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Horse Riding Cruelty: Effects of the Bit

There's a saying that “a harsh bit in good hands can be mild, and a mild bit is only as harsh as the hands controlling it.”  Is it truly a matter of a rider's skill?  Or are bits patently cruel devices?  Today we’re going to take a deeper look at the use of bits and their effect on horses both physically and psychologically.

Horse riding is a rather controversial topic amongst vegans and animal lovers, and within the animal rights community.  It’s a complex subject with many facets.  My first video on horses addressed the basic ethics of horse riding itself, with a cursory nod to horse riding tack, or equipment, like saddles, bits, bridles and whips.  I pointed out that because horses do not need to be ridden, doing so constitutes using another being for our own entertainment, an action that is decidedly unethical from a vegan perspective.  This stance does not even take into account how a horse is treated or what equipment is used; the appropriation of the horse’s body alone is an unethical act.

Now not everyone agrees with this stance, including some vegans, so I think it is important to talk about the effect of horse tack like bits and whips both for those who are still going to ride horses, and also for those who don't find the act of riding itself objectionable, but may not know the true impact of these devices.

There is quite an array of bit types and variations, each made to apply pressure to a horse in a specific manner.  All bits are designed to control a horse through this applied pressure, meaning pain.  There exists the argument that when properly fitted and controlled, even the most severe of bit styles can transmit subtle, nuanced signals to a horse without any pain.  However, even the gentlest of hands still exerts extreme pressure on a horse’s mouth and nerves, around 50 to 100 kilograms per one square-centimeter of mouth surface.

horse cranial nerves

(click to enlarge)

Horses have a complex array of cranial nerves, which are impacted by the use of a bit.  Trigeminal action bits inflict pain on the mandibular and maxillary branches of the trigeminal nerves.  The maxillary nerve division comprises the principle functions of sensation for the maxillary teeth, nasal cavity, palate and infraorbital nerve, among others, and the mandibular nerve runs along the bones of the horse’s lower jaw and further branch off to the buccal, lingual, and inferior alveolar nerves.  Additionally, the mouthpiece of the trigeminal action bit hits the horse’s palate and squeezes down on his or her tongue.

Dental action bits impact and damage the 1st and 2nd premolar teeth and bars, the area of a horse’s mouth where there are no teeth, causing the development of bone spurs. the joint of a dental bit also hits the horse’s palate when pressure is applied on the reins, causing the inferior alveolar nerve and infroarbital nerve to transmit pain signals.

bit hitting roof of a horses mouth horse covering bit with tongue to escape pain

Horses will often insert their tongue in between the bit joint and the roof of their mouth in an attempt to escape this pain.  Unfortunately this just results the tongue being pinched or pushed back towards the larynx, impacting the lingual nerve and causing pain. The mouth is one of the body’s most sensitive areas and these bits are designed to inflict pressure onto this delicate area.

Bits also obstruct a horse’s airway and interfere with breathing, which is especially problematic seeing as bits are used mostly when making great physical demands of a horse.

In his article ,Pathophysilogy of Bit Control in the Horse, published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Dr. Robert Cook states that, “the bit method of control is invasive, physiologically contraindicated and counterproductive [and it] frightens a horse and causes pain, suffering and injury.”

In his 2002 study, The Effect of the Bit on the Behavior of the Horse, Dr. Cook concluded that,

“The bit is responsible for at least 50 problems.  The four most frequently cited effects were to instill fear, to make the horse fight back, to trigger a flight response, and to cause facial neuralgia (headshaking).  These and other behavioral effects were associated primarily with oral pain. However, the responses were not limited to the oral cavity, for they included a whole cascade of systemic effects.  Predominantly, these involved the nervous system and resulted in adverse behavioral responses.  Musculoskeletal system effects interfered with locomotion and respiratory system effects caused dyspnoea.  It was concluded that a bit is harmful to the health and safety of both horse and rider, and an impediment to performance.”

Dr. Cook’s studies show that the impact of bits reaches far beyond a horse’s mouth.  Now it should be noted that Dr. Cook is not opposed to horse riding in the slightest.  He advocates natural horsemanship using a bitless bridle and his analysis of the impact of bits is from the perspective of bettering the riding experience.  While his studies and findings are very important, I feel he has missed the mark with their application.  However, for those individuals who intend to continue riding horses, I think it’s important to note that using a bit is not only detrimental to the horse, but also the rider.  A bitted horse is in a state of pain and fear and much less likely to respond accordingly to direction, often leading to the injury of both horse and rider.

