Bitless bridles could be gift to horses

Illegal medication and what to do about it is buzzing again, with the arrival of hot weather.

Racing Commissioners International want furosemide (aka Salix or Lasix) on race day banned in five years.

Rep. Ed Whitfield from Kentucky and Sen. Tom Udall from New Mexico have introduced federal legislation to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs in horse racing.

My Tucson neighbor Ed Martin, president of the racing commissioners, wants Rick Dutrow and his 64 or more sanctions for rule violations barred from racing. That decision, has been postponed until Saratoga summer in New York

Racing leaders are meeting next week, however, at Belmont, to talk – once again – on the subject, this time in a “summit,” the height of which is unknown but can be guessed.

So it was timely this week when I received an e-mail from an old acquaintance, an academic with impressive credentials, reasserting his view that the problem is soluble with some draconian action.

He says if the use of bits in horses’ mouths were abolished, “horsemen could do much for the horse, themselves and the reputation of racing,” which really is what most of the noise is all about.

My friend is not a crank or a gadfly writer of letters to the editor.

He is a Ph.D., professor of surgery emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Turfs University in Grafton, Mass., and author of more than 25 papers on the subject of bleeding in racehorses in various veterinary journals, dating back to 1974, when he was the first researcher I know to publish evidence indicating that racehorses suffering “nosebleeds” were in fact bleeding from the lungs.

He is Robert Cook, who also serves as chairman of BitlessBridle Inc., a conflict of interest he offers without apology.

He says he knows that by removing the bit exercise-enduced pulmonary hemorrhaging would not be entirely eliminated, since some uncommon sources of airway obstruction would still occur, but he says its frequency would be significantly reduced. He says removal of bits also would result in a major reduction in dorsal displacement of the soft palate, which he says is almost exclusively caused by the bit. And he says removal of them “also would result in a reduction in epiglottal entrapment, catastrophic musculo-skeletal accidents and breakdowns caused by bit-induced pathophysiology, pain and fatigue.”

He rejects the name of exercise-induced hemorrhage and the theory that high blood pressure during racing is an inherent part of the Thoroughbred’s makeup and that bleeding is inevitable or normal. He rejects that on grounds that it is not consistent with equine physiology, saying it is neither exclusively exercise-induced nor a true hemorrhage. Airways are for air, not blood, he says, and an abnormally negative pressure in the small airways results from any obstruction of the upper airway, the tract from the nostril to the first rib.

Dr. Cook says in the last 13 years he has discovered that there is a common and serious cause of airway obstruction, and that “it has been staring man in the face for 5,000 years.” He is referring to the bit, and he contends that bitless racing and training would be safer for the horse and rider, accidents would be reduced, performance enhanced, and the horse’s quality of life improved.

He realizes some readers will question how a bit in the mouth could possibly obstruct the airway, but he points out that while the bit lies on the tip of the tongue, the substantial and long root of the tongue lies in the throat. When a horse avoids the bit by withdrawing the tip of its tongue, which Cook calls a common evasion, the root of the tongue bulges in the horse’s throat, which in turn elevates the soft palate, which lies on the tongue’s root, and thus obstructs the airway.

I asked Dr. Cook about the issue of control. Here is his answer.

“It is a longstanding myth that a bit controls a horse. It doesn’t. On the contrary, I now realize that the bit is the most common reason why a rider or driver loses control. The bit is the most frequent cause of bolting, bucking, balking, rearing, and another 200 or more examples of pain-induced behavior. The responses are normal for the horse but inconvenient for the rider and sometimes fatal. The cross-under bitless bridle (if you want a generic name) provides comprehensive and much better communication than a bit. Riders and drivers are infinitely safer and far less likely to trigger spooks and spills. Horses are calmer. They ‘listen’ and ‘learn’ far better when they are not in pain. A bit frightens many a horse and makes him nervous, apprehensive and ‘hot.’ ”

Dr. Cook welcomes calls (telephone and fax 443-282-0472) and/or e-mail at He will be happy to send you the full text of the extracted version printed here.

It might be interesting if attendees at next week’s summit called or read his paper. Science has reversed itself for the better innumerable times over the centuries. One more reversal might not hurt, and possibly could help, racing.