Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Tao of Spartacus Jones: The Whole Bit

Here’s an easy way to turn a Sunday School picnic into a John Ford barroom brawl: start talking about bits.
In particular, question the USE of bits.
Then, quick, DUCK!

And I’m only about half kidding.

No doubt about it, pain, including the fear of pain and the desire to avoid pain, can be a dandy motivator. I've learned a lot of things that way, myself.
Certainly was instrumental for me in learning to slip a left hook, for example. But then I didn’t particularly regard my opponent as my “friend” or my “partner.”
He was just a guy trying to hurt me and I figured out how to avoid – or minimize -- him hurting me.

You know, if I want you to go someplace with me and I apply a wristlock to you, I bet you’re going to go wherever I want you to go.
Because to resist increases the pain.
It isn’t ME hurting you, you’re hurting yourself by resisting, see?
To avoid or minimize the pain, you go along.
But we’re not “friends” and we’re not “partners,” are we?

I can get you to “give” me your money if I pull gun on you.
That doesn’t make it a donation, doesn’t mean you gave it to me “willingly” and doesn’t make you my “friend,” does it?

Bits work on the pain principle.
It is inherent in the nature of a bit -- ANY bit.
A horse learns to avoid – or minimize –pain by responding to the bit.
It works, all right.
And it works pretty fast, too. And it works on MOST all horses.
You can absolutely make a horse do what you want him to do by putting a wristlock on his mouth. He’ll go along to avoid or minimize the pain.
But you’re not “friends” and you’re not “partners.”

Figure this one out for me:
Most people who use computers at all, aren’t using the same computer they used 20 years ago.
Or 10 years ago.
Or even 5 years ago.
But we’re still using the same equestrian technology we used a few THOUSAND years ago?
Is that because, in a moment of unparalleled epiphany, we were so enlightened, or so clever, or so lucky that we just happened to stumble upon utter perfection?
I’m skeptical.

Generally, when I ask someone why they use a bit, I get that deer-in-the-headlights disconnected look, as if I’d just started speaking in tongues. I rarely get an answer that has any intellectual integrity. It’s a lot like talking to a tumbleweed.

One answer is “Because that’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it.” Closely akin to this is “That’s the way I was taught.”
Even if true, this isn’t exactly the kind of sharp reasoning that would make Sherlock Holmes drop his jaw in admiration.
There is an unspoken second half to each of these statements. It’s: “ -- and I’m incapable of critically examining the situation and thinking for myself.”

Some people say they NEED a bit for control.
That may be true.
But I’d say, if you don’t have sufficient “control” without a bit, you don’t have it with one, either.

You say your horse won’t do what you want without a bit?
And I say, I HAD to use handcuffs, Your Honor, or she wouldn’t have done what I wanted her to do… How’s THAT for a defense?
If your horse doesn’t do what you ask, it’s because he doesn’t UNDERSTAND what you want, physically CAN’T do what you want, or REFUSES to do what you want. I would submit that a bit isn’t going to help in either of the first two instances, and you might do well to determine WHY in the third case, before you over-rule your horse’s vote. Remember he’s probably smarter than you, and certainly better at being a horse than you are.

Some people will say bits are all right if you have good hands.
I’d say, yeah, like a blackjack is all right if you have good hands.

Some people say there are “gentle” bits.
I’d say, Uh-huh, like there are “gentle” firearms. A .22 is a lot more gentle than a .357 magnum, so that’s not so bad to get shot with, right?

Some say bits are for “communication.”
I say, yeah, so’s wrist-lock.
It communicates who’s going to get hurt if you don’t do what I want.

Guns are designed to put bullets into people, blackjacks are designed for cracking skulls and both wristlocks and bits are designed to inflict pain.
The horse learns to cooperate to avoid the pain.

I’ve had too many relationships in my life based on pain, fear and force.
Don’t care to have another one, thanks just the same.
And I sure as hell don’t want to have that kind of relationship with my horse.

Some people argue that it’s all just degree. That leg pressure or anything else is “pain” too.
Often a difference in degree makes a difference in kind.
If we go dancing and I lead you with my balance, shifting my weight, and the pressure of my hand on your back or waist and on your hand, is that the same thing as jabbing you with a cattle prod?
Any difference there?

