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Further Study on the Impact of Bitted vs Bitless Bridles for Therapeutic Riding Equines

This Research Project was conducted by Clodagh Carey.  Co-authors of this study are Roisin Brennan and Siofra Hayes-Moriarty.

Click here to read the Impact-of-Bitted-vs-Bitless-Bridles-for-Therapeutic-Riding-Equines study

This study builds on a previous study carried out by Clodagh Carey ( which explored the pact of bitted vs bitless bridles on two Therapeutic Riding (TR) equines.

The wearing of bitted bridles for therapeutic horses is still commonplace in many riding centres. Bits however, can be a potential source of discomfort, injury or pain for horses and this may result in horses displaying negative reactive behaviours. Little research has been carried out on the effect of bitted and bitless bridles on the Therapeutic Riding (TR) horse. This study examined the impact of bitted bridles and bitless bridles on 8 control horses that always wore a bitless bridle and 8 study horses that changed from bitted to bitless or bitless to bitted bridles within therapeutic riding sessions. Each TR session, tacking up and untacking was videoed and data was analysed using a behaviour profiling ethogram.

The ethogram consisted of negative and positive behaviours displayed by TR horses. Negative behaviours included negative expression, aversive behaviour, oral distress and resistant behaviour compared across four TR sessions. Negative expression differs significantly across the four riding sessions (X² = 10.750, df = 3, p = .013) and is highest in the bitted riding session (M = 23.00, SD = 16.69) compared to the other sessions (M = 15.40, SD = 7.20). TR horses have the lowest negative expression when using bitless bridles (M = 9.00, SD = 7.24). A comparison of aversive behaviour shows that aversive behaviour is lower in the control horses (Mean Rank = 4.08) (U = 3.500, z = -2.658, p = .005) compared to study horses that switch from a bitless to a bitted bridle(Mean Rank = 10.06). Mann Whitney u analysis shows the control horses (Mean Rank = 3.00) have lower incidences of oral distress than study horses that switch to bitted bridles (Mean Rank = 9.50) (U = .000, z = -2.932, p = .003).

No significant difference in resistant behaviour was present between the bitless control horses and the study horses when horses changed to bitted bridles or started in bitted bridles. Finally positive behaviours are highest amongst the bitless control horses (Mean Rank = 12.38) when comparing study horses that started in a bitted bridle(Mean Rank = 4.50) (U = .000, Z = -3.363, p = .001) and also when comparing control horses (Mean Rank = 12.50) with study horses that changed to a bitted bridle during the session(Mean Rank = 4.63) (U = 1.000, Z = -3.258, p = .001).These results suggest that TR horses in bitted bridles display higher rates of negative behaviours and lower rates of positive behaviours than those in bitless bridles. As a result this study challenges the necessity of bitted bridles in TR sessions.

About the Researchers

Clodagh Carey (BHSII) Manager – Festina Lente Riding School
Clodagh has worked with Festina Lente Riding School since 1998, which started as a Two year Pilot EU pilot project aimed at promoting employment for people with disabilities. Clodagh has a strong interest and commitment in providing quality, safe and enjoyable riding experiences to all those who ride at Festina Lente and has a particular interest in ‘centered riding’. Clodagh also coaches and assesses students of the Therapeutic Riding Coaching Course at Festina Lente which started in 2011.

Siofra Hayes Moriarty, Equine Specialist & Facilitator for the Festina Lente Equine Assisted Learning Service
Siofra Hayes Moriarty has worked with Festina Lente since 2011. Prior to this, she worked for three years in residential services for young people at risk. A graduate of Dublin Institute Technology, BA in Social Care and a lifetime of working with horses guided her to take up the role of Equine Specialist in the Equine Assisted Learning Service at Festina Lente.  Siofra also works with the Equine Facilitated Education Programme for young people in the Bray area attending in DEIS schools. Having successfully completed the Festina Lente Equine Assisted Learning Facilitator Course, Siofra now manages the EAL Service & the Outreach Programme.

Roisin Brennan – Festina Lente Course Co-ordinator and Researcher
Roisin Brennan worked at Festina Lente as a course coordinator and researcher for both Therapeutic Riding and EAL from 2011 until late 2015. She also worked part-time on the supported helper programme and on the Equestrian Training Program. Roisin is a recent graduate of UCD and holds a first class Masters in Social Science and presented the findings of her Thesis at the HETI Conference in Taiwan in June 2015.  Roisin has apprenticed in several horse training facilities in British Columbia and California discovering new methods of empathetic horsemanship based on equine learning behaviour and cognition. She is a certified silver level Chris Irwin horsemanship trainer in both ground -work and riding as well as an Equine Assisted Learning Building Blocks facilitator from Cartier Equine, Alberta. Throughout her work with horses and people in Canada and in Ireland Roisin has developed a strong interest in the underlying mechanisms of the horse and human bond as well as uncovering sound research methodologies and theoretical frameworks for equine assisted activities. As a result she aims to highlight what we can gain from exploring these unique and varied human – horse interactions.

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