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to transition to a Bitless Bridle
By Cynthia Cooper ©
a saying – “Go shoe-less but not clue-less” so here’s
“Go bit-less but not wit-less”. (I’m sure
it's been said before)!
So you’ve decided
to listen to your horse and get rid of the bit. You may have read about
or heard of the negative effects a bit can have on a horse, or you may
just want to try riding bitless to see if your horse would prefer not
to have a lump of metal in his mouth.
Photo: (by Leigh
Rom is a happily transitioned thoroughbred, ex-racehorse, showjumper
and hunter who loves to relax in his LightRider bitless bridle on a
casual trail ride.
Perhaps you’ve ridden for a long time in a rope halter or hackamore
and decided it's time to refine things, so a bitless bridle is the next
Or maybe you’d like to go out in public or compete without a bit
but don’t want to be frowned upon for riding in a halter.
Whatever the reason, there
are some things you can do to make the transition to using a bitless
bridle smooth and safe for you and your horse.
The first consideration
should be the type of bridle you choose – will it suit your horse
and the disciplines you’d like to ride in?
Depending on the country you live in, there are various choices, but
with the internet and web shops these days, you can pretty much choose
from a world wide source.
A Google search on bitless bridles will yield thousands of results.
When it comes down to basics though, there are mostly two types of bitless
bridle – the cross-under style that works on
whole head pressure, and the side-pull style and variations that work
mostly on nose pressure.
Your horse may respond better to one style over another so its worth
getting one of each type to try out. Most companies selling them allow
you to return the bridle within a certain time if it doesn’t suit
As with any new piece
of equipment though, you probably need to give your horse enough time
to adapt and learn how to respond before deciding which bridle to keep.
So where do you start?
It really depends on whether your horse has been ridden bitless in a
rope halter or natural hackamore previously. If they have, and you have
educated them using natural or good horsemanship principles, their transition
will be quicker because you will already have some good habits (I hope!)
What we do as riders ultimately
affects how our horse responds to a bitless bridle. You could put the
bridle on the horse and turn it loose (without reins and under constant
observation in a safe yard) and the horse would most likely go about
its business with no problems.
In fact, that’s a good way to introduce the bridle and take note
of how the horse feels about it before any pressure is applied. The
cross-under style bridles will generally require the noseband to be
fitted firm for safe riding as well as correct and efficient function
of the design but for this exercise, keep it reasonably loose so the
horse can eat, drink and be comfortable.
Be sure there’s nothing the horse can catch the bridle on if it
rubs on a post etc.
Fitting the bridle:
Wearing the bridle for a while will also reveal if your fit is correct.
Most commonly, the noseband can slip down as the headpiece settles in
behind the ears. The crossover style bridles such as the Dr Cook or
No-Bit require a slightly lower noseband position than the side-pull
styles such as the Light Rider – generally 3 finger widths below
the prominent cheek bones is a good starting point.
Dr Cook’s comes with full fitting instructions, and these should
followed carefully. Adjusted properly, the noseband sits on the bone
between the false nostrils and does not cause pain. Fitted no lower
this, it is anatomically impossible for it to obstruct breathing –
they’re not called ‘false’ nostrils for nothing! Fitted
higher or looser like the noseband on bitted bridles, the noseband on
the cross-under design can ride up and down, which can cause discomfort/pain
and may also prevent the pressure from being displaced gently across
the whole head.
Photo: A well
fitted Crossunder Bitless Bridle.
A well fitting brow band will also help the comfort of the bridle –
if it’s too small it will pull the headpiece in tight against
the ears and a too large brow band may slip down over the TMJ joint
(bony piece above the eye) again causing discomfort.
The rope bitless bridles should also have the cheek pieces come in behind
the large jaw bones – almost where the throatlatch would normally
If this causes the noseband to be positioned too high near the prominent
cheek bones, then the bridle is too small for your horse.
Something else to check is that the chinstrap (if it has one) fits snugly
without being overly tight or loose, and that the reins are the right
length for your horse’s neck.
Ideally they should allow you to hold them at ‘the buckle’
without having to stretch forward while your horse grazes.
Starting with Groundwork:
The best way to check that your horse responds to the bitless bridle
is where you are safe – on the ground.
