Metal and synthetic bits are long-established cornerstones of control, but they aren’t for every horse or rider. Some see bitless riding as the perfect expression of unity between horse and human.
When to Consider Bitless
Medical conditions or emotional scars can make wearing a bit impossible for some horses. Each horse has his own personal preference as well. Once some owners ditch the bit, they find their horses respond far better and it remarkably enhances performance.
That doesn’t mean that removing the bit guarantees your horse’s comfort or success. Even bitless options can be cruel in inconsiderate or uneducated hands, and no piece of equipment is ever a substitute for proper training. Here are some options for riding bitless.
The rope halter, also used as a bitless option, can be quite abrasive and severe depending on the stiffness and diameter of the cord. It can damage the thin layer of skin covering the delicate nasal bone and abrade the lower jaw. It concentrates pressure on sensitive facial nerves, which are further focused in small areas depending on the number and placement of the knots over the noseband.
If it fits loosely, the signals it delivers can be unclear to the horse. Heavy reins or clips can also weigh the halter against the horse’s face and make it difficult for the horse to feel it when pressure is released.
Proper fit is important for clear communication and to prevent the cheek pieces from sliding into the horse’s eyes. A rope halter provides lateral communication, especially if the reins are connected on each side of the horse’s face.
When the reins are clipped below the horse’s jaw, pressure exerted with one rein can cause the horse to twist at the poll instead of bending his neck and keeping his head in the correct vertical position. The limitations of the rope halter also make it a poor choice for teaching roundness, relaxation, engagement and self-carriage.
A leather sidepull, or padded noseband with rein attachments at the side of the horse’s face, is more structural and stable than the rope halter. It distributes pressure across the bridge and sides of the horse’s nose.
The horse’s comfort is determined by the noseband material and diameter. A wide, padded, and supple material will be gentler than a stiff and abrasive lariat rope or narrow strip of braided rawhide. However, a stiffer material will enhance control.
You can have the best of both worlds by cushioning an abrasive noseband with self-adhesive bandage material and securing it with a layer of electrical tape.
Pros and Cons:
Like a rope halter, a sidepull provides limited vertical flexion and hind end engagement. However, with methodical training in this device, self-carriage can be achieved.
It’s also an excellent tool for teaching lateral suppleness and basic communication to an inexperienced horse. It’s a great option for enjoying a ride on a horse that’s further along in his education. Just don’t count on it as a reliable set of brakes on a horse that hasn’t yet developed lightness and responsiveness to subtle cues.
A bosal is an oval-shaped noseband with leather braided over a rawhide core (or a metal core which is inflexible and quite severe). They are available in various widths and degrees of flexibility.
The lowest point of the bosal is formed into a heel knot that is designed to balance the bosal and instantly release pressure. A specialized set of reins (known as the mecate) are tied just above the heel knot.
Pros and Cons
The bosal is useful for developing vertical flexion at the poll, but it falls short when it comes to lateral flexion. Teaching a horse to bend correctly in a bosal takes time and a talented set of hands. Pressure is applied with light and rhythmic pulses instead of steady pressure to avoid teaching the horse to brace.
Before its first use, the bosal must be shaped to prevent pressure points and ensure proper functionality.
Cross-under bitless bridles are designed to provide lateral communication, vertical flexion, and stopping power. They work by “hugging” the side of the horse’s head opposite of the rein that is activated. They are a favorite of many riders.
However, some horses aren’t comfortable with the hugging sensation; others may be sensitive to the poll pressure these bridles can apply. They also rely on a snug noseband for stability, which could interfere with eating and drinking when riding on trail.
Another significant downside is the delay between the time a rider applies pressure and when the horse feels it. More importantly, the release of pressure can be slow, muddying communication and causing confusion for the horse.
The mechanical hackamore is so named because it uses leverage to magnify the forces applied by the rider’s hands. It has a noseband, shank and chinstrap or chain. The noseband may be made of leather, metal, chain, rubber-covered metal, rope or rawhide.
How it Works:
A mechanical hackamore squeezes the horse’s nose and chin between the noseband and the chinstrap. Stiffer, more abrasive material and long shanks make this action more severe, while a short shank and softly padded nose and chin offer a gentler alternative.
Some mechanical hackamores also have an “arm” that protrudes from the upper portion of the shank and presses against or digs into the side of the horse’s face when the reins are engaged.
Pros and Cons:
In general, a mechanical hackamore provides stopping power, but it falls short in terms of providing consistent support or the development of subtle or refined communication. Directional lateral control is extremely limited as well.
However, there are well-padded and very low-leverage mechanical hackamores available that offer a viable alternative to the bit or other bitless options.
Top 3 Bitless Myths
1. If I ride bitless, I don’t have to have my horse’s teeth floated.
Expert dental care is always a necessity. A balanced jaw and full range of motion are essential for every horse’s physical comfort and ability to respond to our requests. Additionally, sharp points on the molars will cause pain and damage to the interior of your horse’s mouth especially when a noseband or headstall is pressing against his face.
2. I will have excellent control in any situation.
Neither a bit nor a bitless alternative can guarantee that. The best defense against unwanted or unpredictable behavior is to make wise choices about where you ride and what you ask of your horse. Consider your own experience and skill level, as well as your horse’s personality, experience and training.
3. My horse will be happier.
A change in tack is no substitute for good riding skills. However, a bitless alternative can be less stressful for a horse whose rider has uneducated hands. Always strive to be the best rider you can be. Learn to communicate clearly and instill relaxation, balance, and confidence in your horse, no matter which equipment you choose.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!