‘We owe it to our horses’: experts call for more bitting research [H&H VIP]

  • Dressage riders and vets are calling for further research into bitting — especially into the effects on competition horses.

    There is currently little research backing up the use of certain bits, with experts saying that not enough is known about what is going on in a horse’s mouth, especially the action on the tongue.

    There is much research into saddles and the effect on horse and rider, but there is not a similar dedication to the topic of lorinery.

    “Many of the bit manufacturers are doing their own research, which is a start. But what we need is independent peer-reviewed science,” said H&H guest editor Richard Davison.

    “This needs to be conducted on ridden horses, not just on a treadmill with the horse in side reins.

    “And how does the FEI determine if a new bit is OK in terms of welfare? Tradition? The first bits [on which the modern day ones are based] were designed before science touched this area.”

    Professor René van Weeran of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, when talking about how little a bit has changed since its invention, said: “The question is not whether or not we can apply science in the equine industry but whether we want to, and to what extent we allow it to influence our current practice.

    “It is still an open question whether the equine industry is far-sighted enough to embrace novel technology that can be of great value in making the sport better and safer for both people and horses on its own or will have to be forced to do so by external pressure,” he added. “Examples are [limited] improvements of bit and bridle, but technological innovations have not taken place, although notable empirical and theoretical progress has been made in horse riding and horse husbandry since the 17th century.”

    Vet Rob Pascoe, a specialist in equine dentistry at Bell Equine, Kent, agreed that there are only a few credible, peer-reviewed journals tackling the subject, and that it merits further investigation.

    “There is currently little evidence into bitting injuries — and how they vary in different disciplines — or the science behind how bits are designed,” he said.

    “However, there are a huge number of variables. The conformation of every horse varies massively, as does the interaction with the bit and the horse’s mouth — depending on how it is being ridden and by whom. A rider with gentle hands using an aggressive bit may cause no problem, though a heavier-handed rider on the same horse with the same bit might.”

    He added that a study at elite level, where there are fewer variables, would be of interest.

    Competition rules

    When it comes to bits used in competition, the FEI — as horse sport’s international governing body — defines the rules. British Dressage (BD) told H&H it “mirrors” these rules.

    An FEI spokesman said: “The FEI has the authority to determine which equipment will be permitted for the equestrian sport.”

    The FEI told H&H that clear rules are in place regarding which bits can be used for dressage, and development is not ruled out nor discouraged, but that rules are “first and foremost” developed over time from previous rules.

    Frank Kemperman, chair of the FEI dressage committee, told H&H: “All permitted bits must be horse friendly, but we also realise that all bits may harm a horse’s mouth if used in an abusive way. Very seldom is a new bit permitted.

    “If new bits appear on the market, the manufacturer can apply to the FEI for approval.

    “The new equipment will be tested by experts at the request of the dressage committee, and if necessary the veterinary committee will be consulted,” he added. “In cases where the dressage committee sees the need to have practical feedback on the effect of a bit, the committee will ask the test group for a report. They can recommend the approval of a new bit, but the final decision is with the FEI general assembly.”

    A question that has been asked by several riders is why grand prix level tests cannot be ridden in a snaffle. Mr Kemperman told H&H this is currently “under discussion with the dressage committee”.
    “There are pros and cons and it is difficult to say whether this will be allowed in the near future,” he added.

    “One of the important goals of FEI dressage competitions is to make an evaluation of the correct training of the horses. A part of this test is to check that the horse is accepting the double bridle in high dressage. However, the FEI follows the development closely. We are aware that some countries have introduced this in their national rules.”

    Mr Pascoe said that horses with dental care issues — such as overgrowth — might have difficulty working in an outline without opening their mouth, so the rider tightens the noseband.

    “This should be the responsibility of the rider to ask why they are tightening it, and also of the veterinary surgeon at events to note the problem if it is a welfare issue,” he added.

    However, H&H columnist Pammy Hutton believes more research is needed into better riding, rather than bits.

    “There is a bit for every horse, as goes the saying,” she told H&H. “Much more analysis needs to be done, but I’m a believer that the simplest bits should work — and that the rider needs more analysis.”

    A bright future?

    Although there is limited research available currently, Dr Graham Cross of Neue Schule Bits told H&H there is a “tremendous” amount to come. He is currently writing a paper based on a scientific study into bits which he has been conducting for around a year. This focuses on rein tension distribution and its consequences for pressure in the mouth and on the poll.

    Dr Cross added: “One thing that might be surprising is that we found that the French link has a harsher contact on the tongue than a properly fitted Dr Bristol, which is normally regarded as more severe.”

    Richard Davison says…

    The FEI does send out bits to riders to try, but the process is random and relies upon a few individual riders or people sitting around a desk to evaluate complex factors. I think that if the FEI make a statement that the bits they allow are horse-friendly, they should be put to hard evidence [relating to dressage horses] to justify themselves. In this day and age, it shouldn’t be down to a hunch or doctrine — we owe our horses more than that and we should be informed about the physics of forces on the intricate and varied structures that are  affected by bitting. It is not as simple as many people think.

    This research being done by Dr Graham Cross just shows how misguided our assumptions are — the news about the Dr Bristol and French link blows our ideas out of the water. I’d like to see the FEI ring-fence some funding for further research in this area.

    Advances in sight

    H&H speaks to FEI and BEF vet John McEwan: “Modern science is exploring the role and influence of the bit and rein pressure, for example in the work of [lorinery expert] Dr Hilary Clayton. With the advanced technology that is now available to us, we are able to increase our breadth of knowledge. There is research currently in the pipeline exploring the effect of bitting and rein pressure, and I would agree that there is room for more research.

    “A lot of the current regulatory structure that is in place has been developed through experience of the sport, however, this doesn’t mean that science cannot allow us to review this. It is essential to look at the ridden horse, which we are now able to do thanks to technology. The evolution of the saddle over recent years has largely occurred thanks to research combined with knowledge and experience, allowing us to evaluate the impact on performance and welfare, and this will help us to further develop research in bitting.

    Ref: H&H 26 March, 2015