We can’t change the world by helping one horse and rider but we can change the world for that horse and rider.
Over recent years, Horse Bit Fit consultants have placed a spotlight on the notion that bit and bridle fit must be considered as a routine part of every horse’s management.
Today, their reputation has grown around the United Kingdom and their consultants frequently work alongside other equine and veterinary professionals. Working with one horse and rider at a time, their expanding team have already helped thousands.
Horse Bit Fit is the brainchild of its founder Carol Cobbett. Carol has worked with horses all her life, from racing yards to show jumping on the national circuit and most things in between.
About 25 years ago, after noticing the immediate differences in the horses’ way of going when using different bits, she started one of the first ‘bit banks’ in the UK, the ‘Horse Bit Trader’. She undertook training with various lorinery companies (bit, spur and stirrup makers) and soon, horse owners started contacting Carol for bitting advice.
“Fitting of a horse’s bit and bridle should be given as much care and attention as fitting the saddle. It is also an aspect that may need to be reviewed as and when a horse and rider develop.”
She soon realised, however, that without seeing the horse in the flesh alongside the interaction between horse and rider, the best she could offer was explaining the mechanical action of the bit’s design, and that any advice given would not necessarily relate to that individual horse and rider combination.
A change in circumstances allowed Carol to go on the road and Horse Bit Fit was founded on the back of a camper van! Its mission, to visit any individual horse and rider that requested help with bitting, to safeguard the horse’s welfare and remain accessible to all.
In just around one year, Carol had almost 500 yards waiting for a visit and was feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Her reputation for a considered and ethical approach was increasing, and she tentatively advertised for assistance.
She was inundated with almost 400 enquiries, one from myself. I had already booked Carol to visit my six horses. I didn’t feel I was having any major issues but bitting fascinated me. I was eager to learn and wanted to ensure my horses were as happy as possible.
After spending the afternoon assessing my horses and making minor tweaks, Carol invited me into the arena whilst assessing my wife’s horses. I soon realised the interview had begun and, by the end of the session, it was clear we were both on the same page. She offered me a contract to work and train alongside her, and with further lorinery training, she passed me half the country to cover.
The more consultations we did, the more we attracted through word of mouth recommendation. Today, Horse Bit Fit is the UK’s largest group of bit and bridle fitting consultants. We have developed a comprehensive and independent training program and built a team of 13 highly skilled Bit Fit Consultants covering the UK and Ireland, with an additional one in Germany and a trainee in Spain.
Horse Bit Fit is founded on ethical principles and with a view to improving every horse’s welfare through paying attention to the individual fit of bit and bridle. We charge a flat fee for a consultation and we do not represent or make any gains through the sale of any products or particular brands.
Professional fitting of a horse’s bit and bridle should be given as much care and attention as fitting the saddle. It is also an aspect that may need to be reviewed as and when a horse and rider develop.
Our consultants believe in the principle of ‘communication not control’. The bit is not a ‘handbrake’ and the bridle should be comfortable and not restrict the mobility of the horse’s jaw or poll flexion. There is no substitution to correct and considered training, nor short cuts to achieving this.
The horse is the client
During the consultation, the horse is viewed as ‘the client’ and it is their reactions and behaviour changes in relation to bit and bridle fit that are assessed in detail.
Significant changes can occur quickly during a consultation and riders are often surprised at both, the dramatic improvements that can be seen and the riding, training or remedial issues that we reveal in the process and require additional attention.
For example, changing a bit or bridle fit can have noticeable and immediate effects on a horse’s balance and self-carriage, through an improved ability to flex at the poll and relax the jaw. It can significantly improve a horse that is ‘bridle lame’ but may also unmask compensatory movement patterns and/or lameness.
We now know that the bit’s physical influence and affect go well beyond the traditional thinking of its action on the structures of the mouth and head. Poor bit and bridle fit can have detrimental affects throughout the horse’s body that, in turn, often lead to behaviour problems.
An apparently spooky horse can settle quickly because increasing their comfort reduces the ‘trigger stacking’ effect (see the article by Dr Kirrilly Thompson on the ‘Growing Your Horse’s Window of Tolerance’).
Horses that are thought to be strong or reactive and forward going can become light, more responsive to the aids and more rideable as they relax and their flight response dwindles.
A whole-of-horse approach
Clients are often surprised by the attention to detail and thorough process that consultants undertake during the bit and bridle assessment.
We take a whole-of-horse approach by focusing on the individual anatomy, biomechanics and comfort. In addition, we pay attention to other aspects that influence the contact including, conformation, foot balance, dental issues, previous injuries or problems, saddle fit and balance, along with rider ability, independence of seat and hands, rider fitness, level of training and discipline.
The company’s consultants’ additional skills help in running the organisation. As well as bit and bridle fitting, we have consultants who are also qualified saddle fitters, an equine physiotherapist, equine body work and massage practitioners, a McTimony Equine Chiropractor, an Equine podiatrist, Equine Craniosacral Therapist, Biomechanics Specialist, Classical Dressage Trainer, British Dressage Judge, British Horse Society Trainers, Intelligent Horsemanship Trained Consultants, NLP Coach specialising in rider confidence, an archaeologist with a specialist subject in ‘horse furniture’ for a historical perspective, as well as a chartered accountant, marketing and social media specialist and, myself, a medical doctor.
Horse Bit Fit consultants have a thorough understanding of a wide range of bits and bridles currently on the market. We assess every bit and bridle we recommend in terms of its design, quality and intended effect. We do not carry every bit from every manufacturer, nor will we recommend certain designs we feel are inherently poor or detrimental to a horse’s welfare or biomechanics.
