Bits and Breathing: What’s the Relationship?

Mouth-gaping caused by bit pain could make it difficult for horses to breathe, researchers say.

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Bits and Breathing: What
Mouth-gaping caused by bit pain could put the horse’s mouth, tongue, and throat in positions that make it difficult for him to breathe. | Photo: iStock
By and large, owners and riders take steps to ensure their horses are always able to perform at their best. But is something as simple as putting a bridle on undoing all your hard work and actually hampering your horse’s performance? It’s possible.

Researchers in New Zealand say the tack we use and the way we ride could affect not only a horse’s capacity for breathing but also his feelings of breathlessness. And this could compromise his health, performance, and welfare.

Mouth-gaping caused by bit pain could put the horse’s mouth, tongue, and throat in positions that make it difficult for him to breathe, said David J. Mellor, BSc (Hons), PhD, HonAssocRCVS, ONZM, professor of animal welfare science and foundation director of the Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre at Massey University, in Palmerston, New Zealand.

“The horse is an ‘obligate nasal breather,’ ” meaning they can only breathe through their noses, not their mouths, Mellor said. “So any factors that interfere with that, especially when breathing is near maximum levels during vigorous exercise, will impair athletic performance

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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