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ZOOARCH  February 2009

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Subject:

Re: Iron Age Bits

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Date:

Tue, 3 Feb 2009 14:05:50 -0700

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Gala, this is a huge and very interesting field. You'll want to start with
a review of the semi-popular general works, and not be above doing that,
because most have been written by horsemen and horse-historians who really
know what they're about: Anthony Dent, Gianoli, Alexander Mackay-Smith,
H-H. Isenbart, and Jankovich. I am less enthused about Elwyn
Hartley-Edwards and you will see why when you begin serious comparative
review -- apparently the man has never traveled to the Western Hemisphere
and grossly misunderstands the morisco and spade, as he also does the
so-called 'western' saddle. On the other hand, by far the best of all the
semi-popular works, a book that is filled with brilliant and seminal
ideas, is:

Chenevix-Trench, Charles. 1970. A History of Horsemanship. Doubleday & Co,
NY.

Also, you will want to review anything whatsoever on horses or
horsemanship by Sandor Bokonyi. On bits, specifically, you will want to
see Martin's "Bit and Spur-Makers in the Vaquero Tradition" and Malm's
"Bits and Bridles".

Another spot you should look is the BAR publication of the mid-1980's on
Dereivka. They got their radiocarbon dates wrong, and the site is much
younger than they had originally thought; (if I am correct) they are now
calling it Iron Age. Also, there is a BAR publication on a Scythian
necropolis or 'neapolis' that is early Iron Age and that contains photos
and drawings of bits.

There is a bitting chapter also in my "Conquerors: A History of
Horsemanship in the New World", which you might find profitable to review
-- this is the answer to Hartley-Edwards, for the thematic backbone of
that book is the history of the hackamore (Perso-Arab. 'haqma') and the
invention of head-twirling and what all that has to do with bits. You DO
have to understand head-twirling, straightness, and collection, which are
key parts of the biomechanics of the ridden horse, in order to understand
any kind of bit. So, please go over to www.equinestudies.org and click on
'knowledge base' and download the three papers on equine biomechanics:
"Lessons from Woody", "True Collection", and "The Ring of Muscles". These
will convey the general paradigm for 'control' and collection.

For bit design, manufacture, and function, you might also like to look at
the mini-course on DVD that I did several years ago with Canadian
master-bitmaker Dave Elliott. It contains information not only on the bits
themselves but extensive info on how bits work in context of the anatomy
not just of the mouth, but of the whole rest of the horse's body. The DVD
set costs $120USD but, after viewing it, you can probably re-sell it to
some horsey friend of yours, or to a horse club, and recoup some of the
cost. Both Conquerors and "The Anatomy of Bitting" are available through
the bookstore section of the Equine Studies Institute website at
www.equinestudies.org.

One last note -- For those who think 'leverage' bits weren't invented
until 4th C. Turkey -- which was the received wisdom for quite some time
-- please go back to the National Geographic article publ. 1990's on
Scythian steppe burials, and have a look at the photos of the horse skulls
in the graves with the bits still in their mouths. I encourage all my
students and friends to get interested in equestrian history, and so when
Dave Elliott saw that article -- and having the great skill that he has --
he ran right out to his shop and built one. The thing is a mild gag,
meaning the butts are encaged in the shanks and can jiggle up and down a
bit. And I say 'shanks' and not 'cheekpieces' because the things have
finials with stops, or else terminal rings or square cages, to receive a
thong. Why are the bloody 'cheekpieces' so long on these ancient bits? The
literature will tell you it's for social status or decorative function.
The real reasons are: (1) to have the upper shank long enough so that it
carries back to the point where the bars of the underjaw blend into the
jowl; and (2) to have the lower shank as long as the upper shank, so as to
maintain a very mild 1:1 leverage ratio.

So what you do with these bits is you tie a cord or thong from the upper
end of the left shank, run it under the horse's jaws just in front of the
muscle of the jowl, and, adjusting it snugly, tie it to the upper end of
the right shank. You then attach your reins to the lower ends of the
shanks. When you pull on the reins, the upward pressure against the jaws
causes the horse to want to raise the base of its neck, i.e. to arch its
neck. This is not merely for aesthetics, even as it is not in the case of
the modern Portuguese bullfight or the doma vaquera, but because when a
horse maintains this posture he becomes far more maneuverable. Dave's wife
barrel races, and you had better believe she has been cleaning up since
she began running her horses in the 'Scythian bit': shaved nearly TWO
SECONDS off her best previous time, which, if you know anything about
barrel racing, is almost unbelievable. The 'Scythian bit' has nearly the
same effect on the horse as a spade bit does -- inducing him to move the
poll away from the chest, just the opposite of what a Texas curb or
Weymouth does -- and has the great advantage that you can pull on it
pretty strong and not hurt the horse at all. In fact, stronger pulls
merely tend to lift the mouth piece off the tongue and bars.

So have fun with this, Gala, & let us know how it all comes out. -- Dr. Deb



> Hello All,
>
> I am looking for works that address horse bits and bitting, preferably
> first millennium BCE, but in other times as well. I am looking for
> discussions and specifically images (drawings or photographs) of bits
> for a comparative study.
>
> I am aware of Mary Littauer's, "Bits and Pieces," and also the
> following:
>
> Brownrigg, G., 2006. Horse control and the bit. In: S.L. Olsen, S.
> Grant, A.M. Choyke and L Bartosiewicz, eds. Horses and Humans: The
> Evolution of Human-Equine Relationships, 165-172. (BAR International
> Series 1560.) Oxford: Archaeopress.
>
> Dietz, U.L.,  2003. Horseback riding: Man’s (sic) access to speed? In:
> M.A. Levine, C. Renfrew, and K. Boyle, eds. Prehistoric Steppe
> Adaptation and the Horse, 189-199. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for
> Archaeological Research.
>
> Many thanks,
>
> Gala Argent, Ph.D. Candidate
> School of Archaeology and Ancient History
> University of Leicester, UK
>
>

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