Start by asking your horse to yield to pressure on one rein, first to
the left while you are standing at the girth, then do the same on the
If your horse has been taught to yield to a rope halter, this should
be a familiar exercise, but remember you are using a new piece of equipment
which may put pressure on a different part of the head so accept a small
You will find your horse responds better to a rhythmic ‘asking
with on-off pressure’ rein than a steady pull. Close
and open your fingers gently, in a rhythm a bit like covering each hole
of a recorder or flute in sequence.
Any steady pull on the horse’s head usually sets up a brace or
‘opposition’ response because this is innate behaviour –
your horse is programmed by nature to oppose pressure automatically,
until they are educated to understand that certain types of pressure
mean certain things.
crossunder bitless bridle uses this principle; for turning left or right
the design applies gentle pressure to the opposite side of the head,
so that the horse is moving away, rather than into, the pressure.
When your horse can ‘give’ his head and hold lateral flexion
for a few seconds while you give his head a rub or even release the
rein totally by dropping it over the neck, it is safe to get on.
But before you do, it is also worth checking that your horse understands
turning while in motion so walk your horse and use a directing rein
to make turns to the left and right as you are moving.
This also gives you the opportunity to check out stopping. Rather than
pulling on both reins together though, ask with a gentle lift and feel
on one rein then the other – again in a rhythmic way to get the
Once you have stopped, use the same kind of rhythm on each rein
in turn to get a back up. If your horse doesn’t understand,
take the reins in one hand and use a light rhythmic press on the horse’s
chest to help.
It’s a good idea to repeat these exercises from each side of the
horse so they are learned from both eyes and directions.
One more exercise I like to check on the ground is that my horse can
yield the hindquarters to a gentle touch from my stirrup, about where
my leg would give the aid.
First, ask your horse to yield their head a little towards you,
then while holding this position, press the stirrup rhythmically against
the horse’s side. If there is no response to a gentle pressure
(no more than the skin being moved – if you indent muscle then
you are pushing too hard), rather than give up or get firmer, add a
rhythmic upwards lift to the rein. Keep this going with your own energy
up and focus on the hindquarters until you get a result. This generally
doesn’t take long if you keep up the rhythm on both stirrup and
If you can do this exercise at the standstill, then also try
it from the walk and trot to be sure your horse will listen to your
leg – this is your brake!
Yielding the head in lateral flexion is like putting on the handbrake,
so yielding the hindquarters takes the energy out of the horse’s
powerhouse, therefore slowing it down (unless you are doing this in
collection to supple the horse through lateral leg yields like half
pass, shoulder in etc.).
Starting in the saddle:
This is best done in an enclosed arena or round yard, even a small
paddock to be safe.
Start by going through the same exercises you did on the ground;
lateral flexion, yielding the hindquarters, back up, then walking,
turning, stopping and checking your lateral flexion again.
If your horse responds well at the walk, check out the trot and then
the canter if you are up to that stage in your riding. You don’t
have to do this all in the first ride either!
Check that you can stop by letting your energy down
and gently squeezing each rein alternately, and also by yielding the
A nice exercise that helps the horse understand this, is to ride along
the fence, yield the hindquarters away from the fence and turn the
head towards it, to come to a stop facing the fence.
more about controlling your horse through the hindquarter yield here
- 'Disengagement is a Powerful Control'.
Understandably, some riders may be nervous or anxious about riding
horse the first time without a bit and, unknowingly, use a lot of
Strong contact is not usually necessary with a bitless bridle as communication
clearer and unobscured by pain. If your horse is reacting to the bridle
with head tossing, pulling, getting anxious or over excited, pawing,
grinding their teeth or throwing their head up, it can help to ride
with less contact than you have previously been using.
If a rider has been using
rein pressure on a bitted bridle to achieve a semblance of what they
think of as collection, they will initially be disappointed with the
bitless bridle and may even decide that 'it doesn't work.'
Bit-induced poll flexion, however, is not the same as true collection
... it is false collection.
With patience and proper training, a bitless bridle will provide all
the collection that a rider desires. This process cannot and should
not be hurried.
An educated horse that easily yields to pressure may even ‘over
flex’ (as seen in this photo) in response to the bitless bridle,
so use a longer rein and light, rhythmic feel on the reins to offer
some ‘give’ in the pressure. Over flexing is a sign the
horse is trying to get comfort from the constant pressure.
When you feel confident
that your can control your horse easily and your horse seems happy in
the bitless bridle, its time to venture out of the arena or pasture.
