The results of this test showed that only one horse had insignificant results which was Tango (P>0.1) he was also the only horse to show an improvement in scores when the bit was removed. All other horses showed a significant decrease in scores when the bit was removed; Pipkin (P<0.01); Pepsi (P<0.02); Poppy (P<0.05) and Hattie (P<0.025). Using this test overall showed that there was a significant decrease in scores when the bit was removed (P<0.025).
The overall test scores and average scores would indicate that using a bitted bridle is to be preferred to a bitless bridle (P<0.025). This is contrary to previous research performed by Dr. Cook (2009) which used a similar method to analyse dressage scores of horses that had never before been ridden in a bitless bridle against their bitted scores. The changes in results may be due to several reasons. Firstly the method used in this experiment is different from that used by Dr. Cook (2009). In his paper he performed eight tests with each of the four horses riding just one bitted and one bitless test in an arena in front of a crowd. The horses had been ridden previously that day and were ridden by different riders. Rider stress level has been shown to influence a horses stress levels (Peeters et al., 2010) so they may have influenced how the horse performed. Previous riding may have warmed up or tired the horses influencing their results (McGreevy and Murray, 2009). In our testing we repeated our results to ensure that we got a more accurate score (Hawson et al., 2010). The variation in scores shows that by not repeating his results Dr. Cook (2009) may have led to misleading results (Halo et al., 2008). Our horses were also not exercised previously and ridden by the same rider to eliminate other factors as much as possible. We also extended our testing over a six day period whilst Dr. Cook performed both bitted and bitless tests straight after one another. The bitted test may have warmed the horses up meaning that they went better in their second test (Murray et al., 2007).
Our results indicate that the only horse to show an improvement in dressage scores was ‘Tango’ but that this results were insignificant (P>0.1). The history of this horse would indicate that he would improve in his scores whilst being ridden bitless as he had been hard to bit and had a history of bit aversion (Cook, 2003). Interestingly, the rider indicated that they felt a lot more comfortable riding him bitless as appose to bitted even if this was not reflected in the results this would be contrary to previous research (Wolframm and Mickleright, 2010) which indicated a correlation between rider perception and horse performance. A great acclimatisation period (BHS, 2008) to the new piece of tack may have shown an improvement in his scores. This could suggest that the use of bitted bridle may be suitable in some situations. If a horse has an aversion to the bit that cannot be treated using traditional methods then the use of a bitless bridle may be recommended. However, not all horses are suited to the use of the bridle as shown. Some horses actually exhibited a lack of control (Poppy) and dangerous behaviour such as bucking (Pepsi) whilst being ridden in the bitless bridle. It is therefore concluded that claims made by the company that “By giving up the use of the bit, you don't sacrifice any control - but you DO make it less likely that the horse will bolt, buck, or bite because of mouth pain” (Jahiel 1995) are not entirely reciprocated in real world results. It is concerning that a product is marketed to the public as such when preliminary research has shown such behaviours occurring. A call for further larger scale research is clearly necessary to see whether the results found in these tests are true for more horses
One of the marked differences between the bitted and bitless bridles is that the bitless bridle appeared to provide more continuity of scores than the bitted bridle even if these scores were lower. For the dressage rider the need for continuity is essential as they want their horses to perform at their best on a regular basis (Hawson et al., 2010). It may be that after an initial time to adapt to the bridle the horses may improve their scores up to the standard of their bitted tests and show more constant results which would suit dressage riding. However, the horses that tended to vary in test scores in bitted tests did also do so in bitless ones (Pipkin) showing that it may not entirely be the bridles but the horses themselves that are showing either consistent or varied results. More research on a larger number of horses would draw more accurate conclusions about this point.
This would be supported by the fact that both Pipkin and Hattie showed an improvement in scores as testing progressed. Horses need an acclimatisation period when introduced to new tack and the period used in this testing may not have been long enough (BHS, 2008). It may be that if testing had progressed these horses would have shown an increase in scores and they may have reached the level of their bitted scores. However, Hattie showed an improvement in her bitted scores as well as testing progressed so it may be that she was simply benefiting from the increased schooling time or that other factors influenced this improvement.
Submission is often cited as one of the more important marks in terms of welfare (Hawson et al., 2010). Cook (2003) suggested that bitting may be a welfare issue as it causes the horse unnecessary pain and discomfort which under the Animal Welfare act of 2006 is too avoided. For this reason we looked at the submission scores individually to see if there was an improvement if the bit was removed as has been previously suggested. However the results indicated that the opposite was true. As with the overall scores Tango was the only horse not to show a decrease in scores when the bit was removed. It would appear logical that a horse that does not submit to the bit and shows an adverse reaction to it showed better scores in submission when said bit was removed. It is unclear to see that whether removing the bit creates welfare issues as it increases scores as has been suggested before in the converse sense.
Three out the five horses tested showed an improvement in bitted submission scores as testing progressed whilst only two out of the five showed an improvement in bitless scores. This improvement may be down to increased workload or other factors as well the bridles themselves so it is hard to draw any conclusions from it. What is clear is that for the majority of the horses as their workload and schooling increased over the week their obedience increased.
Interestingly the two horses that reacted the worst in terms of scores and rider opinion when they had their bits removed (Pipkin and Poppy) actually improved on their impulsion scores when the bit was removed. It may be that given more freedom around the mouth they felt they could carry and use themselves better creating more impulsion behind. It is true that many riders interfere with their horses mouths too much which can lead to subsequent bitting problems. So the removal of the bit may actually lead the horses to feel more ‘free’. This may subsequently cause a decrease in scores as young independently minded horses decide to disobey their rider.
The rider’s opinion is a very subjective measure of how the horses did and is therefore not to be taken as solid evidence for or against the bridle. One of the largest pieces of research conducted so far into the use of bitted and bitless bridles used this kind of subjective evidence (Cook, 2003). Our testing showed that it did not necessarily tie in with actual scores. This may show either a problem in dressage scoring or an indication of the difference between how a horse looks and how a rider felt the ride went. Before evaluating the results at the end of the week we asked the rider if they could write down in which of the two bridles they felt each horse would score higher in. This is what they wrote:
Pipkin – Bitted
Tango – Bitless
Pepsi – Bitless
Poppy – Bitted
Hattie – Unsure
The rider only got one of these results wrong indicating that the way the horse felt probably did relate to the scores the horse got. How the horse feels to ride is of course very important to the rider (Wolframm and Mickleright, 2010). Our rider noted that in the bitless bridle Tango felt particularly safer and that she did not feel comfortable riding him in a bit. Whilst with Poppy and Pipkin she was not happy riding them bitless. This shows that clear conclusions on whether one method is better than the other are hard to draw as horses are very individual and some may react better to one thing than another.
The rider also noted initial problems with the design of the bitless bridle that meant it was maybe not suited to the smaller English ponies. She noted that with reins attached your were holding them past the normal point on an area without grip so you felt as if you had less control over the horse and that the reins were slipping out of your hands. A different design of bitless bridle such as that from the Nurtural Bitless Bridle (Nurtural Horse, 2011) may have created different results but this is hard to tell without actually performing testing. Apart from this design there are also numerous other similar designs of bitless bridle which each one making its own separate claims. Independent testing of such products is the only way to establish a fair base line so customers can choose what is right for them.