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The bitless bridle trend

By Rhiannon Cecil

Research by Lisa Siebrits

Going bitless is becoming more and more of a trend as riders pull away from gadgets and focus more on natural horsemanship. The concept can be scary, especially for those of us who haven’t considered it as an option before or have horses that would need re-schooling to understand bitless cues. In this article, we’ll examine the different types of bitless bridles and their uses in case going bitless is one of your 2023 New Year’s resolutions.

The side pull

A side pull is the most straightforward type of bitless bridle as it works with pure nose pressure, and is a great starting point to teach your horse to respond to bitless cues without any added leverage.

This bitless bridle works very similarly to the pressure your horse is used to from being led in a halter. There is no leverage, and the reins attach to the noseband on the sides of his face. The benefit of using a side pull bridle or noseband rather than simply buckling a set of reins to the sides of your halter is that it will fit more snugly and be more stable on your horse’s face than the halter.

Side pulls are generally made from leather, rope, or paracord and fit onto a standard English bridle’s cheekpieces. They are available for you to purchase from local tack manufacturers. A relief bridle can also be converted into a side pull by connecting the reins to the D rings on the noseband and removing the bit connector straps.

The scrawbrig

A scrawbrig fits and works very similarly to a side pull, but the chin strap slides through two rings on the side of the noseband. When you apply pressure to one or both reins, the chin strap tightens, creating both nose and chin pressure. This gives you an added set of breaks without putting unnecessary pressure on your horse’s mouth.

Just remember, every action results in an equal yet opposite reaction, so don’t hang on to the bridle simply because you don’t have a bit. Your horse will just lean on your hands, and you’ll feel even more out of control.

The cross-under

Cross-under bitless bridles have two straps that cross underneath your horse’s jaw, so when you apply pressure to the reins, that pressure is redistributed across your horse’s whole head. More specifically, when you apply pressure to the right rein, it exerts pressure on the left side of your horse’s head, guiding them away from the pressure and to the right. Cross-under bridles or nosebands are made out of leather or rope, and they are available in selected tack stores and from small businesses. It is possible to buy the whole cross-under bridle or a cross-under attachment which will attach to the poll piece of your existing snaffle bridle.

This type of bridle can be quite confusing to horses, as the cues are not as clear cut as with many other bitless bridles, and the pressure release does not tend to be as quick as with alternative types of bitless bridles. However – every horse is an individual, and some may prefer this type of bridle over others.

The bosal

Bosals don’t make much of an appearance on the English riding scene, as they’re almost exclusively a Western trend. They are made from a stiff braided rawhide noseband, which may have additional wrapping over the horse’s nose, and a rope rein (called the mecate) is tied to the chin of the bosal.

The bosal works predominantly off of nose pressure, but the turning cues are not as distinct as they are with other bitless options, as the rein is attached to one point, not two, so you do not have two separate reins that work independently. For this bridle to be effective, you really have to focus on giving the horse aids with your body, as pulling indiscriminately won’t achieve anything.

The hackamore

Hackamores are the most popular type of bitless bridle, especially in the competitive English riding community. Hackamores generally work using leverage, and a combination of nose, chin, and poll pressure – the ratio of which is specific to the type of hackamore used. A hackamore is often considered the strongest bitless option due to its mechanical leverage action.

Riders that use hackamores can also select different types of nose pieces and curb/chin pieces, which can significantly impact the hackamore’s pressure. A padded leather nose piece or a sheepskin nose piece will be much softer than a narrow chain or rope nose piece, and a leather or sheepskin-covered chin piece will be gentler than a standard curb chain. You can also buy sheepskin covers to position over the existing nose and chin piece to make it more comfortable for your horse.

Hackamore shanks come in various types, shapes, and sizes, each with varying actions and strengths. In general, the longer the shank of the hackamore, the more leverage it has. Some hackamore options (such as the orbitless and flower hackamore) have various setup options that allow you to adjust the amount of leverage and poll/nose/chin pressure.

These hackamores allow different placements of the cheek pieces, reins, and nose and chin pieces to adjust the leverage from no leverage (which has a similar effect to a side pull) to moderate leverage. The most common hackamore is the standard short shank English hackamore which is available at most tack shops.

Other hackamore shank options include Bombers’ Rogan hackamore, Stubben’s hackamore, which is designed to avoid poll pressure, and the Acavalllo hackamore shanks, which have different slots for the rein and cheek piece, allowing you to adjust the amount of leverage and poll//nose/chin pressure. Every horse will have a different preference and go better in a different combination of shanks, nose pieces, and chin pieces, so it is ideal to try various combinations on your bitless journey.

How to start teaching your horse to work bitless

It is imperative to start bitless schooling from the ground. Start in hand at the walk, giving your horse the cues for turning and stopping and rewarding them for any correct response, even if it is slight.

If your horse is used to working in a bit, this is a totally new concept to them, so you should approach it like you are starting a young horse for the first time. They do not immediately know what the different cues mean and what you are asking, so be patient. You can also do this work using long lines if you are confident and comfortable with their use.

Once you are sure your horse is comfortable with and understands the cues from the ground, you can start introducing bitless work under saddle. It is best to start slowly and at the walk, allowing your horse to figure out what you expect from them. Start this work in a closed area, like a lunge ring, if that makes you feel more confident.

Consider riding with a bit and the bitless option, with double reins, and slowly use the bit reins less and less until you are sure you do not need them as a safety net anymore, and then totally remove the bit.

If your horse seems confused about what you are asking at any stage, take one step back and build up their confidence and understanding again. It will take time to refine the cues, the same way young horses take time to understand lighter turning and stopping cues when you are schooling them for the first time. It will also, as always, be very beneficial to ride effectively from your seat and leg aids to help the horse understand the rein cues.


Note

It is important to remember that ‘bitless’ does not necessarily mean ‘softer’. Whilst a bitless bridle does not put pressure on the horse’s mouth it does still rely on pressure to give cues. Some bitless bridles are ‘harder’ in this application of pressure than others, and with the delicate facial structures of our horses we need to be very careful that we don’t use bitless bridles in a heavy handed way, simply because they are ‘not in the mouth’. Ultimately, any piece of tack is only as good/kind as the person using it, so can be soft or hard depending on how you use it. Endeavour to ride with sympathetic hands whether you ride with a bit or without and you should find your horse enjoys his work and performs much better – force is never the answer! [end box]


Disciplines in South Africa that allow bitless bridles for competition

Bitless bridles are slowly becoming more accepted in the competitive equestrian world. You can currently compete in showjumping and equitation bitless and adults riding mares and geldings can compete bitless in certain showing classes (specified in the showing rules). Bitless bridles are also allowed in the showjumping and cross-country phases of eventing. However, in the cross-country phase of eventing, a hackamore cannot be used on its own and must be used in conjunction with a bit.

If going bitless is something you’d like to consider, we recommend consulting a professional who can help guide you through the schooling process and help you explore all the options until you find the perfect fit. There is a whole new freedom to be found in riding bitless — you no longer have to worry about damaging your horse’s mouth, and with time, you’re likely to find he is just as adjustable and responsive without the need for extra gadgets.