Images: Emma Souffriach from Belgium
The World Bitless Association is a recently formed equine welfare organisation representing bitless equestrians across the world working to make horse riding & training horse-friendly & to improve the welfare & safety of horses & their human carers.
In July 2019 WBA was approached by members in Australia and the UK concerned that their voices were not being listened to, correspondence they had sent to Equestrian Australia had gone unanswered, they asked the WBA to intervene in a rule they felt was biased and unfair.
The WBA had 107 days in which it was tasked to retrieve, review & analyse all the available data, listen to rider statements, research all relevant FEI/EA rules, commissioned reviews & reports. 107 days to seek the in-principled support & opinion from the world’s leading Academics, Scientific & Welfare organisations in order to present our initial findings & request to stop the BAN with the International National Federations & the FEI on the 5th August.
World Bitless Association does not yet have the benefit of a signed MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) such as the World Horse Welfare has with the FEI, this has meant that our correspondence has not received a clear pathway to the FEI eventing committee or the President’s Office, which is of some regret & frustration given the timescale and importance in order to formalise dialogue with the FEI. WBA have written today (11/10/19) to the FEI including all of the evidence and data available to us, we very much hope that to quote the FEI, this rule, is “not yet set in stone” and the proposal will be withdrawn on November 16th -19th at the AGM in Moscow. The WBA has not received a response from EA answering our concerns.
For transparency, our findings are now public.
The World Bitless Association (WBA) is opposed to the proposed change in the rules which govern this sport.
WBA have now consulted with a range of academic institutions, welfare organisations and professional equestrians from around the world. These parties have supported the assertion by WBA that there is no evidence to support this ban. The right of riders to be able to choose bitless or bitted bridles should remain as the rule has always been:
riders should continue to be able to decide what type of bridle, bitted or bitless, is best for their horse. . We have examined the Federation Equestrian International’s (FEI’s) own guidelines, their commissioned reports and data relating to fatalities and serious injuries. We have also examined expert opinion on welfare and safety in Eventing, particularly in the cross country stage.
The sequence of events in Australia, leading to the proposed ban
- Following two tragic fatalities in Australia in XC eventing in 2016 Australia’s National Federation, Equestrian Australia (EA) were rightly very concerned about mitigating risks to riders in cross country competitions. We believe it is correct to assume that since 2016, all areas of potential hazard were being considered by the EA board. EA was facing public scrutiny and a coroner’s Inquest concerning two deaths in 2016. EA are currently reviewing all their procedures and rules following the 31 recommendations in the coroner’s findings, regarding a range of improvements to rider safety; we commend their efforts in this matter.
- Then in 2018 a CIC 3* (Concours International Combiné – Advanced competition) professional rider in an ‘old style’ hackamore bitless bridle, lost stimulus control in gallop, when the bridle ‘failed’ and “fell apart”, resulting in the horse bolting; the rider was seriously injured when she bailed out. The rider did not have a neck strap nor a verbal ‘stop cue’ trained/embedded in prior emergency training.
- WBA have seen correspondence where EA explains, that as a result of a single bridle fail, they made a decision to immediately ban all bitless bridles as a consequence of one bridle malfunction. The EA made the decision without considering other data, or the long term implications for welfare and safety of both horse and rider*1 The WBA believe this was an unqualified and unfair decision.
- EA then put forward a request to the FEI in 2018 calling for a worldwide ban of bitless bridles stating that bitless bridles were more likely to fail than a bitted bridle. They have no data to support this claim.
- The FEI accepted the EA rule proposal at face value and agreed to put forward the proposal for the worldwide ban on bitless bridles commencing in 2020. WBA has not seen evidence of any data analysed, whether rider recommendations from bitless competitors were taken into the review, or even if any such review was commissioned by either the FEI or EA
July 2019 – FEI rules 539.3.2 Forbidden state:
PROPOSAL RECEIVED from Equestrian Australia Eventing Committee, do not believe that the use of bitless bridles on the Cross Country phase provides sufficient control.
