Unsung Inventions: Bits

As mentioned in my June 20, 2013 post, I’ve been reflecting on humble yet revolutionary inventions that ancient Greek horsemen lacked, and today’s focus is on bits.

Bits have existed nearly much as long as horsemanship. It helps that horses have that natural gap between their teeth that looks genetically designed to accommodate a bit. But while the bit existed well before the ancient Greeks, their design and use have changed dramatically over the years.

As mentioned in my last post, fitting an ancient Greek bridle properly was critical. The straps of the bridle served to secure the bit in the horse’s mouth. If they were too loose, the horse could take the bit between its teeth (a very bad thing for the rider/driver). But if they were too tight, the bit could harden the horse’s mouth (a very bad thing for the rider/driver and horse). And if you saw fourth century BC Greek bits, you’d see exactly how a horse’s mouth could get damaged.

Modern Snaffle

Modern Snaffle

Ancient Bits

Ancient Bits

Ancient Bits

Ancient Bits

Above are some bits I saw at the museum in Olympia. As you can see from the pictures, the basic design is similar to a modern snaffle bit, but they also have those wicked looking points at the ends. According to J.K. Anderson’s Ancient Greek Horsemanship, other ancient bits also included spiked plates and rollers (spiked or smooth). You can find pictures of those in Anderson’s book, and to me, they look more like torture devices than something you’d put into a beloved horse’s mouth.

According to Anderson, the bits were so severe that Greek riders generally kept their reins slack and communicated instead through their seat bones (which is possible because they rode bareback). The only time they would use reins was to enforce a command, and they would immediately disengage once the horse obeyed. Anderson doesn’t comment on driving techniques, but I imagine drivers relied more on voice commands and the whip/driving stick signals with bits like that.

In regard to training horses, trainers would start with a more severe bit first. Once the horse learned to respond to it, they would switch to a smoother one. That might be why the bits on display in Olympia aren’t nearly as spiky as the examples in Anderson’s book.

Severe bits still exist nowadays, but their function has completely changed. Instead of acting as a punishing force to emphasize commands, bit and reins form a constant line of communication with riders applying light continuous tension on their horses’ mouths. Somewhere along the way, either the bits got redesigned or the philosophy of horsemanship changed. Either way, I’m sure the horses are happy not to have spiked plates pressing against their lips.

Next up: horseshoes.

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