The most glaring difference between bitless riding and traditional riding is, of course, the lack of a bit. Recently bitless riding has grown in popularity among knowledgeable, competitive equestrians.
The origins of bitless riding trace back to when man first started riding horses. The need for a mouthpiece was only seen when the first riders decided that they needed to control the head of the horse to influence the rest of his body.
A bitless bridle eliminates any possibility of a horse being hurt in the mouth, which is the primary reason why many riders have decided to turn to bitless riding. However, there are other advantages to going bitless beyond humanitarian considerations. Riders from all disciplines can benefit from using a bitless bridle, even if it isn’t a permanent option.
Bitless versus bitted
While gentle hands and good riding are absolutely necessary for promoting horse comfort, in some instances, the conformation of a horse predisposes him to going better without a bit regardless of how you ride. Depending on the type, bits are designed to put pressure on various parts of the horse’s mouth. There are options to bit horses that are gentle and cause minimal harm to a horse’s mouth, but if you have a horse with an unconventional mouth, even these may cause discomfort. In these instances, or simply if you feel the need to explore a different approach, bitless may be for you. There are many benefits of going bitless and it can easily be used as a schooling style to complement your bitted work.
Standard bridles use mouth and poll pressure to communicate with the horse. These sensitive areas can easily become painful, especially when a harsh bit is used in conjunction with a badly fitting noseband. Bitless bridles direct even pressure to the nose and the horse’s whole head, rather than intense pressure in concentrated areas.
Many riders are too reliant on the bit to control the horse. When a rider believes that the mouth is the primary channel of communication, the other aids become neglected. Control starts in the seat, not the hands. Riders who want to take the step to bitless may worry that they don’t have ‘brakes’ without a bit. This concern can be allayed with some professional lunge lessons, focusing on using the seat for speed control. In any event, if a horse is going to spook and bolt, no bit is going to stop him.
Standard nosebands can obstruct a horse’s breathing, especially when done up too tightly or if badly positioned. Most bitless bridles are designed to prevent breathing difficulty. Many normal bridles also create poll flexion, which can ultimately obstruct the airway at the throat. Horses who are uncomfortable during work will spend more time focusing on relieving their discomfort and less time on what the rider is asking. The result of clear airways is more oxygen, and therefore improved concentration from the horse.
More freedom of movement
When a horse experiences discomfort in his mouth, he can’t help but to try to resist and get away from the pain. This may result in a horse who overbends or sets his jaw. Other side effects of discomfort include tension, stiff movement, an unwillingness to move forward and head shaking. Paradoxically the horse may also ‘run away’ or try to yank the reins from the rider’s hands. For dressage riders in particular all of this translates to a lack of cadence and poor gaits.
By comparison, when the horse is more comfortable in the mouth he is able to move more freely and naturally. He will also be more inclined to move forward into the contact. Now he can work towards true collection, and natural self-carriage will develop as he advances in athletic fitness, hind-end impulsion and roundness of the spine.
Types of bitless bridles
The side-pull bridle is a very popular bitless option to start with. In its simplest form, it can be described as a bridle with rings on the sides that connect to the reins. The action on the nose is similar to the action in the mouth, in that the rider will still use the reins to guide the horse in the same way that they would with a standard bridle.
The main feature of the bosal is that the reins are attached at one single point behind the horse’s jaw (in the same place as where the lead rein is attached to a halter). The rider can then steer the horse by neck reining. Bosals are popular among Western riders.
Gentle control hackamore
The gentle control hackamore belongs in the bosal group as well. It features a noseband with a fulcrum plate underneath the jaw, which is also attached to the throat lash to create three pressure points, instead of one.
The crossunder bridle is probably the most popular of all the bitless bridles. It features two straps which cross from the just below the ears, under the jaw, to the nose on the opposite side of the horse’s face. The actions that these bridles exert have been described as ‘head-hugs’ as they distribute gentle pressure around the horse’s head instead of in isolated areas.
Mechanical hackamores, which include the German Hackamore and the Blair’s Pattern, all use leverage action on the horse’s head. Pressure on the reins causes the shanks to pivot, which then exerts pressure on the poll, nose and chin. Hackamores should only be used by skilled riders with gentle hands, as they have the potential to damage a horse’s nasal bones.
William Micklem developed the first relief bridle, called the Rambo Micklem Multibridle. It is a unique bridle which is designed ‘from the inside out’ as it avoids all sensitive areas on the horse’s head. The most noticeable difference is that the cheek piece features a diagonal strap that attaches to the noseband, to avoid any pressure on the protruding molars. The bridle can be used with a bit, but also features two bitless options: the side-pull and the crossunder.
Bitless as a schooling aid
Bitless bridles are not allowed in all disciplines but that is not to suggest that you can’t use bitless riding as a training aid for yourself and your horse, alongside your bitted riding. Bitless riding often compels you to develop your aids more fully as you learn to use your seat and legs correctly, rather than relying on your hands to turn, slow down and collect your horse.
Horses who lean on the bit or are on the forehand can also benefit from bitless riding. They have to learn to carry themselves from behind rather than overloading the front of their bodies. Taking away the bit also teaches the horse to pay closer attention to the seat and leg aids with the rider; this is especially effective with horses who are mouthy.
Most horses do not struggle with the initial transition to bitless so riders should not be hesitant to give it a go. As well as being a beneficial schooling aid, bitless riding in between normal bitted riding also creates variety in your schooling.
Text: Charlotte Bastiaanse
This article appears in the November issue of HQ.