Do we get away with using bits for so long because horses can’t express their resistance in a way we are willing to hear?
When a horse resists, it’s a problem horse.
And when a woman resists being treated like chattel, she’s being a castrating bitch, right?
When a slave resists he’s being “uppity.”
When a somebody fights back to defend his home against an invading army he’s a “terrorist.”
It seems to me that it’s all part of the same ball of wax.
Some people believe they have a right to force other beings to do their bidding – or ELSE.
I don’t believe in that, personally, sexually, nationally or equitationally.

If I can’t have a relationship based on mutual respect, trust and affection, I’d rather have none at all.
That includes my relationship with my horse.
He’s my friend.
He’s my partner.
He’s not my servant and he sure as hell isn’t my slave.

So I don’t use bits on my horses for pretty much the same reason I don’t use handcuffs on my dates.

That’s the way I look at it.

And now, I’ll duck.


Thanks to "Metal in the Mouth" by Dr, Robt. Cook. If you're a horseman and you haven't read it, I recommend you do.


CoyoteFe said...

Excellent. I've had these nagging questions about bits. Thanks!

Lori Skoog said...

SJ - Welcome are right again. Do you ride with a hackamore? I have an English hackamore which is much kinder than the long shanks of a Western hackamore. All of my horses have used it. Most riders must not even give this a thought. I rode yesterday and did use a bit. It's a French snaffle..but you know...maybe I better just start using that hackamore all the time. Did you ever ride with a neck rope?
PS don't believe that Coyote when it comes to this horse stuff...she is full of beans. Ha Ha Ms. Coyote.

CoyoteFe said...

Ha! That Lori is mean, because she knows I know NOTHING about horses and farms. I DO, however, have a thought that things in beings mouths sound quite ... domineering. :-P

Spartacus Jones said...

Thanks, Coyote and Lori.

I usually ride in a cross-under bridle ( but there are a couple of other designs I'd like to try out. I've ridden in a rope halter, halter & lead-rope, neck rope and on a few occasions nothing at all.


Victoria Cummings said...

SJ - Very provocative - I agree with what you're saying, but when I try anything with pressure on Silk's nose, like a bosal or a hackamore, she hates it. She's quite comfortable with her bit, although I have very light hands. To use nothing at all? Not at my age, with all those people and animals who rely on me - falling off has become scarier than it used to be. Oh in a perfect world, we would all ride without tack and the horses would love it - But one thing I do know, when I get on my horse, it's clear that she enjoys it and that's about the best I can ask for.

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Well said, SJ. Interesting observation that the pain principle works on "most" horses. I agree, and furthermore, it seems to me that the *best* horses are the ones who won't tolerate that method. You know, the smart and sensitive ones that'll be your most loyal friend or most dangerous enemy, depending on how you treat them. You'll note that all my ponies go bitless... ;-) T

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Victoria makes a good point -- not all horses like the feel of every bitless option. For example, my Aaruba loves his Dr. Cook's bitless bridle, which operates with poll pressure in addition to the cross-under jaw straps. Consolation, on the other hand, HATES that poll pressure and goes much better in an Indian bosal, which operates much like a rope halter but with cross-under jaw straps for stronger signals. Acey, too, likes the Indian bosal -- and I'll bet she'd despise the nose pressure of a traditional bosal as her face is very sensitive. It's all about listening to the individual horse.

Spartacus Jones said...

Thanks, Tamara.
And you, too, Victoria.

There are a LOT of ways to go without a bit, and indeed, you have to know your pony to see which one does best.
Horses are as individual as humans are and one size never fits all.

Some of it's a trust issue.
If I feel like I NEED a bit for control, that suggests that I don't trust myself or I don't trust my horse, or both.

Taking a fall is no picnic at any age, that's for sure. But I'm not convinced that a bit makes it LESS likely rather than MORE likely. To the extent a bit inflicts pain, it must certainly elicit a fight/flight response, and that seems like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, to me.

Horses, being prey animals, are notoriously stoic about pain -- they HAVE to be; it's a survival strategy. That being the case I'm not sure to what extent tolerating a bit is a sign of comfort with it.

Just my take on it.