Thomas was incredibly resistant and sensitive to bits, right from the get-go. Despite training, dental exams and the use of different bits, the New Forest gelding’s frustration went unresolved. He would endlessly fight having the bit put in his mouth, and once it was in he was super sensitive to any rein movement. He even resented certain types of rein attachments. So his owners tried riding him in a bitless bridle. It was a fairly easy transition, thanks to the groundwork they had already done with the pony, and Thomas was significantly happier.
Riding bitless rather than in a traditional bitted bridle is becoming more and more popular. Through the process of helping riders make the transition, I have discovered the importance of several basic groundwork exercises to help ensure your first rides will be successful, and assist in more advanced under saddle work later on.
The majority of bitless equipment works off three main pressure points (some bridles may use additional points, or a variation). The first is against the bridge of the horse’s nose, with the noseband. The second is against the side of the horse’s face, and the third is often minimal poll pressure.
We do not want our horses to resist or avoid pressures from the bridle (this goes for any type of equipment we use on our horses). Horses that resist become tense and often hollow, and are unable to relax physically or mentally. This can lead to a rather exciting first ride, and if left unaddressed can result in behavioral and physical issues.
Obviously, the pressures from bitless equipment are not the same as those from the typical bits most horses are used to. I therefore suggest spending as much time introducing bitless options to your horse as you would any other type of equipment. It makes sense that we ensure our horses know how to give and respond to the pressures from equipment, whether it is a hackamore, sidepull, rope halter, bosal or the more recent leather bitless bridles. As with anything we do with horses, safety and preparation are keys.
Ground work success
I ensure each horse knows and understands four main groundwork exercises before attempting to ride him bitless. While these exercises are fairly simple, many horses do not know how to do them properly.
1. Teach your horse to softly lower his head in response to poll pressure.
2. Help him understand how to tuck his chin or flex vertically in response to noseband pressure.
3. Teach him to back up softly from noseband pressure. He should back up with his head lowered and chin tucked, not hollow and braced.
4. Your horse should understand how to give/flex laterally to pressure against the side of his face.
You may want to enlist the help of a professional to make sure you are doing these exercises correctly. Each horse is different and learns differently. It is often easiest to teach your horse these exercises in a regular or rope halter first, then start working on him in whatever piece of bitless equipment you intend to use.
Is he ready to ride?
Once your horse is comfortable with the pressure of the bitless bridle on the ground, how do you know if he is ready to ride? Take a look at where he is that day, mentally and physically. If you are riding a horse that tends to be a little spooky on cool windy days, then that is probably not the best kind of day to try out a new bridle. You want to set both yourself and your horse up for a positive first experience, so factor in everything you can to make that happen. Take a look at your groundwork, and make sure it’s all working for you – if you ask your horse one day to lower his head and instead he throws it up in the air, you must fix that before hopping aboard.
Some horses may take to bitless riding naturally and are completely fine with it on their first ride, but I prefer to take the “better safe than sorry” route. The first time you try bitless riding, consider the following:
•Ride in a familiar enclosed area with no other horses present until you know for sure you have full control.
•Check your groundwork first, and fix any rough areas before mounting up.
•Have someone supervise you, or at least tell someone what you are doing so they can check up on you mid-ride.
•Have someone walk beside you for the first few minutes while you make sure you can do a successful stop, backup, do a few upwards and downwards transitions and test out some patterns (to check your steering).
•Wear all your safety gear!
Keep your first rides short and simple. Only do things you know you and your horse can successfully do. It is better to take things slow and be successful than push the limit and create a wreck. Always make sure you still have control over each part of your horse’s body through numerous patterns and transitions – the most important of which will naturally be “halt” and “stand”. Riding without a bit can be an enjoyable experience for both horse and rider. In certain cases, as with Thomas, it’s the only option people can turn to when faced with certain physical or behavioral problems in their horses. Provided you keep safety in mind and ease your horse into the transition, he can perform just as well bitless as he did bitted.