By Renate Larssen

This article is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.

The horse world is changing. Practices that would have passed without question a decade or two ago are now causing outrage in the equestrian community, forcing stakeholders such as the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) to act to repair the public image of horse sport.

Unfortunately, some of their actions seem rather counterproductive. Recently, the Swedish equestrian magazine Hippson revealed that they edit out compromising footage of excessive whip use from their archives, for example.

Last year, FEI rejected the recommendations of their own independent Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission to make double bridles and spurs optional at higher-level dressage competitions.

The decision came after the International Dressage Trainers Club (IDTC) and the International Dressage Riders Club (IDRC) penned an open letter calling for double bridles and spurs to remain mandatory.

The letter (which was taken down from their own website but can be found on the Eurodressage website) was full of both factual misconceptions and questionable rhetoric. The IDTC and IDRC effectively called anyone who disagreed with them ignorant and uneducated – a wild accusation given the fact that the FEI’s own ethics commission evidently did.

As it turns out, I also disagree with them, and I can hardly be accused of being ignorant or uneducated. So, I will address the main points from their open letter, detailing some of the factual errors and calling out some of the more problematic rhetoric.

Below I quote passages from the letter together with my comments.

IDTC/IDRC: “We understand that there is discussion around making the double bridle and spurs optional for Grand Prix dressage tests. We respectfully ask you to consider the input of the primary stakeholders regarding this proposal.”

Comment: Surely the primary stakeholders are the horses that will be experiencing the effects of the double bridle and the spurs. Who provides their input?

IDTC/IDRC: “The opposition to the double bridle comes from a lack of understanding regarding how and why the double bridle is used.”

Comment: This is a deceitful way of introducing an argument because it implies that those who disagree are ignorant and less knowledgeable and that their opinions therefore shouldn’t matter. It’s also ironic given their own factual mistakes in the letter.

IDTC/IDRC: “Yes, the misuse of the double bridle can lead to force and injury, this is true with the snaffle or any other bit or even a hackamore.”

Comment: This is a transparent attempt at relativization. Yes, any equipment can cause harm, but the risk is higher with equipment that has been designed to work through discomfort, such as bits and spurs. Bits are a common cause of oral lesions and are frequently associated with resistance and discomfort-related behavioural issues.

Horses didn’t evolve to carry metal in their mouths so there is no space for a bit, let alone two (1). A double bridle is more uncomfortable than a single bridle, simply because the horse must carry more foreign objects in its mouth. To quote Dwight G. Bennett, DVM, PhD (2): “The double bridle puts a lot of hardware in the horse’s mouth, and the chances of injury are arguably doubled as compared to bridles with a single bit.”

IDTC/IDRC: “Any indication of injury to the horse results in elimination. This is a powerful incentive to ensure riders are judicious in their use of the reins.”

Comment: Ideally, this would be true, but both science and practice have shown that this is not the case. The prevalence of bit-related injuries and discomfort-related behaviours (3, 4, 5) in dressage horses indicates that whatever regulations and incentives are in place are not enough to guarantee horse welfare.

In addition, FEI rules around injuries are demonstrably inadequate: Cian O’Connor’s horse Kilkenny started bleeding profusely from both nostrils during the last Olympics but was not eliminated, for example.

IDTC/IDRC: “The anatomy of the horse determines the effect of the bit(s) on the horse and the snaffle and curb bit function in different ways. The snaffle produces the flexion and exercises the muscles whereas the double bridle produces the bending of the haunches.”

Comment: This is a slightly bizarre passage because none of these statements is true. A snaffle doesn’t “exercise the muscles”: the horse exercises its muscles through movement. A horse in a field will also exercise its muscles, even without any equipment. It’s the effort and variety of the movement that determines the level of exercise, not the bit.

Furthermore, the haunches are not controlled by the curb. It’s a myth of modern riding that haunches can be lowered by manipulating the horse’s head. The biomechanical effect of the curb bit is not the bending of the haunches but the lowering of the head and bending of the neck through leveraged forces on the chin, poll, and mouth. This effect is unrelated to the mechanics of the hind end: a horse on a curb can bend its poll and neck with lowered hind end and elevated back, or with a trailing hind end and collapsed back (like in the “rollkur”/”low-deep-round” head carriage).

In fact, you don’t need a curb at all to achieve true collection. There is an increasing number of riders who train advanced dressage movements in a snaffle, with bitless headpieces, and with no equipment at all. Surely they should be given equal opportunity to showcase their skill and hard work in the competition arena?

IDTC/IDRC: “The double bridle enables the rider to improve the precision of his aids and to establish a refined communication with his horse (…) This evidences a high level of skill and training and why it is required at top level of competition. Proper use of the double bridle demonstrates the ultimate in expertise.”

Comment: There are many ways of establishing refined communication between rider and horse, and I would suggest that achieving this with minimal use of equipment is arguably a better demonstration of skill, training, and expertise. Dressage is, at its core, about movement, not about equipment.

To quote one of the great masters of classical dressage, Nuno Oliveira, who famously was said to execute advanced dressage movements with nothing but a silk cord in his horse’s mouth: “It is only by allowing horses to move on a free rein, and not in holding them in, that success may be obtained. Riders who hold in their horses are insignificant riders and will never advance.”

IDTC/IDRC: “Similarly spurs give the rider the opportunity to give subtle and refined leg aids.”

Comment: This is another myth of modern dressage, which perpetuates a misunderstanding of how spurs work. Spurs are not a refinement of the leg aids in general, but rather a specific leg aid used to create collection.