Rather than throw your horse in the ‘deep end’ by joining
a group of friends for a long trail ride, just go on your own
for a short ride, or with one other sympathetic friend.
Stick to places you know
both you and your horse can be relaxed and enjoy the ride. This isn’t
the time to test out a new trail, go faster than usual or negotiate
obstacles you haven’t tried before.
Once your horse is going comfortably in the bitless bridle, you can
then tackle new things, adding pressure in small increments
Many riders will find their horse is more relaxed without
the worry of a bit in their mouth. Even if they unbalance their rider
a little, with a shy or an awkward jump, the grab at the reins for balance
will only give a bump on the cheek or nose, rather than a jab in the
If your horse
doesn’t seem happy in the bitless bridle, remember that
you have eliminated discomfort in the mouth by removing the bit, but
your horsemay still be feeling discomfort elsewhere which was previously
masked by the
over-riding pain in the mouth.
The two most common sites are the back from poor saddle fit
and the hooves from poor shoeing or trimming practices.
For example, bucking may be in response to pain from the saddle or even
the girth, not just from pure exhilaration or getting out of control.
Always eliminate all sources of physical pain before
embarking on a re-education program. Remember the horse is only ‘misbehaving’
because that is the only way they can tell us something is not right
or is hurting them.
A common cause of a ‘bad’
reaction to a bitless bridle may be sharp teeth –especially upper
molars. The noseband may be causing pain which cannot be eliminated
until the teeth have been floated. Also be careful with the cross-under
biltess bridle that you have not trapped any whiskers or long chin hairs
under the noseband buckle or cross-under straps.
Sometimes after the first
few rides, your horse may be resistant to turning left or right. Most
horses, like humans, have their 'good sides' and are better in one direction
than another, but if this doesn't improve within half a dozen rides
or so, look for another explanation. There may be a problem
that, until now, has been masked by the pain of the bit. A
horse that is stiff to turn in a bitless bridle may need some bodywork
or may be reacting to a stiff or crooked rider.
Maybe the horse seemed easier to turn in the bit because discomfort
in the mouth outweighed everything else.
Use of the Bitless
Bridle should not be considered a substitute for education.
Although many horses do adapt instantly, or almost instantly, sometimes
you do see a few new resistances (or the re-emergence of "old"
ones that you thought you had cured when bitted), such as head tossing
These are typically seen on the first ride only, for obvious reasons.
But sometimes they emerge quite suddenly on about the second or third
It may be that the rider has become more confident about the new head
and starts to ask for a little more. Then it becomes a matter
of fine-tuning and adjustment for the next few rides to give your horse
As with any new exercise
or piece of equipment you introduce, don’t expect it to
be a ‘quick fix’ for a particular problem. Mind
you, sometimes it can be with a bitless bridle because removing the
bit instantly gives the horse comfort and confidence that it won’t
have it’s mouth jabbed or constantly pulled on.
Expect an adjustment
alter your expectations
accordingly, and the transition to riding in a bitless bridle
will be painless for both you and your horse.
If your transition
isn’t going as smoothly as you’d like, rather than
give up, seek the assistance of an
instructor or approved fitter of bitless bridles experienced in riding
with one to help you. Sometimes all it takes is another pair of eyes
to pick up something you’ve missed.
Bitless - 'On the Bridle'
By Cynthia Cooper
The term 'on the bit' has become commonplace and used to denote a certain
frame or level of head carriage and collection of the horse.
But what happens when you don't have a bit in your horse's mouth? Can
your horse still collect and if they do, what can you call it? Well
- since 'on the bit' means acceptance, collection and responsiveness
to the bit, maybe 'on the bridle' can refer to those same qualities
when a horse wears a bitles bridle.
After all, we
are still looking for acceptance, softness, responsiveness and collection
in the horse for the purpose of easily carrying a human during intense
periods of collected exercise such as in dressage, show hack classes,
jumping, reining and many other competitive events of short duration.
Up until recently, the bit has been the norm for the ridden and driven
But now that the bitless
bridle option is available, those who understand that bits can be damaging
to a horse physically, or who are keen to overcome behavioural
problems associated with the bit, have discovered that
their horses can respond just as well, if not much better without a
The horse below for instance
(a thoroughbred gelding) avoided the bit with a raised head and tossed
his head a lot. He now loves the Light Rider Bitless bridle and as you
can see, and is happy to go in a relaxed frame that will eventually
lead to collection through self carriage and engagement.