Aside from the physiological and anatomical impact of bits, the simplest indication of how a bit affects a horse is the horse’s reaction.  You will often see bitted horses opening their mouths.  This is an attempt to escape the pain inflicted by the bit.  They will also shake their head and perform other neurotic behaviors in an effort to stop the pain.  Unfortunately, riders often respond to this behavior by applying even more pressure to the horse’s bit, causing even more pain and acting out on the part of the horse.

This cycle is remedied, so to speak, by the application of a noseband to close the mouth.  While this certainly stops a horse from opening his or her mouth, he or she remains in pain. Janene Clemence, of the Academy of Equine Performing aAts, sums it up well saying,

“Whichever way a person tries to argue, science can lay the truth on the table.  In the end, it is only a choice…a choice to not cause pain to the horse, or, to choose to knowingly inflict pain.”

So whether or not you believe that riding horses is ethical, it’s clear that the use of bits is most decidedly not.

Now I’d love to hear from you on this subject: What are your thoughts on the matter?

See ya next nugget!







★Watch More!


The Other Video Posts of the Horse Ethics Playlist:

All Horse Videos

Is Horse Riding Vegan? Cruel?

Horse Racing Exposed

Horse Carriage Controversy


Large Collection of Studies and Articles on the Effects of Bits on the Bitless Bridle website

The Effect Of The Bit On The Behaviour Of The Horse by Dr. W. Robert Cook

Pathophysiology Of Bit Control In The Horse by Dr. W. Robert Cook

Examinations To Define The Force Of Common And Jerktorque Impact Of Control Means Used In Equestrian Sports (Snaffle,Curb) Upon A Horse's Mouth, Nevzorov Haute Ecole Research Centre, Saint Petersburg, 200

Computer Animated Video on the Effects of the Bit

Fair Horsemanship's YouTube Channel with load of horse-friendly activities

Harm of Bits by Fair Horsemanship

Why Riding Bit-less is Safer by Fair Horsemanship

To Bit or Not to Bit by Janene Clemence


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  1. EconDemocracy on March 25, 2015 at 7:07 am

    You did some amazing amounts of reserach here Emily, and all in one place..thanks! Probably your website is a good place (or at least ok, I hope) to share within our community, in comments, news/science updates that are related, so wanted to mention, just found:

    “Whip use on racehorses questioned by study which finds they’re thin-skinned, feel pain”

    Here’s the interesting “new science” part horses may feel MORE pain than humans..first the “prey” angle (see below) but also the reserach looked at who is really more thick versus thin skinned. Quotes:

    “Dr Lydia Tong, a University of Sydney veterinary pathologist and forensics researcher, investigated the skin thickness of horses and how they sensed pain for the ABC’s Catalyst program. Despite extensive literature research, Dr Tong said she was surprised to learn this had never been done before.

    ” ‘We’ve looked closely at human skin and horse skin from the same area, on the flank,’ she said.
    ‘The really interesting part is that right up in the epidermis, which is the top layer and that’s where the pain-sensing C fibres are, in the human specimen that’s thicker than the horse’s.

    ” ‘So by the old argument of horse’s skin is thicker and they feel it less, actually you could argue human’s skin is thicker. It was unexpected actually.’ ”

    They mentioned, that prey animals might be conditioned to hide their pain, to not let predators find out they are injured, a second issue.

    Former vet and presenter Dr. Jonica Newby, wanted to find out how it feels, how much it hurts, and there’s a thermal imaging video of herself (spoiler: first time it hurt but less than she thought..second time harder..ouch factor higher plus left a bruise)

    Most amazing, this image:×4-340×453.jpg

    Horse skin(top) with nerve fibers stained red, versus human (bottom).

    Human skin thicker..amazing to see. Does this prove completely horses feel more pain? No. And is it the right “reason”? No, the right reason to stop is COMPASSION….however, I think this research is useful, first, it raises awareness, it brings to mainstream audiences the issue..Second, even if you don’t have 100% proof horses feel more pain, so what? It can momentarily “shut up” or at least startle and wake up
    those who claim to be “Sure” that the horse feels “almost no” pain…by proving we DON’T KNOW exactly what’s going on, and that we just learned more than we used to know….that’s enough to err on the side of not whipping them (that plus, empathy, compassion, ethics, and an expanded Golden Rule, I guess one might say..right?)

    Anyway it’s not an AR/vegan show, but good that they covered this science and that remarkable cell-level photo comparison (url above). Full page:

    • Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) on March 25, 2015 at 11:32 am

      thanks so much for this thoughtful comment. i came across that study in my research and think i have it linked up but from a different page/source. horses definitely don’t have the “thick skin” we think they do.