FEI FEEDBACK The Eventing Committee believes that Bitless bridle should not be used during the Cross Country Test for risk management reasons.
- The proposal for rule changes was sent by the FEI to every National Federation around the world for written submissions and final vote for or against the ban on bitless bridles at the FEI meeting convened for 1st November 2019 in Moscow.
- World Bitless Association has written to the EA, FEI & every National federation around the world opposing the ban. See supporting statements for the WBA campaign below.
7a Cross-country eventing is a dangerous equestrian activity. There will always be some risks to riders and horses taking part in this sport. The duty of the sport’s organisers is to keep risks to a minimum. To that end, any changes in rules regarding safety must be grounded in evidence, not merely anecdote. Indeed, rule changes made without a sound basis could pose further risks for future competitors.
The point, which seems to have been lost on EA is that any bridle can fail, regardless of whether it includes a bit or not. Risks of a bridle failure is down to the nature of its construction and maintenance and the forces exerted on it by the rider. Before any changes are made, this matter should be subjected to a proper review.
8.The FEI rules have always allowed bitless bridles in cross country eventing. To the knowledge of the WBA there has only been one serious injury to a rider in a bitless bridle, in 2018 above, due to a bridle malfunction. There have been many such bitted bridle malfunctions over the years, with a variety of consequences from minor to serious injuries, according to the limited data available on bridles implicated in accidents and falls.
- The Fédération Equestre International’s own standards require in their FEI Eventing Risk Management Policy and Action plan that “Risk management actions must be based on a proactive long term systematic approach where results are expected to be consistent, comparable and reliable. Unstructured emotional reactions, also if at times understandable, are felt to be detrimental and must, by all means, be avoided.”
Commissioned Reviews and Inquest findings concerning safety in cross country eventing
- We refer to the 1999 Hartington Report. In making a number of recommendations, the Hartington Report noted: ‘A fundamental conclusion which pervades every detailed recommendation is that everything should be done to prevent horses from falling: this single objective should greatly reduce the chances of riders being seriously injured as well as significantly improving the safety of competing horses’.
At no point in the Hartington report was the ‘bridle’ mentioned, not in relation to safety, control, or mitigating risk, bitless or bitted, nor in reducing the risk of falls and serious injury – however mention of ‘saddles’ and their implication in risk or injury, was recorded. The reference to equipment was ‘that all users and officials understand that to have good equipment in good condition and properly fitted becomes a requirement of taking part in Eventing’.
In concluding this statement was made:
“The final decision and the ultimate responsibility for participation must continue to rest absolutely with the rider. The rider alone has to decide upon the limits in performance and the ability of his or her horse”.
- WBA has seen no report from EA by a Health & Safety steward/ground jury, concerning the condition of the (bitless) hackamore that failed in 2018. We are unsure if such a report or review of the accident exists nor what conclusions or recommendations were drawn from it.
- British Eventing (BE), is an organisation regarded as a leader in safety and risk mitigation in eventing. Section 3.4 of the 2018 BE Rules and Members’ Handbook provides that a Health and Safety Steward is to be appointed to advise an event organiser on all aspects of health and safety, and is independent of an event organiser or organising committee. Section 3.7.1 of the 2018 BE Rules and Members’ Handbook also provides for the appointment of a Technical Advisor for all events, whose responsibilities include all technical matters related to an event, and interpretation and application of the relevant BE Rules and Guidelines.”
- Despite the proposed ban, British Eventing have listened to the argument put forward by the WBA and having reviewed their own data, supported the WBA challenge to overturn the FEI proposal to ban bitless bridles and offered the WBA s supporting statement. The British Equestrian Federation also support WBA / BE and will vote against the ban in Moscow.
