tack talk

A Story of Bits Through History — Part 1

In the Beginning

Although the domestication of horses is poorly understood, we do know that since early man first captured and rode a wild horse, he has been confronted with the problem of control. That started some 4,000 plus years ago and riders have been continually searching for a more efficient tool to make their mount more responsive.

Although horse was a staple in prehistoric diets, what motivated some early man to want to ride, rather than eat a horse, is not known. Perhaps, he remembered his mother carrying him around when he was little, and that idea appealed to him. And of all the animals out there, the horse looked the safest. It didn’t have horns or claws.

The first horse was likely snared when it came down the trail to a water hole. Either a stout grapevine or rawhide with a loop at one end may have been tied to a big tree limb. When the pony hit the end, things got exciting. And, while it didn’t have horns, it was pretty handy with both front and back feet. It probably took some time in captivity, with no food, before the horse was weak enough to allow the man to touch him without pawing or kicking. We can imagine that finally, after patting his new mount, the man takes a deep breath, grabs a mane-hold, and swings aboard. The horse, being a prey animal, thinks a predator is on his back and bogs his head and the first rodeo takes place.

All of that had, undoubtedly, to take place many times before the weakened animal would allow the man to sit there. The rider was likely black and blue, but he was riding. The horse was not gentle but had accepted the situation. By tapping his new mount on the jaw, the fledgling trainer could maneuver the animal but hadn’t figured out how to stop it. He was already looking for more control.

It’s likely a loop of rawhide around the nose was the next step — although the horse could out-stout the rider. Tying a rawhide rein around the lower jaw worked even better. Luckily, for the horse, there are no teeth between the incisors and the molars, so the thong fit well.

The man gets his new mount back to the home settlement and the whole family gets busy pulling grass to feed it. The long partnership between man and horse was beginning.

Some time later another rider figures out that if one rein works, two are better. He can really pull the pony around and convince it to stop. Time passes and riders adapt to leverage bits to control their horses which takes things a step further. In the beginning two short pieces of deer horn are used, and three holes are burned through the horn-one in the center and one at each end. A short piece of twisted rawhide-just the right length to fit the horse’s mouth-is passed through the center holes and knotted. A simple headstall goes at one end and reins at the other. Such a bit — without the rawhide — has been found at a prehistoric camp site in Europe. Some time later — no one knows how many generations had to pass — a jaw strap was added, and the curb bit came into being. Horsemanship was beginning to develop.

Although it’s not known for certain, all of this probably happened numerous times across prehistoric Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Early man became a more proficient rider, had more control of his mount, increased his hunting range and was a formidable warrior. With the domestication of sheep, goats and cattle, men developed into nomadic herdsmen following a permanent food supply to better pastures. Without the ability to ride, and control the horse, this would not have happened.

This history was written by my good friend and tack historian Phil Livingston. Phil is author of War Horse and The Driftwood Legacy among many other books.

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