    • Tsayper on April 6, 2020 at 12:08 am

      Why would a horse’s tactile sense be muted at all? Wouldn’t it be inadaptive?
      ‘Pain deniers’ should prove that horses dont feel light touches before be allowed to whip horses.
      Same with bits (prove horses unable to feel the pull of the halter)

  2. Nora on December 3, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Not all bitted horses are in pain, if you ride with your seat and leg you should’t have to touch a horses mouth. Many people don’t ride that way so they use bits in a mean way but really “Bits are only as mean as the hands that are using them!”

  3. emma valle on March 7, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Wow I had no idea bits were that painful to a horse everyone’sjust always told me they were a bit uncomfortable and iI’ve never looked into i , I did own a horse for maybe 6 months but never used a bit just a rope halter I don’t have her anymore nor do I plan on owning another horse because I don’t like to discipline them like the trainer told me to , I just wanted to pet her all the time and give her lots of treats haha (: I have a lot of horse owner friends who use bits though): iI don’t think I’ll be able to change their mind but I’ll show them your video , I’ve never thought horse riding was bad if you treated them well but lately I’ve been looking into things more like us eating honry and what it does to the bees which is cruel , and that were using the horses I’m still not sure how I feel about people rising them in general if they treat them well because sometimes it seems the horses enjoy it and the relationship with rider ( as long as no bits or spurs) but it would be nice if they could be in a huge field together just able to run freely , also I saw in another video you fed your dog vegan I have two dogs I wanted to give them vegan do you have info on that do you think I could just feed them sweet potato , reg potato ,nuts ,vegan ? And if you have anymore information on the horses I would be very interested in hearing about it ! (: I thinj it’s great your not afraid to talk about things the truth even though the majority won’t agree and your speaking up for the animals, who don’t have a voice ! Keep up the good work! (:

    • Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) on March 8, 2016 at 4:30 am

      Thank you so much! Yes, the horse topic is one of the most unpopular. Thank you for sharing your experience.

      • RedHotTango on May 23, 2016 at 3:28 pm

        I love this article and your videos… I own 3 horses and have only ever ridden in a halter with no spurs or anything because it just doesn’t seem right to me at all. I suppose I’m just one of those people who are naturally sympathetic towards any animal’s feelings and I’d never do anything to hurt any animal even though there’s some types of animals that I don’t like.

        Recently I found an abandoned mare, who’s really thin and she’s chained to the floor with a metal chain and a leather collar round her neck (I’ve already checked that the collar isn’t too tight and it was ok but I loosened it a hole anyway), there’s no food for her because she’s eaten down all the grass and it won’t grow back and there’s poo everywhere.

        I’m not sure if it’s ok or not, but I’ve been feeding her carrots everyday and I’ve been picking the grass that she can’t reach and giving it to her and she seems really grateful, but it just pains me to see that someone would leave their horse chained to the floor with no food or water apart from a small, dirty stream that runs next to where she’s chained but she has to go down a steep slope to get to it.

        I don’t really know what else to do really and I guess there isn’t much more I can do. But I know that if no one else is going to do it, then I’ll do anything for her. She deserves to be loved and I know she’s been handled in the past because she picks her feet up for you when you ask her to. I’m going to treat her like she’s mine and I’m prepared to keep paying for food for her because she needs it and I’d like to hope that if I genuinely couldn’t pay for my horses then someone would give up half an hour of their day to give the horse a little bit of TLC.

        Thanks. And please take the time to reply I’d really appreciate it :-)

        • Faye on September 13, 2017 at 11:43 am

          You’re saying she’s abandoned and chained up and you don’t know what to do? Would you not unchain her, report it to the police etc?

        • Drnrs on October 29, 2017 at 3:14 am

          why don’t you report this abuse yoypur local sheriff dept
          Take pictures and write down when she has no food or water or shelter

  4. EconomicDemocracy on March 9, 2016 at 12:03 am

    Emma’s comment, notification, got me returning to this page..There’s a quote I always found quite poignant, partly because the person saying it, it was his Last Statement before being hung, partly because it represents universal equality and also democracy against monarchy…but it can be poignant by reading it on another, AR related level:

    “I never would believe that Providence
    has sent a few rich men into the world,
    ready booted and spurred to ride, and
    millions ready saddled and
    bridled to be ridden.”-Richard Rumbold,
    Statement on scaffold before being hung for rebellion, 1685