British Eventing ” Thank you for the background information. I can confirm that we are in agreement with you [WBA] and are not aware of any evidence or reason to suggest that hackamores/bitless bridles should not be used in the jumping phases for eventing. This has been fed back to the FEI via the 2020 rules consultation process”
- In 2015 the FEI commissioned Charles Barnett to assess the ways in which the risks associated with falls in the cross country phase of eventing could be minimised. The result was the production of the document in 2016 titled, “An Audit into Eventing Incorporating an Analysis of Risk Factors for Cross Country Horse Falls at FEI Eventing Competitions”, commonly known as the Barnett Report. In an analysis of horse falls related to jumping efforts during the cross country test of FEI eventing competitions, it was found that: ” Some aspects of the analysis suggested that individual rider behaviour may be implicated in increasing the risk of a horse-fall, but this was not explored in depth in this study.”
- However despite rider speed being recognised as a significant factor in falls in the Barnett report, once again, no mention was made regarding the bridle, bitted or bitless. Nor was data provided or recommendations given as to how training and appropriate bridle fit, may help to mitigate risk by ensuring the horse’s speed is under stimulus control at all times on a course*1.
- We note that 31 recommendations were made to the EA in the recent Inquest & Coroners report. The focus was on the construction of the jumps, non-adherence to some FEI guidelines, Frangible technology, course design and medical assistance and facilities. There was no mention or reference to the type of bridles worn.
- We note that the EA departed from the FEI rules surrounding its ban on bitless bridles in cross country eventing in 2018.
- WBA sincerely believe the proposed ban initiated by the EA is fundamentally flawed. The WBA has not seen or been provided with any data relevant to the safety of bridles, bitted or bitless or of bridle malfunction.
- Safety is mitigated by concentrating on the jumps first and foremost, the need for frangible technology, course design, on-site medical facilities, the experience of horse and rider and appropriate and well-maintained tack, the WBA would go further. We would argue for the promotion of evidence-based training, to help comply with ALARA (As low as reasonably achievable) principles on safety risk
- One malfunction/fail, of a single bitless bridle, in thousands of such rides, over many years, does not warrant a ban on ‘safety’ grounds.
WBA emphasises the need to ensure that training & riding is minimally aversive and evidence-based, so as to ensure retention of stimulus control. WBA recommends that consideration be given to the possibility of an attached safety/neck strap to the saddle and horses to be trained to stop or slow with the neck strap. WBA are happy to provide a list of MODERN suitable leather or man-made bitless bridles to the FEI.
Welfare of the horse
- Forcing a horse into a bitted bridle in order to comply to the rules when the horse may find a bit aversive is a serious welfare issue and may create conflict between horse and rider, increased anxiety in the emotional state of the horse due to fear of, or actual bit pain, with serious consequences.
- In conclusion, WBA recommends that a much greater emphasis should be made on rider technique and the methods used to train horses. Most safety reviews commissioned are still centred on equipment, protective clothing and the construction of fences/jumps etc. Little attention is paid to the requirement for riders to train their horses in such a way as to reduce risks of loss of stimulus control in difficult situations. Where minimally aversive training and riding methods are employed, riders are more likely to maintain stimulus control in all eventualities. Greater awareness for equestrians in this matter would reduce the risks to riders and their horses.
WBA trust that the FEI withdraws the proposal for a ban on bitless bridles in cross country eventing.
Statements in principle (Selection)
British Eventing Limited BE
I can confirm that we are in agreement with you and are not aware of any evidence or reason to suggest that hackamores/bitless bridles should not be used in the jumping phases for eventing. This has been fed back to the FEI via the 2020 rules consultation process. Paul Graham Chief Sport Officer British Eventing Limited
RSPCA Australia is committed to improving the lives of animals through changing human behaviour and legal reform to achieve higher standards in animal welfare. We support the implementation of training and riding practices that are grounded in learning theory and equine ethology
The RSPCA acknowledges the welfare benefits to horses of using appropriate bitless bridles as part of an ethical, evidence-based approach to riding and training. We are also aware that many horses who have suffered oral trauma are not comfortable with the use of conventional bits. For these horses, a bitless bridle offers an alternative that enables them to continue to participate in recreational and competitive activities.
On this basis, RSPCA Australia supports the position of the World Bitless Association regarding the proposal by the FEI to ban bitless bridles in the cross country stage of eventing.