Manufacturers have different approaches to lorinery. Some believe horses should feel mainly tongue pressure and others believe horses should get tongue relief. Some manufacturers say horses should ‘progress’ through a range of bits as they become more advanced in their training. Others market bits to be used for ‘faster work’ or give their designs appealing sounding names to imply they are better for your horse.
Most importantly, in a Horse Bit Fit consultation there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. When you closely study an individual horse, their anatomy and how they respond during the consultation, traditional bitting precepts like the ones mentioned above or the well-known ‘two-wrinkle rule’ are put aside.
Recognising that every horse is an individual means acknowledging there is a cohort of horses and riders for whom a bit is neither desired nor suitable. That’s why Horse Bit Fit consultants will happily assess, fit and advise on a range of bitless bridles.
We carry the same approach to assessment and welfare through these consultations and will not recommend bridles that can be viewed as severe in their design and action or go against the Horse Bit Fit philosophy.
Any bitless bridle, while needing to provide functional and clear communication to the horse, also needs to adhere to anatomical design principles so as to avoid causing undue pressure on nerves, blood vessels and other delicate structures.
The ‘one size fits one’ approach is the secret to our continued success to improve the welfare of ridden horses.
The consultation process
When we first meet a horse and rider, we start by undertaking an assessment in the stable, untacked.
This involves initially taking a detailed history of the horse, its routine care and any ailments or injuries in the past or present. We seek to understand the reason why they have booked the consultation – the problems the owner/rider are experiencing and their perspective of the issues.
Understanding the rider’s ideas, concerns and expectations at the outset enhances the communication during the consultation. In addition, paying attention to the language riders use when they describe their horse’s behaviour provides an insight into their level of understanding and point out if we can provide educational support during the consultation process.
We physically examine the horse, paying particular attention to their head and oral anatomy, general conformation and development. We look for any problem areas in relation to bit and bridle fit, and any physical reactions of the horse.
We assess the horse’s current bit and bridle fit in the stable, and relate this to our physical findings and the rider’s reported issues. We discuss whether it suits the horse’s anatomy and often at this point, we are able to explain to the rider the underlying reasons for the problems they are experiencing.
The mouthpiece is for the horse
We view the bit as a mouthpiece that needs to conform as well as possible to the internal structures of the mouth.
There is generally less room inside the mouth than people expect and often, a horse will display subtle but significant signs of discomfort that the rider has dismissed or ignored, believing instead that their horse has certain quirks that are part of their personality.
We then move on to the ridden part of the consultation. This helps confirm what we are already expecting to see as a result of the stable assessment and to assess the rider’s influence on the horse.
For the ridden part of the consultation, we will always remove tight or restrictive nosebands. This serves several functions.
Removing restriction and pressure from the jaw and poll may, in itself, improve the horse. It also isolates the action of the bit and gives the horse an opportunity to ‘speak’, that is, to behaviourally express what they ‘think’ about the bit. They do this by opening the mouth, putting their tongue over or out, etc.
Behaviours like these provide vital information on the horse’s preferences and how much they understand about the rider’s aids. It also suggests a way forward since our aim is to remove and/or reduce pressure from bit and bridle on facial and oral structures.
We then move on to trying different bits and/or bridles as required, but our selection of options is not random.
The skill of the consultant relies on their ability to make a detailed assessment and their knowledge of the bits and bridles available. Usually, by the end of the stable consultation, we have a good idea of what will work for that horse anatomically. Seeing the horse ridden provides further information regarding the interaction between horse, rider and bit. This means that, in most cases, we can select the correct bit immediately, instead of using trial and error or having to change the bit too often, both of which serve the horse poorly.
Finally, horse and rider are given adequate time to try the recommended bit and bridle combination as well as assess the changes in the horse’s way of going. Allowing for discussion, questions and feedback from the rider should clarify the final choice, and improve the rider’s understanding and knowledge of their horse in relation to bit and bridle fit.
At the end of the consultation they receive a full written report with recommendations going forward.
It’s important to reiterate that we always fit a bit without a restrictive or tightly fitted noseband. If a rider needs to use a tight noseband, they are masking a bitting, training or contact issue that needs to be addressed in other ways.
Sharing the knowledge
Horse Bit Fit has taken off beyond our expectations and the huge progress continues to this day. Carol has finally moved out of her camper van to run online courses and develop the business from her base in the Highlands of Scotland, while her team of highly skilled Bit Fit Consultants continue to make a difference to each and every horse and rider they meet.
Horse Bit Fit has developed a comprehensive training programme for consultants and has achieved External LANTRA Accreditation. (LANTRA are the UK’s leading Awarding Body for Land Based and Environmental Skills Courses.)
We regularly provide training and CPD days to other equine professionals, the BHS, equine colleges and riding clubs. We carry out public talks and demonstrations on bitting and actively promote welfare in relation to bit and bridle fit. All of our talks hold CPD Accreditation for professionals in the UK.
We also seek to further educate and inform the general equine community regarding bit and bridle fit. To this end, we have designed and run an online course that is accessible to anyone through our website.
The Horse Bit Fit Basic Knowledge Course is UK Rural Skills, LANTRA and CPD accredited depending on the learner’s needs. It is open to the general public, seeks to inform, helps to dispel some common myths and teaches our approach to bitting and bridle fit.
Enrollment on the course is available throughout the year and details are available at www.horsebitfit.com.
This article appeared in the May-June 2020 edition of Horses and People Magazine. You can buy a copy here.