Should your horse eat with a bit?
And by eat, I mean have a snack on the trail, eat a carrot, grab some grass while you are puttering around the farm, and not actually eating a hay meal. There’s much debate letting a horse eat with a bit, but not much science.
Consider the behavioral implications
- But, my overwhelming thought is NO – your horse should not eat with a bit in his mouth. For a few behavioral reasons.
- Horses may use food and water to signal their place in the herd. The top horses of the herd get food and water first. So, allowing your horse to nibble while under the premise of work is telling your horse he can ignore you. It may seem harmless, but your horse will spill this mentality into other areas of his existence with you eventually.
- It’s a training issue. Horses that snatch grass on the trail or are ridden in the vicinity of “snacks” are not paying attention to their job. Many of us allow this, which may muddle the line between rider and horse communication.
- Or, we may only allow snacking in certain circumstances, which is just plain confusing for our mounts. It’s also a case of your horse pushing the limits, and if he pushes the limits and you give in about food, it won’t be long before he has figured out that there may be other situations he can push limits.
- It’s harder for your horse to properly chew with a bit. The bit rests on the tongue and therefore interferes with tongue/chewing action. I have seen a bit after a horse has snacked along the trail, often there are wads of grass mucked up on the bit. These chucks are not properly chewed and could cause problems if swallowed or partially swallowed.
- And this is where the lack of science comes in. I have heard from many an equestrian that choking is not an issue. I’ve also heard that many folks have known a horse to choke while trying to chew with a bit. The type of snack will probably influence a particular horse one way or another.
But I continue to yammer on
- I get it. We all want to love our horses with “treats” and “nibbles” and stuff like that. But for Pete’s sake, many of us only sit on our horses for a total of 5-6 hours a week. It’s reasonable to expect them to respect our cues in the saddle and focus on their jobs. They can be a horse for the other 162 hours in the week.
- Horses that snatch snacks while being ridden can be a safety issue for beginners and kids. And really, adults too, may not be paying attention. We all want our horses to be the most bombproof, kid-friendly horse in the neighborhood. But…one of the easiest ways to unseat a kid is to have the rainbow reins yanked by a horse grabbing a snack. I perfected the rainbow reins pullover non-voluntary dismount when I was a kid. I’m familiar with horses taking advantage and unseating their riders.
- Your bit can be downright gross. The green slime will also infiltrate your bit rings and ends of the cheek pieces, and your tack cleaning job just got a tiny bit harder, especially if it dries. Not life-threatening hard, but still.
I don’t want to clean this, and yeah, worse things have happened.
I get it – you are in between classes at a show. But this is an accident waiting to happen if the bit has cheekpieces or a curb chain on a hook. Bridle parts plus boots/polo wraps = vet bill.
- I also hear this a lot: “I give him a treat before I put the bit in”. This is BRIBERY, not a reward. Also, most horses will soon figure out that they can train you to feed more and more. Rewards happen after a good reaction from your horse. And, a kind word or a gentle scratch is just as effective, free, and strengthens your relationship.
- I have heard this one, too – horses are grazing herd animals that need to eat all the time. Well, horses do sleep and rest, and even a horse with 24/7 access to food won’t eat all the livelong day. It’s about 17 hours.
The flip side
- If you like to treat your horse while using a bit, use a treat that dissolves, like sugar cubes. There are also GumBits, designed to be used with bits and marketed as “chewing gum for horses.”
- Sugar cubes are easy to keep in your pocket, and because they dissolve, they avoid any potential bit issues. They also allow you to encourage a healthy neck stretch to each side on a walk break if you give them while in the saddle. And here’s the big difference between giving a treat and letting your horse snack. When you give the treat, it’s on your terms.
- And don’t forget about bitless bridles and sidepulls! Snacking made easy.
Of course, there are exceptions
- One final note – there are many instances when a horse may eat with a bit in – specifically during endurance competitions and other insanely long events. Long-distance trail rides and cow herding also come to mind.
- Most importantly, do what you want and remain safe about it.
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