A backward bit

EQUUS - - Eq Letters -

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.

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