The “bit,” the hard piece of metal placed in the horse’s mouth so that the horse can be guided and controlled, has the potential to cause damage to the horse’s mouth. Generally used during exercise, it has long been thought that an ill-fitting or poorly handled bit could cause discomfort to the horse. But, before now there was never any definitive data as to how many horses this affects and what the consequences of bit induced trauma might be. In a recent study, over 100 horses were assessed to better understand trauma caused by the bit. So what did the study uncover?
The horse’s mouth is incredibly sensitive, not only on the corners where the bit meets the reins but inside the mouth where there may be a joint (dependent on the type of bit) or straight bar across the roof of the mouth and the tongue. If the bit does not fit correctly – too big or small – or if used too aggressively, for example, using the hands heavily and pulling at the mouth, this can damage the mouth in a number of ways. Signs of trauma to the mouth include:
Investigating Bit Related Trauma.
In a recent study, it was found that up to one-fifth of Thoroughbred racehorses had evidence of performance-limiting oral trauma. This included damage to the lining of the oral cavity, breaks in the skin or blisters, thickening, scarring and bleeding. A further study was extended to 50 polo ponies and 50 TB horses, examining the occurrence of bit related trauma. The key findings demonstrated:
There are a number of hypothesis as to why these patterns occur. With the snaffle bit, there is a leverage action which can put significant pressure on the mouth, making it a leading cause of injury in racehorses. It is very difficult to apply the finding of this research to other disciplines, apart from the appreciating that bit related trauma can be painful and performance limiting for horses.
Preventing Bit Related Trauma in Horses.
The combination of this study and rider experience can give us some insights in reducing the risk of further trauma. Among the most important things to consider:
With proper use and fit, the bit is a critical communication tool that allows proper control of the horse. Correcting any bitting problems as soon as they arise, including poor use of a rider's hands as well as bit fit, can help reduce pain and leave the lines of communication open between horse and rider.
* Image courtesy of Dollar Photo Club
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