Bit fit. Trained bit fitting consultants now offer horse owners holistic and welfare-centric solutions.
Choosing the correct bit for your horse is more challenging than most people might think and, particularly so when your horse is coping with ‘contact issues’ or other training problems you would like to resolve. It is, of course ideal, when you can engage a professional to turn up at your yard stocked-up with a wide selection of different bits to help you make the right choice.
This is how bit fitting services started in the Netherlands. But with certain bit brands behind the beginnings of this new service, these professionals soon became salesmen skilled in promoting a particular brand of bits.
A bit of a good story
The stories told to horse owners were good but not exactly accurate. One of the main ‘theories’ that caught on was that since horses don’t have that much space in the mouth, they all need bits with thinner mouthpieces.
A quick check inside the mouth makes this storyline quite convincing, since horses do have thick tongues indeed, and not much space for any bit. But let’s be honest, the mouth cavity is filled with the tongue for a reason and that reason is not accommodating a bit! There are other aspects to take into account before you can say the horse will better off with a thin mouthpiece.
There’s a bit more to the story!
In the Netherlands but also in other countries, not every rider is as soft with their hands as we would like… Thin mouthpieces slide more readily from left to right and they also apply a higher (peak) pressure because of their smaller surface area and, in the wrong hands, they cause rubbing and wounds.
As a horse owner and especially if your horse didn’t have mouth injuries previously, you would be very unhappy if you ended up causing a wound after the bit fitting. Especially since you were relying on the advice of someone you thought was a professional.
The explanations given about the action of certain bits may sound quite simple and convincing, but hands-on practice shows that correctly fitting a bit to the horse, is nuanced and requires a horse-centred and holistic approach.
So, how do you know if a so-called bit fitter is properly educated and ready to place your horse’s welfare ahead of their bit sales commissions?
As a pioneer in the profession of bit fitting, I admit I’ve made mistakes (like the one of the thin mouthpieces that I just told you about). I was the first person in the Netherlands to become a full-time bit fit consultant and fortunately, I was able to combine my knowledge of bits with a long background in equine anatomy, body therapy, riding and coaching.
This knowledge has allowed me to recognise whether tension in the horse is a result of poor bit fit more quickly. I began working with all kinds of brands, trusting what the horses where showing me. I did my own research, diving into osteopathy and combining knowledge from different fields.
I often combine a change of bit with a manipulation or mobilisation of the cervical spine (if needed), as well as educating the riders on achieving a better communication with their horses.
I will always remember the time I did a ‘psoas stretch’ (a stretch of one of the major core muscles) for a horse while the rider was on and he began foaming on both sides of the mouth, instead of just one, and the contact issue of being more heavy on one side was gone.
Since that time, I have fitted more than a thousand horses, mostly dressage horses, and helped riders resolve many contact issues. One of my first was Donnerfee of former Olympic rider Claudia Fasseart, and many more did follow.
A bit more horse-centred
There is much more to making a proper bit choice than just trying different bits or looking in a horse’s mouth. On the other hand, a thorough look inside the mouth is the starting point.
While thin bits seem to fit in any mouth, if a tongue is soft and ‘squishy’ or the palate is very hollow, a thicker bit can be a better choice. Also, the width of the tongue makes a horse sometimes prefer a single jointed over a double jointed, or the other way around.
And it’s only when the horse starts moving that we can see the biomechanics at work. Certain conformation traits and ways of moving will create a different position of the tongue which will affect the way a bit rests in the mouth.
Then we factor in the rider. What is the rider doing with the bit? How are the rider’s biomechanics, their balance and seat? Is there something he or she can improve on with instruction or is it a more difficult issue (like a physical asymmetry) or a rider problem that will take a long time to resolve? Should I pick a bit that compensates for the rider’s unsteady hand? What will make the horse more comfortable?
And then there’s the rest of the bridle. How does that fit around the horse’s head? Are the straps creating undue pressure, pinching or adjusted too tightly?
Like saddle fitting, bridle fitting has also become a part of the bit fit consulting process.
Filling the bit fit education gap
As the years went by and more horses had their contact issues improved, the demand for bit fitters has increased. The existing gap in the education of bit fitters was quickly filled with short courses that resulted in ill-prepared people making mistakes, because they lacked sufficient background, or they believed, without questioning, that what they learned in a two-day course was all they needed to know. Some promoted themselves as elite experts in the field of bit fitting with enviable confidence!
But allowing people to make mistakes in bit fitting eventually hurts the horse and there’s no point doing that when it is possible to educate bit fitters well from a correct start.
Such an education has to be built from a foundation that does not rely on the promotion of a particular bit brand but will consider all the pros of the different models as well as acknowledge what can go wrong depending on the horse’s mouth anatomy and biomechanics, the rider and their riding style. It should also include a thorough understanding of the muscle connections, biomechanical influences and more.
And this has been the aim the International College for Professional Bitfit Consultants (ICPBC) since its inception in 2016. The first year’s graduates are already out in the Netherlands combining the knowledge learned at the ICPBC with their own professional expertise.
In 2019, the ICPBC welcomed the first international students thanks to the development of an online support. It currently has students from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Singapore, South Africa, America, Alaska and already two from Australia. And, being such an excellent horse country, in 2020 we will bring the education course to Australia as well.
For whom is the course?
The ICPBC training is not open to everyone. It is limited to horse professionals with a very broad knowledge of horses. Preference is given to professionals with a solid background in equine bodywork and anatomy.
The study program is very intensive, requiring the completion of case studies of various bit fitting problems and relies on students having a professional background. The course duration (one year) does not allow sufficient time for students to develop the additional knowledge, so at this time, we accept students who are veterinarians, physiotherapists, osteopaths, equine dentists, body-workers, FEI riders and high level judges.
ICPBC has three missions:
- Providing proper, all-round education and accreditation so horse owners can find registered bit fit consultants, knowing these graduates will not likely make beginner mistakes and they will know how to truly assess contact issues from a whole-of-body perspective.
- Improving the connection and understanding between horse and rider in any discipline.
- The last but most important mission, is to improve horse welfare.
What does the course entail?
To become officially registered and be able to use the name of the ICPBC, the students need to pass three exams.
Theory exam: The ICPBC is evidence-based, so in the online part of the course we share published research on bit and bitless riding. We want our students to learn the latest knowledge, the welfare issues such as over-tight nosebands, the way the bit affects biomechanics, how bridles interfere with proprioception, and so on. After a study period, students need to pass the theory examination.
Practical exam: There is no registration without a practical exam where students are assessed on performing a proper mouth check while working safely with the horse, making logical bit choices, checking trigger points in the horse’s body, informing the client about what to expect with every bit and showing the client how to check that the bit is working well for their horse.
A case study: Every student has to write a case study about a bit related problem. Some of the cases studies submitted by students to date, are on topics like drooling, tongue problems and oral injuries. Students are expected to dive deeply into their cases and establish the connections and solutions by themselves.
Once exams have been passed and the case study is assessed successfully, graduates become registered with the ICPBC as qualified.
An intensive learning program favours the most committed practitioners and this, in turn, helps reassure horse owners that registered ICPBC bit fitters have invested heavily in their profession and are not relying on bit sales for their income.
Graduates also understand biomechanics and will not look for short cuts that could negatively affect the horse’s welfare (like tighten a noseband! A great subject I will discuss in a future article).
I am looking forward to welcoming more Australian students and, hopefully this year, register the first Aussie graduates so all horse owners can eventually find help with improving their communication and horse’s comfort and wellbeing.