Dr Bidda Jones Chief Executive Officer (A/g) RSPCA Australia
British Equestrian Federation BEF
The British response to the proposal is that we support hackamore/bitless bridles and we are not aware of any evidence or reason to suggest that hackamores/bitless bridles should not be used. GBR NF feels that a rule change is not necessary and will not be applying any such change to NF competition rules.
Iain Graham Interim Chief Executive British Equestrian Federation
The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants (IAABC)
The IAABC supports evidence-based, well-researched and documented changes in animal care, training, treatment and competition rules.
Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) guidelines require that each horse, and each horse and rider team, is respected as a “study of one,” where structure, previous experiences, the horse’s personal preferences, and the skill of the rider, and the quality of the training determine best tools for each individual learner and team.
We acknowledge that change is difficult and often passionately rejected by institutions and individuals wanting only the best for their constituents. However, there is no reliable, empirical evidence known to us supporting the assertion that bitless bridles offer less control or precision than bitted bridles, and there is certainly no such evidence that the use of bitless bridles contributes to accidents and injuries during cross-country.
The Fédération Equestre International’s own standards require in their FEI Eventing Risk Management Policy and Action plan that “Risk management actions must be based on a proactive long term systematic approach where results are expected to be consistent, comparable and reliable. Unstructured emotional reactions, also if at times understandable, are felt to be detrimental and must, by all means, be avoided.”
The recognized greatest hazard in the sport are the jumps themselves; consequently, the greatest investment of focus and prevention must directed toward increasing current safety features, and the highest standards of training and team readiness.
Marjie Alonso Executive Director
IAABC For the Board of Directors
ISES – The International Society for Equitation Science
ISES are supportive in principle and have several Council members working toward an expanded response. We are not necessarily saying that we prefer bitless to bitted, but that we definitely see no reason that the option cannot be available.
Camie Heleski ISES Honorary Senior Vice-President
Denzil O’Brien Scientific Researcher
South Australian Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre, Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre, Australia
I am happy to provide my support to your request to the FEI and other national equestrian federations to review their decisions about the use of bitless bridles in the cross-country phase of eventing until some appropriate research has been conducted. As you have seen from my recently published article, I am a strong supporter of policies developed on the basis of evidence, not incidents. As my own horse knowledge has expanded and improved (unfortunately rather too late for me, as I am nearly 70 and no longer a competitive rider), I have embraced the concepts of equestrian science and equine learning theory, and I can see that inappropriate use of bits can be harmful to horses.
I also acknowledge that sports administrators may fear that a horse with no bit is ‘uncontrollable’, and may pose a safety risk. This fear, however, does not appear to be based on evidence, but rather on historical beliefs that a horse must have a bit in its mouth in order to be ‘controlled’ by the rider, and perhaps by isolated incidents in which a rider whose horse has had a tack failure has lost control.
As I understand it, Equestrian Australia (EA) has banned the use of bitless bridles (referred to only as hackamores) in the cross-country phase of eventing, based on one incident, the nature of which I have no knowledge. Curiously, the 2019 national rules for jumping permit bitless bridles, also referred to as hackamores. Given that there are many more options now available for going bitless, these rules need updating in any case. I am not aware of why the FEI is proposing to ban the use of bitless bridles in FEI competitions, but I do hope it is not based solely on EA’s current ban.
In my published article on risk in eventing (https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/6/2/13/htm) I analysed the circumstances surrounding 59 rider deaths in eventing, between 1993 and 2015, where those circumstances were described. In no case was there mention of the use of a bitless bridle, or a bridle related tack failure. This is not to say that no such situation occurred, as details about fatal accidents in eventing are often not available, particularly before the growth in social media. Of course, the vast majority of rider falls in eventing result in no or slight injury to the rider, so there may, in fact, be many such occurrences which have not been reported. I now have data on a total of 67 rider deaths since 1993, and again, I can find no reference to a bitless bridle or a bridle tack failure contributing to the fatality. I would suggest that it is unwise to make a rule change based on one incident, without any other supporting data.