    Quoted on page 70, Albert and Hahnel, “Looking Forward, Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century” (On non-Communist, non-Capitalist, democratically-based economics)

  5. Cory on May 3, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    What about those of us riders that don’t use tack? Just bareback with no reins, no spurs, and using a hay string to neck rein (ex: if I ask my horse to go left I lay the string with very slight pressure to the right side of his neck.)? I have a thoroughbred. A 1300lb one nonetheless. He gets top of the line grain and hay, and pasture time, he has a chiropractor because he’s 17 and his comfort is highly important to me, he’s barefoot because he’s happier that way, and there is also the very important part of saying that he doesn’t like saddles but doesn’t mind a rider and so I don’t ride with a saddle. You can never MAKE a horse do something that it passionately doesn’t want to do. I’ve seen horses throw riders, snap reins, and break bits because they didn’t want any part of it. The way I was taught to train horses is to put myself in their shoes and to build a relationship built on trust and understanding. I know the limits of my horse and all of the horses I work with, and we both have mutual respect and love for each other. Without a halter or lead rope my horse and the ones I work with will follow me to the end of the world, and I have never used or done anything harsh to any of them. It’s pure and basic trust.

  6. Dasha on July 26, 2016 at 7:57 am

    A good rider and his horse are a pleasure to watch. Most of the communication is done with the legs and seat if the horse and rider are trained correctly. I do believe horses ridden properly enjoy the experience. You should see the way some horses perk up when they see a jump in front of them, ears pricked, eyes focused, surging towards it. Some love shows and really perform for a crowd. Others adore trail riding and exploring. My horse comes to me in the field when called, yes even when I am holding his saddle. After great rides he always stands with me after I untack him and let him loose, like he doesn’t want it to end yet. Unfortunately most horses have to earn their keep and work, and as long as they are treated kindly I don’t see it as cruel. No more cruel than the millions of humans who have to work every day, often in poor conditions, with unpaid overtime, no meal breaks and workplace hazards.

  7. Michael Holmes on August 15, 2016 at 11:50 pm

    Emily, why are you only replying to people you agree with on this thread, even if the ones you don’t agree with are actually saying something positive? Some people have said really sensible things and have asked you to reply, but you’ve only answered who give you the praise you want…

  8. Grace on September 25, 2016 at 12:39 am

    I have been vegan for several years now and grew up with horses and never felt right about using bits, so I never used them. I have continued to ride but very seldom because I believe the horses should be able to live freely. I do ride however only with the horses I care for, that I feel truly trust me and if they show any tendency to want me off I get off. I ride (typically 100% tackless) with no bits whatsoever and usually no halter etc. The majority of the time I spend playing, running with my horses (weve established a relationship where they understand my boundaries and I understand theirs) I get a lot of people think riding is 100% cruel but I think in some circumstances when there is a true amount of love and connection it can be ok.

  9. Bre on March 3, 2018 at 10:12 pm

    Hi there!
    I watched your video and I felt compelled to comment because I want to applaud you. I am a horse trainer, riding instructor, and life-long equine enthusiast (and non vegan), I was just impressed on how much time and effort you put into researching your topic and presenting your case in such a professional manor. While most animal rights activists do not do their research and speak solely off emotion and ignorance, you used sited facts and clear cut arguments. Thank you for taking so much time to back your opinion with science.

    • Emily Moran Barwick on March 17, 2018 at 2:34 pm

      Wow, thank you so much, Bre! That means a great deal to me. And this is even one of my earlier videos before I knew how to use citation software :P Nowadays, I’d have 30-60 footnotes I’m sure on this one :) A core of my approach to vegan education and activism—and a value I hold personally—is the use of solid research, and presenting it in a way that’s approachable and digestible to the general public, but also having these blog articles for every video, such that if anyone does was to learn more and/or look through the facts themselves, they can do so. I find no value—and actually great harm—in exaggerations, “facts” spouted off without backing, etc. I believe everyone has a right to know the truth. And they have a right to accessing the information for themselves. When researching a subject, I often will find figures, etc that are echoed across the vegan community—even in documentaries!—but upon rigorous research, I discover that they’re inaccurate and/or without any solid grounding. I never take any at face value—especially things that seem to support my argument. It’s dangerously easy to adopt these. But I find it greatly harmful to say anything that I cannot back up—and polarizing to attack any group. Presenting the facts as they are and allowing people to make the connection for themselves is what I’ve found most effective—and respectful. Anyways! Sorry to get off on such a tangent. You just hit my hot button of nerd passion for open-access, fact-based, non-biased educational content :) Gets me going!

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