pressure on the horse’s nose and back of the head. Some hackamores apply pressure to the chin of the horse. However, others come with a side pull for minimal impact on the chin. Mechanical hackamores have a mouthpiece, too. This adds pressure to the inside of the horse’s mouth as well.

Another type is a curb bit. It is designed for advance riders and trained horses. Such bits are used without reigns or only neck reigns.

Horse’s Mouth

Each horse is different. You can make the experience of using bits much easier and pain-free if you focus on your horse’s mouth.

Some horses have thicker tongues than others, some have a different structure, while some have shallower palates than an average horse. All these factors play a role in determining the cruelty of horse bits.

A horse with a thick tongue, for example, won’t be comfortable with a mouthpiece. Another horse that has a sensitive nose will probably dislike a hackamore. You will have to experiment a bit with various options to find out what suits your horse’s mouth the best.

FAQs Related to Horse Bits

We’ve talked about horse bits quite a bit. At least, enough for you to reach at a verdict on whether you think horse bits are good or not. However, if you have some lingering questions, check out our FAQs section:

Do bits hurt a horse?

There is a high chance that bits will hurt a horse. Their mechanism and design are based on the concept of inflicting pain to make the horse obey your command.
However, there are certain variations of bits that are low-impact and cause minimal discomfort. And if you use the right type of bit depending on the horse’s mouth structure, usage, level of rider’s expertise, and horse’s training, they may not be as painful.

Can you ride a horse without a bit?

It is possible to ride a horse without a bit. Advance riders won’t find it challenging at all. In fact, well-trained horses might not even need the command of a bit to figure out what the rider wants.
For new horse riders, however, this can be quite challenging. Novice riders generally need a bit to keep the horse in control or else, they may not be able to manage the animal. This can end up hurting the horse as well as the rider so do not take this risk without an expert’s supervision.   

What is the kindest horse bit?

A specific type of snaffle bit called the egg-butt is said to be the gentlest horse bit. It is designed to cause minimal distress. Moreover, its egg-shaped mouthpiece doesn’t pinch on the ends of the horse’s mouth which is one of the most hurtful effects of other bits.
Other than that, you will have to try out different styles of bits to figure out which one suits your horse’s unique mouth structure. Some bits may not be much of an issue with certain horses but for others, they could be extremely painful. This is all because the mouth structure varies from one horse to another.

Why are Tom Thumb bits bad?

Tom Thumb bits are a type of the leverage bit. Such bits exert three times more pressure on the horse than the rider is applying. Therefore, even if the rider is extremely gentle, these bits cause a lot of pain.
Moreover, the design of these bits is very uncomfortable for the horse. Even the slightest carelessness from the rider can cause severe pain for the horse. It is an extremely cruel tool if it comes into the hands of an unskilled user.

Why do you put a bit in a horse’s mouth?

A bit is used as an aid of communication between the rider and the horse. It is placed in the mouth to make this process as effective as possible. Since a bit works on the transfer of pressure from the rider to the horse, it needs to be executed in a very sensitive area.
The mouth of a horse is one of the most sensitive areas. This is where the smallest amount of force from the rider can easily be felt by the horse.

Are Hackamores better than bits?

If the horse is getting hurt by a snaffle, then a hackamore is undoubtedly the better option. However, if the horse fails to act immediately with the signals from a hackamore, then it might not be the best option.
Hackamores operate by transferring the rider’s signals to the horse’s nose and the back of the head. A traditional snaffle bit, on the other hand, operates inside the mouth. You have to examine the usage and application to determine the better option.

What is the best bit to start a horse with?

The best option for beginners to start training horses with is a snaffle bit. It is the most sensitive type of bit that allows maximum control and immediate impact. Once the horse gets used to your commands, you can shift to other options.

How tight should a bit be in a horse’s mouth?

A bit should be tight enough that it stays in place but at the same time, it shouldn’t be too tight that it squeezes the horse’s mouth.
A simple trick to judge whether the bit is tight enough or not is to notice the sides of the horse’s mouth. Wrinkly skin on the sides of the mouth is a sign of a very tightly placed bit. You need to loosen it up the bit. However, if the mouthpiece seems to be moving around without staying in place, it needs to be tightened.
The placement and adjustment of a horse bit play a major role in the performance and impact so be extremely vigilant when putting the bit on.

Are shank bits harsh?

Shank bits can be harsh on the horse. But, the exact answer depends on how the bit is being used. Generally, the common issue with shank bits is that when the rider pulls the reigns, the sides of the horse’s mouth get pinched. This causes pain and discomfort for the horse.

Considering both sides of the story, each has its ups and downs. While the pain from bits leads to other possible issues in the horse, the process of training becomes way harder without using them. Bitless bridles’ pros and cons have their own story to tell.

If you’re looking for an opinion, the safest option is to avoid the risk of causing any damage to your horse. Use bits that are the least harmful to your specific horse to train it in the beginning. Once you’ve gained some experience and the horse has learned the basics too, shift to bitless options. Make the most of the benefits of bitless bridles.

Ultimately, it is your call. Go through the pros and cons of each option once again and decide on whatever satisfied your conscience!