The EQUINE BEHAVIOUR TRAINING ASSOCIATION (EBTA)
The Equine Behaviour and Training Association supports choices that enhance equine welfare. There is a large variety of bitless bridles on the market today for riders to choose from. Horses ridden in bitless bridles are commonly observed to exhibit a reduction in behaviours associated with discomfort, compared with when ridden in bitted bridles (Quick and Warren-Smith, 2009; Cook and Mills, 2009). We, therefore, support the use of bitless bridles in cases such as these and believe that reduction in discomfort should be prioritised at all times.
While control and rider safety is undoubtedly important, it is a mistake to assume that more severe bits automatically result in increased control and safer horses. Horses typically behave in ways that are dangerous to humans when they feel pain, stress and/or fear. Consequently safety comes from a reduction in pain, stress and fear and, by logical extension, the ability of an equestrian to recognise when a horse is in such an emotional state. Use of a bitted rather than bitless bridle cannot be guaranteed to ensure this and, for many horses, a bitless bridle will be the more comfortable and hence safer option.
Quick, J.S. and Warren-Smith, A.K., 2009 “Preliminary investigations of horses’ (Equus caballus) responses to different bridles during foundation training” Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 4(4), pp.169-176
Cook, W.R. and Mills, D.S., 2009 “Preliminary study of jointed snaffle vs. cross under bitless bridles: Quantified comparison of behaviour in four horses” Equine veterinary journal, 41(8), pp.827-830
POSITION STATEMENT ON the USE OF THE BIT – Dr Robert Cook August 2019
Use of a bit, in my opinion, causes a horse to experience Pain – both orally and systemically and to behave in a reactive manner that jeopardizes its own safety and that of the rider Obstruction of the throat airway. Serious consequences of airway obstruction during strenuous exercise include … ‘Bleeding’ from the lungs, i.e., waterlogging, i.e., negative pressure pulmonary oedema (NPPO) aka exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage (EIPH). An internet search for ‘NPPO’ will provide backup details.
Shortage of oxygen, which in turn causes premature fatigue, exhaustion and a greater likelihood of a horse stumbling and falling. Falls result in catastrophic breakdowns, euthanasia of the horse; serious injuries and sometimes death of the rider
Rarely, but significantly, a sport horse can die from what I consider likely to be an asphyxia-induced heart attack whilst in full flight mode. Such disasters I regard as similar in cause to bit-induced ‘sudden death’ on the racetrack.
A bit is a foreign body in a horse’s highly sensitive oral cavity. If it was not strapped in, it would be spat out. The evolution of the horse determines that every horse reacts negatively to its presence. Horses vary in their reactions depending on their temperament; the degree of distress that they are experiencing at any given moment; and wide variations in a rider’s ability to use an instrument as potentially harmful as a bit with the obligatory discretion of a master horseman. A bit is a weapon of mouth destruction. Horses manifest their distress by an infinite number of behavioural changes, all of which are discernible by an experienced observer. Sadly, though some riders notice some of the signs, relatively few are fully aware of their cause. As a result, the warning signs of impending trouble are overlooked. No remedial action is taken, so accidents and injuries occur. Collectively, the aberrant behaviours can be classified either as bit-induced oral stereotypies or as manifestations of ‘bit-induced lameness.’
The mechanism whereby a bitted horse’s respiratory system is degraded I explain as follows :
During exercise at liberty, a horse’s lips are sealed. A bit destroys this vital seal.
1 W. Robert Cook. FRCVS, PhD. Professor Emeritus, Tufts University, Cummings , School of Veterinary Medicine, North Grafton, MA, USA
In a bit-ridden horse, air enters the mouth and dissipates, in the throat airway, what should be vacuum-packaging of the soft palate in its ventral (‘respiratory’) position on the root of an immobile tongue. For diagrams, see the reference to Cook, 2019, below.