When spurs are applied to the horse’s sides, the horse braces against them by contracting the abdominal muscles, which angles the pelvis and lowers the haunches (you can easily visualise this with an unsuspecting friend: press your fingers into their sides and see what their body does).

As very few competitive dressage horses are ridden in true collection anymore, spurs are clearly not used the way they are intended to be used and are therefore an unnecessary piece of equipment for most riders.

Furthermore, there are plenty of riders who achieve true collection without spurs, and they have as much right to showcase their skills and training as those who use them.

IDTC/IDRC: “Therefore, we believe that neither the double bridle nor spurs represent a welfare risk to horses and there exist sufficient controls to ensure against their misuse. To make these two pieces of equipment optional would have no positive impact on horse welfare.”

Comment: Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that current controls are insufficient and that horses suffer considerably due to poor fitting and use of double bridles and spurs…

About 10% of dressage horses and 16% of dressage ponies have oral lesions, according to a recent study. They are more frequent with bitted than bitless bridles and increase significantly with competition level (6).

Noseband design and tightness are not regulated at all, even though there is a strong correlation between noseband tightness and bit-related injuries (7), physical discomfort, and emotional discomfort.

These effects are compounded by the double bridle. Particularly crank nosebands, common in double bridles, can exert nerve-damaging pressures on the horse’s face. When combined with a double bridle, tight crank nosebands also impair blood flow to the face and trigger a physiological stress response in the horse (7, 8).

Many dressage horses are forced to move with their nasal plane behind the vertical as a direct effect of the mechanics of the double bridle. This head position is associated with both physical and emotional discomfort (3, 9, 10) and is not sufficiently penalized in dressage competitions (10).

The prevalence of conflict behaviours – a sign of emotional stress, and thus compromised welfare – in dressage horses is generally high (5), and some studies have found that it increases with competition level. (3, 4) Conflict behaviours are also not penalized by the judges (5).

IDTC/IDRC: “While it might be tempting to make these items optional as a ‘peace offering’ to critics in the hope that they will be satisfied that approach is incorrect and naïve. But more importantly giving in to unwarranted or ignorant criticism is practically and ethically wrong.”

Comment: Calling critics ignorant is a bold move given the factual errors in their own letter. It’s also the statement I find most problematic, because it’s an attempt to discredit those of us concerned with sport horse welfare.

Many critics, including myself, are equine professionals. In a survey by the FEI’s own independent ethics commission, published in November last year, 87% of veterinarians said they were concerned about the well-being of sport horses during the competition phase of their lives.

Recent studies that have looked at aspects of sport horse welfare also indicate that we are not doing enough to prevent harmful practices, let alone secure the FEI ideal of a “happy athlete”.

IDRC/IDTC: “While it may be uncomfortable to endure unfounded attacks, the only real defence is to adhere to the principle of using objective scientific evidence to establish rules regarding welfare.”

Comment: I agree. And the objective scientific evidence is in favour of re-evaluating current regulations and making double bridles and spurs optional.

IDTC/IDRC: “Further we urge that when considering welfare measures the options are evaluated in the context of all the FEI disciplines. To suggest that one discipline needs to be more controlled in regard to welfare than another is misleading and false.”

Comment: This is a straw man argument. No one criticising dressage is saying that welfare issues in show jumping, eventing, or racing are less important.

The bottom line: this debate isn’t about whether we should ban double bridles and spurs, it’s about whether competitors should be able to opt out of using them. Surely there can be no harm in erring on the side of caution and allowing greater flexibility in favour of less aversive equipment.

I do hope the FEI revisits the recommendations of the ethics commission. It would be a win-win situation for everyone, including the IDTC/IDRC. If it turns out to be impossible to train horses to perform Grand Prix movements without a curb bit or spurs, then there will be no competitors at that level without a double bridle and spurs anyway, and the issue will resolve itself.

If, however, it turns out to be possible to train horses up to Grand Prix level without a double bridle and spurs, then these competitors should have equal opportunity to showcase their skills. After all, dressage is about movement, not equipment.


1. Cook W.R. & Kibler M. 2019. Behavioural assessment of pain in 66 horses, with and without a bit. Equine Veterinary Education, 31 (10), 551-560.

2. Dwight G. Bennett, Equine Dentistry (2011)

3. Kienapfel K., Link Y., König von Borstel U. 2014. Prevalence of different head-neck positions in horses shown at dressage competitions and their relation to conflict behaviour and performance marks. PLoS ONE, 9.

4. Górecka-Bruzda A., Kosińska I., Jaworski Z., Jezierski T., Murphy J. 2015. Conflict behavior in elite show jumping and dressage horses. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 10 (2), 137-146.

5. Hamilton K.L., Lancaster B.E., Hall C. 2022. Equine conflict behaviors in dressage and their relationship to performance evaluation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 55-56, 48-57.

6. Uldahl M., & Clayton H. M. 2019). Lesions associated with the use of bits, nosebands, spurs and whips in Danish competition horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 51(2), 154-162.

7. Casey V., McGreevy P., O’Muiris E., Doherty O. 2013. A preliminary report on estimating the pressures exerted by a crank noseband in the horse. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8 (6), 479-484.

8. McGreevy P., Warren-Smith A., & Guisard Y. 2012. The effect of double bridles and jaw clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 7(3), 142-148.

9. Von Borstel U.U., Duncan I.J.H., Shoveller A.K., Merkies K., Keeling L.J., Millman S.T. 2009. Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116 (2-4), 228-236. 

10. Christensen J., Beckmans M., Van Dalum M., Van Dierendonck M. 2014. Effects of hyperflexion on acute stress response in ridden dressage horses. Physiol. Behaviour, 128, 39–45

This article is published in Issue 7 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.