What’s the most important piece of equipment for controlling your horse? Most riders would say the bit tops the list. Bits of one type or another have probably been around since man domesticated the horse, as early as 5,000 B.C. Today, there is an ever expanding variety. There are bits to fit each discipline, type of horse, mouth size and more. So why is there a growing movement toward abandoning this piece of equipment and going bitless?
“Pain and fear of the bit trigger flight, fight and freeze responses, and loss of control,” states Dr. Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD, and developer of the Bitless Bridle. “I have now documented over one hundred problems the bit causes the horse.” This list includes pain, bruising, lacerations and fractures to the mouth and jaw, airway obstruction, headshaking, behavioral problems such as rearing, bolting and bucking, and emotional damages including fear and apprehension.
Because the bit sits in the horse’s mouth – a terribly sensitive area – it is difficult for most riders to use it in a way that never inflicts pain to the horse. “Until such a time as an option was available, the bit was an unavoidable necessity,” says Dr. Cook. “But now that an option is available (in the cross-under bitless bridles or CBBs) it requires the bit to be re-classified in terms of welfare. However, with all new ideas and technology, there is a time lag between the research being done and the moment when that advance becomes accepted.”
How bitless equipment works
Bitless alternatives apply pressure to points on the horse’s face. Understanding how each piece of equipment works is essential in order to make the best choice for your horse and to understand how to cue him. (see sidebar on next page).
As word spreads, riders are discovering that virtually any type of horse can go bitless. There are horses successfully working bitless in dressage, hunting and jumping, reining, endurance, driving and racing. When it comes to competition, however, it is necessary to check the applicable rules in each sport. At certain levels some associations do not allow you to show without a bit in your chosen discipline. This is perhaps the biggest disadvantage that many are finding in riding bitless. For horses in competition training, riding without a bit can offer the horse a break, but the majority of the training must still be done in a bit so that the horse does not have to readjust to the bit just before a competition.
Helping your horse adapt
The adjustment period for going bitless will depend on the horse and rider. Some horses adapt to riding without a bit immediately. Others take a few rides to get used to the idea. Because each piece of equipment works through different pressure points, it is a good idea to make sure your horse knows how to respond to pressure on those areas before you mount. Ideally you should spend as much time introducing a bitless bridle as you would any other type of equipment. Preparation will go a long way to ensure that your first bitless rides are safe and successful.
As with any equipment, special attention must be paid to proper fit. “If the rider fails to read the fitting instructions, is oblivious to the messages the horse is sending, and leaves the bridle adjusted too tightly,” it can cause problems, says Zoe Brooks, creator of the Nurtural No-Bit Bridle. Improperly fitted CBBs can cause rubs, minor swelling or nasal obstruction if the noseband is fitted incorrectly.
Likewise, if a rider applies constant pressure to the bridge of the nose by hanging onto the reins unrelentingly for a long time, minor soft tissue swelling can result. Bitless equipment that operates through pressure to the side of the horse’s face can inflict pain if your horse is not up to date on his dentistry and has sharp edges on his teeth.
Riding bitless can be an excellent alternative for horses that have had poor experiences with a bit, or horses that have mouth and dental issues. Many trainers prefer to start young horses in a CBB or rope halter. CBBs are also becoming valuable tools for therapeutic riding facilities and riding instructors who teach beginner riders. The bridles are a bit easier on the horses when being ridden by unbalanced or heavy-handed riders who are working to develop an independent seat and more advanced cueing systems.
No piece of equipment should be used as a cure-all or excuse for bad riding. Whether you ride in a bit or bitless, you can still inflict damage; the equipment is only as soft as the hands holding the reins. It is encouraging, however, that many riders who have chosen to go bitless report that it increases their awareness and forces them to focus a great deal more on their seat and leg cues, and rely less on simply pulling the reins. Control comes from the ability to influence each part of the horse’s body (not just his mouth) with your own.
Bitless riding can take you to the next level in your natural journey, help you train your young or difficult horse, or simply give your horse a break from the bit. “There are too many horses and riders trained that the way to control a horse is with increasingly harsher bits,” says Zoe. “As the wave of natural horsemanship continues to grow, however, and folks speak out about their experiences with bitless bridles, more people will open their eyes and hearts to training horses and people to ride bitless.”
Kelly Howling runs EquineAware Horsemanship out of Cambridge, Ontario. Her broad background in training, covering a wide range of disciplines, enables her to solve common groundwork and training issues with many different horse/rider combinations. An avid bitless rider, Kelly has also demonstrated bitless riding in a variety of venues and enjoys helping others make the switch to bitless.
In addition to her training experience, Kelly has completed courses in equine nutrition and acupressure, and has received certification in equine bioenergy work. www.EquineAware.com