While driving in a bitless bridle
is not seen as often as riding bitless, there are people from all corners
of the world doing just that and very successfully.
In fact, if you can ride bitless, why not drive bitless, and blinkerless
for that matter!
It's time we came out of the dark ages with our driving
habits where tradition dictated that blinkers must be used (otherwise
its dangerous!) and severe bits are the norm.
From what I understand, blinkers were developed to facilitate the
fast ‘breaking’ of horse to harness, during the age when
horses were needed for transport and work.
It was much easier and faster to put a young horse alongside an older
seasoned horse, and put blinkers on them than take the time to educate/de-sensitise
them to sudden noises and movements approaching from the rear while
they were essentially trapped in the harness and shafts.
Now relationships have become a priority as we keep
horses for more recreational pursuits and that has caused open-minded
horse lovers to question tradition.
So, if we can ride horses without blinkers and have them so well educated
that they accept things like traffic, other horses, dogs, bikes and
other weird sights and sounds behind them, then we can do the same
when they are being driven, provided we take the same, if not more
time and thoroughness to educate them.
The advice often given for those destined to be carriage
horses, is to ride them first for the education and exposure until
they were solid. This makes total sense but, for those who can’t
ride, and those with miniature ponies, a thorough education program
while long reining and driving in poles is the next best option.
to Cathie Hatrick-Anderson (pictured) - a horsewoman who drives her
horse bitless and blinkerless, “Although a horse and carriage
is a lovely sight to observe, it's one of the most dangerous things
you can do with your horse, right up there with trailer loading. If
your horse is a trained, trusting animal, neither poses much of a
risk. If you have any problems with trust or obedience, you’re
in a world of trouble with both.”
You can read about Cathie’s experience and see more photos of
her driving bitless at www.bobcatfarm.com/driving_bitless.htm
It makes total sense to start a riding or driving
horse in a bitless and blinkerless bridle so that holes in the training
show up early, rather than be ‘hidden’ by using blinkers
and a bit.
“An animal in pain does not
pay attention to the horseman’s wishes and, under these conditions,
accidents occur.” Says Dr Robert Cook in his article on driving
bitless at www.bitlessbridle.com/DRIVING_BITLESS.pdf
“It is a risky mistake to use any method of communication (such
as a metal rod in the mouth) that causes pain. This is a mistake with
regard to the welfare of the horse and the horseman.”
So is there a difference in how we educate a
bitless driving horse?
Essentially, it should be very thorough and take the time it takes
for each individual horse. The driver should be an experienced horse
person who has either driven horses before or reached a high level
of skill with groundwork such as Parelli level 3, which is where working
with the horse from behind (zone 4) enters the program.
You must also take into account that the weight of the reins and the
leverage due to the length of rein, will cause more pressure on the
horse compared to riding. For that reason, its best to choose a bitless
bridle that has some noseband padding.
is best to start with short reins while walking beside the horse (especially
if they haven’t been ridden) to prepare them for the aids needed
and to introduce voice commands.
The changing to lightweight reins like cotton lunge lines, run through
the surcingle rings or driving harness terrets so the reins sit high
along the horse’s back, minimizes the ‘drag’ on
If you don’t have a driving harness, you can use regular saddle
with the stirrups run up very short, or clip some rings (or even a
snaffle bit) to the saddle’s front D rings to run the reins
through. This might be a better option for very green horses as you
can use a more ‘open’ rein to indicate direction.
Lots of groundwork in the long reins both on a circle (in an arena),
and then around the property is essential to gain the horses’
trust in you directing them from behind.
Testing the relationship and building solid
skills can be done by pulling logs, dragging tyres etc. then working
between poles or pulling a sled.
When stepping up to this situation, its best to have a quick release
system so that anything attached to the horse can be released easily
and quickly if they start to take fright.
wonderful invention that releases quickly is the Saddle Chariot and
what better way to introduce your horse to pulling a vehicle. In fact,
what a fun vehicle to have – and definitely a much safer way
to start in harness. You can see them in action at www.naturaldriving.co.uk
If you don’t have access to one of these
then choose a cart that is easy to hitch up and drive, taking care
that it fits the horse.
Remember during your education of the driving
horse that the hand aids are of prime importance. Voice aids and discrete
communication via the whip are supplementary aids but the rein is
the only direct communication that the driver has for most of the
Using a bitless bridle requires some adjustment
to the way we deliver our hand aids – most people use a steady
feel or pull when riding or driving with a bit, but do this with a
bitless bridle and your horse may learn to lean on the contact and
get heavier instead of more responsive.
I have found that a gentle rhythmic pressure works best and doesn’t
give the horse anything to lean on. It also gives a reward (release
of pressure) when the horse thinks about or actually responds - this
is the way horses learn and become softer and more responsive.
A rhythmic feel can be as obvious as opening
and closing the whole hand (combined with a pull/release from your
elbow if needed), or as refined as opening and closing your little
finger on the rein.
While it’s not necessary to do this the whole time you’re
holding the rein, it is essential when you use the reins to indicate
a stop or a turn, and when looking for collection.
the horse is confidently pulling a vehicle in a familiar fenced area
(large pasture or arena) then its time to venture further afield.
This is best done in the company of a well educated friend of the
horse you are driving, so in effect you are taking a mobile comfort
zone with you. This horse could be ridden or driven, or even led by
someone competent as a lead horse, then behind the carriage horse,
especially if that horse hasn’t been out much without company.
As Dr Cook says: “The two compelling
advantages of the Bitless Bridle are that, first, it is virtually
impossible to inflict pain. Secondly, partly because of this pain-free
feature but also because of the head-hugging design of the bridle,
it provides superior and comprehensive communication. Drivers
are safeguarded against the possibility that, in an emergency and
albeit unintentionally, they might hurt the horse and precipitate
a crisis. In driving, as in riding, I am of the opinion that accidents
are less likely to happen if the bridle is bitless rather than bitted.”
Here is an example of how a ‘problem
horse’ was educated to bitless/blinkerless driving and this
is what her owner said:
“We did try blinkers but Taz is so nosy she just kept looking
around more to see everything. My principle anyway was I would rather
a horse be happy with what’s behind it rather than hide it.
Since she was so happy and "controllable" in the BB I just
kept on with it.
Read more about Taz and Laura’s driving challenges here www.bitlessbridle.co.uk/articles/driving-bitless-dr-cook-bridle.php
Taz is pictured above at the Three Counties Show, and here demonstrating
how well she does a Gazebo obstacle as a real test of calmness and
accuracy – please don’t try this unless your horse is
extremely well educated and solid with driving as it could be very
easy to drag the whole thing down and cause a real wreck!
For inspiration, have a look at this
video of the first time a carriage horse changes to bitless –
she has been educated without blinkers from the start. www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HuOOSLxHBs
Education and a thinking horseman are the two factors that will ensure
the success of driving bitless and blinkerless – it can be fun
and safe if you take the time and enjoy the journey.