A backward bit
While browsing “Conformation Insights: Horses of the Civil War” (EQUUS 477) the picture of Gen. Alfred Pleasonton on page 66 caught my eye. Unless I am mistaken, his horse is outfitted in a fairly standard “cavalryshank” bit---which appears to be set backward in the horse’s mouth.
I did a brief online search of my own and found the “off-side” photo to which author Deb Bennett, PhD, refers in the caption; this appears to confirm the tack faux pas. I am aware of some French military bit designs that have a forward-broken curve in the shank, but I have never seen such a thing among the U.S. arsenal. I would love to hear some commentary on whether this is a very unusual bit or else a rather embarrassing error. Shanna Nelson, DVM Harrisonville, Missouri
Deb Bennett, PhD, replies: This is a most interesting letter, from a reader who should be congratulated for having such a sharp eye. Yes, the bit is in backward.
Here are the observations I would make about it: This photo of Gen. Alfred Pleasonton comes from the right-hand half of a wide-angle plate. The left-hand half of the photo is the image of George Armstrong Custer that ran on page 69 of “Conformation Insights: A Different World” (EQUUS 475). Pleasonton and Custer were said to be close friends, and the photo in question was taken while the army had been in camp for some time---in other words, it was slack time. These two buddies used part of a long afternoon to pose for this photo. How did the bit come to have been placed backward in Pleasonton’s horse’s mouth? I can imagine several possibilities:
1. The men were drunk and didn’t know what they were doing. Perhaps this could account for the rather rakish angle of Pleasonton’s hat and what I had described as Custer’s rather “prissy,” overblown pose.
2. They were making a joke, assuming that any soldier or competent horseman would notice that the bit was in backward. There is a precedent for this idea---note my comments on page 65 of “Horses of the Civil War ” regarding the photo of Allan Pinkerton, who is posing on an ill-tacked horse outside of Abraham Lincoln’s battlefield tent.
3. The bit is backward on purpose. I had noted that Pleasonton is carrying a whip in the photo. Only the butt of it shows in the photo that ran in EQUUS, but the whole whip is shown very plainly in the photo from the right side taken at the same time. The appearance of a whip is quite unusual among the Civil War photos, and it’s possible this rather thick-bodied horse was a real ironmouthed, iron-sided old campaigner who had learned to ignore his rider’s aids. This type of horse would wear the rider out with kicking and spurring unless other, sharper aids were used. Putting the bit in backward is a way to multiply its severity. Perhaps this was how this horse was normally tacked.