At any one breath, with or without an obviously gaping mouth, the soft palate gets sucked upwards (dorsally) by the inspiratory rush of air and the powerful negative pressure that this collapsing force applies to the soft walls of the throat airway. The horse is choked A law of physics (Poiseuille’s law) determines that the strength of suction forces enveloped in the throat will be increased logarithmically in the gossamer-like tissue of the lungs.
Just one obstructed breath at the gallop from soft palate collapse (generally described as ‘instability’) is sufficient to bruise the lungs. Worse bruising will occur at every subsequent breath for as long as an obstruction continues. Bear in mind that a galloping horse breathes vigorously 130-140 times a minute. Think of the lungs being hit at the sort of speed that a boxer can hit a punching bag but factor in that the lungs are far more fragile.
By itself, the collapse of the throat is serious enough but collapse can also lead to the soft palate becoming completely detached from the next section of the airway, the voice box – so-called dorsal displacement of the soft palate (DDSP) –
an almost complete interruption of the continuity of the airway. Such an obstruction is immediately life-threatening and an emergency that only the horse can correct by slowing-up sufficiently to swallow. One swallow puts the soft palate back, at least temporarily, into its respiratory position.
Even without DDSP, if the horse continues to be choked at each subsequent intake of air, the lungs are bruised with increasing force at each breath. Once bruised, the next breath will take the horse a little more effort to draw.
Accordingly, the next suction force becomes a little stronger and so on, in a vicious circle, while obstruction continues. Rapidly, the lungs become waterlogged, i.e., develop negative pressure pulmonary oedema (NPPO) and ‘bleed’.
The horse becomes increasingly short of oxygen. This leads to fatigue and, in turn to exhaustion, stumbles and falls. With or without a fall, the heart may fail and death occurs. Non-fatal episodes of NPPO leave residual damage in the lungs which may or may not be clinically apparent Nevertheless, the horse will enter the next competition with disabled lungs that are more vulnerable to further damage.
“In my opinion, a bit is not only unnecessary for rider/horse communication but a serious handicap to communication and harmful withal to the welfare and safety of horse the rider. For the above reasons, the introduction of an FEI rule-change making use of the bit mandatory for cross country events would I believe be a retrograde step”.
- Cook, W.R. (1999): Pathophysiology of Bit Control in the Horse. Journal Equine Veterinary Science 19: 196-204 http://www.bitlessbridle.com/pathophysiology.pdf
- Cook, W.R. and Mills, D.S. (2009): “Preliminary study of jointed snaffle vs. crossunder bitless bridles: quantified comparison of behaviour in four horses.” Equine Veterinary Journal, 41, 827-830http://www.bitlessbridle.com/CHAtest-EquineVetJournal.pdf
- Cook, W.R (2011): “Damage by the bit to the equine interdental space and second lower premolar.” Equine Veterinary Education, 23, 355-360 Online at
- Cook, W.R. (2014): “A hypothetical etiological relationship between the horse’s bit, nasopharyngeal asphyxia and negative pressure pulmonary edema (bleeding).” Equine Veterinary Education, 26, 381-389 http://www.bitlessbridle.com/14EVEAhypotheticalaetiologicalrelationship.pdf
- Cook, W.R. (2014): “ An endoscopic test for bit-induced nasopharyngeal asphyxia as a cause of exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage in the horse.” Equine Veterinary Journal. 46, 256-257
- Cook W.R. and Kibler, M. (2018): Behavioural assessment of pain in 66 horses, with and without a bit. Equine Veterinary Education. Open access (free) article at https://doi.org/10.1111/eve.12916i An article about the bit, written for non-veterinarians, which explores in detail the likely mechanisms that can lead to bit-induced catastrophic breakdown and death in horses exercising at maximum speed, is available at:
Cook, R. (2019). HORSEMANSHIP’S ‘ELEPHANT-IN-THE-ROOM’ – The bit as a cause of unsolved problems affecting both horse and rider. Weltexpress:
* MISCELLANEOUS & Tack MALFUNCTIONS
10/14/2019 (93) Full statement of the WBA concerning the FEI… – World Bitless Association
World Bitless Position Statement regarding acceptance of Bitless bridles
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