Bits are inherently aversive. Hackles are raised whenever I tell someone that, but no matter what sort of emotional response that statement evokes does not change the fact. Whether you choose to use a bit or not... actually, ESPECIALLY if you choose to use a bit, you need to understand the bit is an aversive.
Most people do understand and accept this, but you would be surprised at how many folks will argue that they're just "massaging" their horse's tongue or "vibrating" the reins as though the bit is some sort of pleasurable means of communication. It's not. And whatever your personal convictions are about how ethical bits are- it's important to be completely honest and fully understand about how this tool functions in order to: A. Make an educated decision on whether or not to use it. B. Use it properly if you choose to. I'm not here to guilt anyone into ditching their bits. I'm here to provide you with facts, so you can make your own decisions and understand how I've come to the conclusions I have. To each their own and I truly mean that.
Back to bits. Any training technique or piece of equipment functions one or two of four ways. There is nothing new on the market and there will NEVER be anything new. What? Why!? Because organisms learn through four different ways. No more and no less. It's the laws of science and it hasn't and won't ever change. Any device or technique we apply, (if it works) will be classified as positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment when dealing with voluntary responses.
If you've heard me chatter on about this in any of my other posts, you'll know that these are the four quadrants of operant conditioning. Train your horse, train your dog, your cat, or your husband with them- it works on every species. (I've experimented with all of the above. Still a work in progress with the last, albeit!)
Bits fall under the category of negative reinforcement and positive punishment. Think of the negative and positive as - and + because you are either subtracting something or adding something as reinforcement or punishment. It does not mean good and bad. So, when we use a bit, typically, we pull back on the reins and when the horse does our bidding we quit pulling. We are subtracting the pressure of the bit to increase the chance that the next time we pull back he will perform the same response to find the relief again. That means we are using negative reinforcement. Even if you pick up with just two fingers on the rein, the pressure is uncomfortable or annoying at best: it causes the horse to search for relief. This is an aversive. This is why negative reinforcement is also known as "avoidance learning". The opposite is an appetitive. One is something you avoid; the other is something you find pleasant. A bit is never pleasant. It operates off pain/discomfort and is inherently aversive.
Now then, one more example. If you ask your horse to stop and he doesn't, so you give a sharp tug on the reins- you are using the bit as positive punishment. You are adding an unpleasant stimulus to decrease the chances that he will ignore your cue the next time.
I prefer to educate my horses mainly by using appetitives these days. They learn easier and faster, they enjoy it more and are less stressed doing so. I teach my horses how to respond to my cues without using aversives and since bits are aversive, I haven't had a need for them since I started using +R. So, it didn't really come down to whether bits are humane or ethical for me. That's up to each one of us to decide for ourselves. Bits just became unnecessary for me in my training.
I have found in my personal experience that horses learn better and are more responsive without a bit. The bit does inflict pain at times. A bit is very uncomfortable for a green horse and just the act of packing a bit around can be enough to put a greenster at threshold, let alone trying to teach him anything by actually using it. Furthermore, the way a bit functions through negative reinforcement, is a guessing game sort of process for the horse to learn what the correct response is in the beginning. When you first apply pressure to the bit to teach the horse to stop, automatically he will do the opposite- he'll resist the bit and speed up, which is the horse's natural response to escape when he is frightened or something is hurting him. We have to allow the horse to explore his options before we can release to the correct response. He may continue forward, he may run sideway, he may toss his head and pull on your hands, all before finally stopping and then we can release. I have dealt with a host of sensitive and hypersensitive horses and this process of trial and error to figure out the correct response really stresses them out. This is because fear and pain are not very conducive to learning. On the other end of the spectrum, I've also dealt with my share of laid back horses and they simply don't have the energy to put forth to figure out what the heck we want and so they stop trying and are labeled stubborn or hard headed. I much rather explain to my horses exactly what I want to take the guess work out of it. It preserves the horse's try and keeps them in a relaxed state so they can engage and learn. These are the main reasons I've come to the conclusions I have.
I do believe horses are physically better off bitless as this video shows. It highlights some things we may not realize or have chose to ignore about the way bits act inside the mouth. I hope at the very least when people watch this video, they understand the amount of pain they can inflict on their horses and try to be as gentle as possible when riding with a bit. I'm not proud to admit that I have banged on horses’ mouths because I was taught they were hard mouthed and I had to get my point across. That is sorely incorrect, unnecessary and unfair to the horse. If a horse does not respond to an aid it is because he has not been taught properly, not because he is resistant or stubborn. It falls back on the rider. It’s our responsibility to educate the horse and if we are met with resistance it is an indicator that we have not not fulfilled that responsibility. If we must use pain and force to coerce the horse into doing our bidding, can we even call ourselves trainers?
The first evidence of the use of bits dates back to 3500-3000 BC. Metal bits came on the scene between 1300 and 1200 BC. Have we not evolved in our training since then?