With certain hunter/jumper shows now allowing bitless equipment, the idea of leaving bits out of advanced and competitive riding is gaining more ground.
Riding bitless has long been accepted as a useful tool for starting young horses, and rehabilitating remedial types. It is seen in the western world throughout the competitive levels, and we are also starting to see it more in endurance riding.
The English disciplines seem a little more hesitant to follow, despite a small number of voyageurs demonstrating they are more than capable of riding bitless – however, this type of equipment is being accepted at some shows at various levels. In previous articles, I discussed how to safely help your horse understand your chosen type of bitless equipment on the ground, and during your first few rides. So how do you go from there to jumping a 3’ course, riding the trails, running a barrel pattern or performing a dressage test?
I will tell you the secret: there isn’t one, beyond good horsemanship and riding. Bringing your horse up the levels in bitless equipment is similar to how you would do so bitted, beyond perhaps a transition period. Sure, it may certainly force you to focus more on your body, leg and seat cues than your hands, but if you are training and riding your horse correctly bitted, you will know how to work your horse correctly bitless. Proper riding and control are not about the bit. Once the horse understands the basics of how your bitless equipment works, and you understand how to utilize rein aids in combination with the rest of your aids to effect the same response as with a bit, there is little you can’t do.
Going bitless can be about taking the metal out of the horse’s mouth, a reduction in stress or pain, a rehabilitative technique and/ or seeking a more “natural” partnership with the horse. For me, it’s also about teaching riders to get off their horses’ faces. The bit is so linked to “control” for so many riders that they rely too much on their rein cues and not enough on their body cues and aids.
True control of your horse comes from both a respectful bond and the ability to put each part of his body where you need it, when you need it, at the speed you require.
Your horse should be able to do upwards and downwards transitions, stop, back up, bend and turn, all off slight cues from your body and with gentle guidance and contact from the reins. It’s absolutely necessary to have these basics down pat before you try cantering up to that fence or rounding a barrel – if you don’t have the basic responses you need at the best of times, you certainly aren’t going to have them when your horse gets excited about heading for an obstacle. The ability to adjust your horse at a moment’s notice can mean the difference between making that fence or turn – or not. And “or not” can be disastrous as you begin moving into the higher competitive levels, no matter what equipment you are using.
In the same vein, you should be able to maneuver and guide each part of your horse’s body with your own, using light guidance from your hands. Exercises such as turn on the forehand, turn on the haunches, and half pass will help with this. More advanced exercises to enhance this level of control and riding include shoulder in/out, haunches in/out, travers, renvers, sidepass, flying changes, counter canter and pirouette or spin.
If you are starting from scratch and plan on working with your horse bitless from day one, you can expect the same level of progress you would with any other horse you have ridden (within reason – every horse learns at a different pace). Your horse will know nothing different, so there will be no adjustment period for him. You will be the one doing the adjusting!
If you are switching your horse over from bitted to bitless, or just experimenting with it from time to time, be patient and allow yourselves a transition period. Understand that your horse is learning to interpret cues through a new piece of equipment. You need to understand how your cues may differ and work hard to prevent yourself from automatically going to the cue you are used to versus the one appropriate to a bitless bridle.
Working Your Way Up
Once you and the horse are comfortable with the equipment and you have control over his body, and he is going well off your light cues, you can begin to challenge him a bit more in order to prepare him for work in your chosen discipline. Again, do this just as you would with any other type of equipment – step by step, rewarding the tries, and progressing at a pace suitable for your horse and yourself. Regardless of your discipline, start introducing poles, pylons, trail obstacles, barrels, tarps, exercise balls and other distracting but useful objects. Make sure you can maintain control through scary situations and obstacles, and more complicated exercises and patterns that might divert your horse’s attention away from you.
When you are ready to begin leaving your enclosed training areas (a good idea whether you intend to hit the trails or not, since show grounds often involve open spaces or warm up areas), do so just as if you were introducing any other horse to the great outdoors. Do it incrementally, starting on the ground first, and work your way up from there, making use of solid, quiet trail buddies if you can.
Getting Discipline Specific
Once you know you have the basics, have developed a light, respectful working partnership with your horse, and can maintain all this through potentially distracting situations and exercises, you can begin working your way up through your chosen discipline, whether it’s jumping, dressage or reining, in the same fashion you’d use with any other horse in any other type of equipment.
Know that you may be met with skepticism, have a tougher time finding a coach or trainer willing to humor your choice of equipment, and have limited showing options depending on your discipline.
Seek out an instructor who is willing to work with you and your horse, and to experiment with the equipment you have chosen. Build a program for your horse that sets you up for success. Believe in what works for you both, and have fun out there!