Can I let my horse eat and nibble with the bit in?
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 about this topic on the “net”, and not a whole lot of actual scientific stuff. But, the overwhelming thought is NO - your horse should not eat with a bit in his mouth. For a few reasons.
My top reason for saying “NO” to eating with a bit is because of the behavior implications.
-Horses 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 that he’s the boss. 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 when being ridden in the vicinity of “snacks” are not paying attention to their job. Many of us allow this, which muddles the line between rider leadership and horse obedience. Or, we may only allow it 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 you are not the leader and he is. (PS - this is a dangerous situation)
-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 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).
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, that may not be paying attention. We all want our horse 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 pretty much perfected the rainbow reins pull over non voluntary dismount when I was a kid…)
-Your bit will be downright gross. The green slime will also infiltrate your bit rings and ends of the check pieces, and your tack cleaning job just got harder, especially if it dries. Not life threatening hard, but still.
I don't want to clean this.
I get it - you are in between classes at a show. But this is an accident waiting to happen if the bit has cheek pieces or a curb chain on a hook. Bridle parts plus boots/polo wraps = vet bil.
-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 live long day.
But - if you must, must, must give your horse a treat with, use a treat that dissolves, like sugar cubes. They 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. When you horse takes a bite from something on the road, it’s on his terms and you either let him (reinforcing his leadership) or you don’t (you are the leader).
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. If anyone out there has some great insight into this - please share away!