If there’s one thing every equestrian is after, it’s a more natural relationship with their horse. Increasingly, we’re turning away from harsh training tactics in favor of more sympathetic methods – but how do bitless bridles fit into this model of enlightened horsemanship?
Are they effective? Are they even all that gentle?
We’ll look at how traditional and bitless bridles work, pros and cons of riding with a bitless bridle, and what switching to bitless can mean for you and your horse.
How Traditional Bridles Work
Traditional snaffle bridles work by exerting pressure around the horse’s sensitive mouth, lips, gums, and tongue. A curb chain or strap creates additional pressure on the chin groove and lower jaw. The headstall exerts pressure on the poll, and the noseband applies pressure to the nasal bone, with different nosebands exerting pressure in different ways.
Because the horse’s mouth is so sensitive, some horses find bits uncomfortable and will exhibit evasive behaviors such as head tossing, nodding, and rearing. A horse may also grab the bit in his teeth, tense the lips and tongue to avoid feeling the bit, or put his tongue over the bit altogether, all in an attempt to alleviate this discomfort.
How Bitless Bridles Work
Bitless bridles work by exerting gentle pressure on the horse’s head, instead of the mouth. Traditional bitless options include the Hackamore, sidepull and bosal, with the cross-under design gaining popularity recently.
The Hackamore works by exerting pressure against the nose, poll, and chin. Often seen in barrel racing and jumping, the Hackamore provides tremendous control, but must be used with a light hand as it can be quite severe.
The bosal and sidepull, commonly seen in Western riding, work by applying direct pressure to the nose and are great bitless options for neck reining.
Cross-under designs have two straps that cross under the jaw and work by applying gentle pressure on the opposite side of the head as the rein aid, causing the horse to move away from the pressure.
When most people talk about a bitless bridle, they’re typically referring to a cross-under design.
The greatest feature of the bitless bridle is equine comfort, and a comfortable horse is a happy horse.
Most horses tend to be more relaxed and free moving when ridden without a bit, and evasive behaviors such as head shaking, bucking, and bolting are reduced in a bitless bridle.
Bitless bridles also have tremendous stopping power. Most horses can learn to evade or lean into the bit, but the pressure a bitless puts on the horse’s head is impossible to evade.
Horses that are constantly chewing, salivating and mouthing the bit may focus better without a bit to fuss with as well.
As a training device, a bitless bridle can be used to retrain a horse who has learned to fear and evade bit contact. Horses who are heavy on the forehand can also be convinced to carry more of their own weight without a bit to lean into.
For horses with dental issues such as mouth, tongue or jaw injuries, the bitless is a great solution to ease discomfort while they heal. It is also good for young horses whose teeth are still erupting.
Bitless bridles have a lot going for them, but they’re not the right choice for everyone.
Showing riders should be aware that bitless bridles are not sanctioned for use in many equestrian competitions. While increasingly commonplace in trail, endurance, jumping and cross country disciplines, they’re prohibited under US and Canadian dressage rules, are considered “unconventional” in the hunter ring, and not allowed in English pleasure classes.
A bitless bridle may not be a great choice for a beginner rider, either. The mildness of a bitless bridle means the horse is better able to tolerate harsh hands. If a beginner rider never feels the sensation of good contact (or sees the horse’s discomfort when they’ve been too rough), they may have a harder time developing good hands.
When used properly, an experienced rider can achieve a level of finesse and refinement with a bit which is usually not possible with a bitless. This is a real concern for upper level dressage riders, many of whom find collection is more difficult to attain and maintain without a bit to guide the horse. Others, however, find it an interesting challenge.
Make a Strong Start With Bitless
When opting to go bitless, it’s important to remember that it’s a big adjustment for your horse. As with introducing any new piece of equipment, start off in a secure and controlled area, such as a round pen or ring.
Begin with groundwork at a walk, adding plenty of transitions to allow the horse to get a feel for the new bridle before executing any moves at speed. Dust off those 20m circles and serpentine exercises too, so the horse learns how pressure on her face, instead of her mouth, feels.
When fitting, the noseband must sit high enough on the face that it does not pinch the nostrils or rest on the soft nasal cartilage, but not so high that it rubs the cheekbones. Aim to keep the noseband within 2-3 finger widths of the bottom of the cheekbone.
Bitless Bridles: Do I?
Bits aren’t likely going anywhere soon, but the bitless revolution is growing every day.
When you see undesirable behaviours like head tossing, rearing or evading the bit, remember to give your horse the benefit of the doubt. He may be sore, not sassy.
If you suspect your horse isn’t as comfortable as he could be, or you just want to mix up your usual tack routine, give bitless a try. You (and your horse!) may be pleasantly surprised.
Have you already embraced bitless? Share your experience below!
Ready to give bitless a try? Order the Horze Bitless Bridle today!