Bits have their uses, but for many horses, they’re nothing but a nuisance. Switching to bitless can improve your horse’s performance and overall well-being.
Trying to have a conversation with horsepeople about riding bitless versus bitted can bring out some very strong opinions on both sides. But as we all know, no two horses are the same. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” could be a positive rule to follow when considering something new for you and your horse – and that includes going bitless!
Riding bitless can improve performance
Going bitless for even a short period, no matter what discipline you are in, can be like hitting the refresh button on your computer. For some horses, it can be life-changing. Yes – going bitless can change the rest of your horse’s life and riding career in a positive way! The mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of the horse’s anatomy. When a bit is used, even if you’re gentle with your hands, your horse will feel it immediately. This can affect performance and cause a horse to fall far short of his potential. On the other hand, many horses will immediately relax and enjoy their jobs without the distraction of a bit.
If you can’t seem to find a bit that makes your horse happy, no bit at all might be the answer. For instance, if you notice that your horse tosses his head when you pull on the reins and refuses to perform simple tasks, he could be telling you he doesn’t like the pressure on the sensitive bars of his mouth.
How does a bitless bridle work?
The bitless bridle works in an entirely different way than one with a bit.
- A bitted bridle enables the rider to communicate by applying pressure solely on the horse’s mouth.
- A bitless bridle, on the other hand, allows the rider to communicate through painless pressure that is distributed around the whole of the horse’s head. The bitless bridle distributes its gentle pressure to far less sensitive tissues and distributes an even amount of pressure over a wide area. It does this through two loops – one over the poll and one over the nose (see image at right). Essentially, it gives the rider an inoffensive method of communication by applying a nudge to one half of the head for steering, or a hug to the whole head for stopping.
When to make the switch
Some horses refuse to respond to a bit. The harder you pull, the more they grab down on the bit and pull against you. Some do this to try and stop the pain, while others are simply using this stubborn behavior as a way to say, “I can pull too, let’s see who wins.” As the saying goes — it takes two. If your horse is pulling against you, don’t pull back. This will start a vicious cycle that will cause your horse pain and hinder your training. Instead, consider going bitless.
Riding bitless will give your horse nothing to pull against. Teaching a horse to bend and become supple is much easier bitless, as it alleviates his first response of tossing his head and resisting your command.
Some very accomplished riders have had great success riding bitless. Dressage rider Alizel Froment of France, for instance, has performed bitless Grand Prix Dressage demonstrations. Horses riding in advanced three-day events, Grand Prix jumping courses and barrel races have all gone bitless with great success. Of course, not all disciplines allow you to compete bitless, so be sure to check with the governing body of your association. That said, even if you can’t compete without a bit, training bitless at home for short periods can relax and refresh your horse’s mind and lighten his responses to your aids.
How to make the transition
Transitioning to bitless requires a surprisingly small amount of effort and time. In many cases, horses catch on in only one ride. But when trying something new, it’s important to ensure you’re setting your horse up for success. Don’t try something unfamiliar when he is just getting back into training after a long break from work, or when the weather isn’t ideal. Start on a good day when your horse has been ridden consistently in your normal training program. A small, enclosed area (round pen, indoor arena, etc.) is best when you’re first transitioning to bitless. You can even longline your horse in the bitless bridle before you start riding with it.
Remember, you’re essentially going from “yelling” at your horse with a bit, to suddenly having a nice calm conversation with him. The switch may come as a surprise to him – but it’ll be a pleasant one!