Horses are taught
to accept and yield to all kinds of pressure (preferrably light
rhythmic pressure) to achieve the manouvers we ask of them. This is
no different when we put pressure on the reins, except when there is
a piece of metal contacting one of the most sensitive parts of the horse
- the bars of the mouth. The bars have about as much skin and flesh
covering them as we have on our shin bones.
Can you imagine walking or jogging along with a bit suspended in front
of your shins that is controlled by another person? What would it feel
like when that person puts pressure on it? Would we hope that the reins
were made of elastic so that the pressure was never great enough to
cause pain, and could we put up with the discomfort of metal bumping
on skin for very long? Try it sometime!
So, if you were a horse, what would you prefer, a lump of metal
in your mouth or nothing? Why do we see so many horses wearing
tight nosebands? If a horse wasn't constantly opening his mouth to avoid
the bit or show discomfort, then we wouldn't need to tie it shut!
The same goes
for martingales and tiedowns. If the bit wasn't causing pain,
the horse will most likely not feel the need to throw it's head up in
Riders who use
a bitless bridle are reporting that their horses are much happier,
behave better and respond better to pressure without a bit. Without
thethreat of pain (that a bit represents) a horse can focus on what
you are asking, they can respond to the pressure on the noseband (and
poll in some bitless bridles) because they remain able to think, whereas
pain causes a horse to react in order to save its life.
Some people argue
that you can't control a horse without a bit. But how is painful
pressure from a bit going to get a response if the horse really wants
to fight for its life?
I've seen and heard of
many horses who have been out of control in a bit, and would ascertain
that the bit actually causes the horse to resist control because it
can't think when the pain becomes severe.
In a bitless bridle, the horse can get out of control when in a fearful
situation, but you have a greater chance of regaining control when there
is no pain involved.
recognise that control is not achieved by pulling harder on
two reins anyway - only pressure from one rein (and your leg) can cause
a disengaging of the hindquarters which then controls movement.
It is therefore important
to teach your horse how to yield to rein and leg pressure in the bitless
bridle before you get on and ride, just like people spend time 'mouthing'
a horse before riding it - essentially teaching it to respond to the
pressure of the bit.
And just as horses can
learn to respond to rein contact with a bit by giving to the pressure
with their nose, so they can learn it without a bit (and without the
It's all just a matter
of spending the time teaching your horse in small increments that they
can trust your pressure will be released, will be gentle and will be
rhythmic so they don't feel the need to lean against it.
will have a horse happy to be 'on the bridle' provided you
keep your hands soft and your demands for concentrated effort short
until the horse has the physical fitness and suppleness to achieve that
dressage test, reining pattern, jumping round or show class.
It also takes time riding in enclosed areas and at all gaits before
a rider used to relying on the reins for support, will feel comfortable
without a bit and with softer, looser reins.
So give yourself all the time it takes to develop YOUR confidence
in your horse too.
Here is one happy horse in her Light
Rider Bitless Bridle. Owner Julie, said her mare really tested the
bridle out today.
"Kate was in one of her 'do everything at 100 miles an hour moods'-
pulling, rushing and wanting to get home and as you can see she is
a big strong girl. Well the bridle didn't miss a beat, I had total
control and felt 100% safe. Thank you so much for letting me try it
out, I am really impressed with it. I can officially say "No
shoes, no tree, no bit, no worries".
a Bitless Connection
by Josepha at www.josepha.info
Q: How do I get connection
with my horse without a bit?
A: First of all, I ask the question
to each person what ‘connection’ is according to them.
What people mostly say is the following: "The rider energises
the horse with the legs (impulsion), after which the rider restricts
the impulsion with the bit. The forehand then would slow down to which
the hind quarters would move more under. The horse would then move
through his back.
This is then an ongoing circle in which a circle of energy would flow
between legs, seat and hands."
First of all, for this system one does not need
a bit, it works the same way with a bitless bridle. And second, this
can be done also even without a bridle because the clue is the balance,
timing and experience of the rider to influence the horses movement
and the way he moves.
The horse learns that certain ‘tokens’ with the bit mean
that certain things are expected of him. He can learn the same without
a bit, be it then with (slightly) different tokens.
! Advantage: When a horse moves with his head
and neck arched while you are riding with a soft bitless bridle or
without bridle at all, you know that your horse is probably arching
because of the tilting of his pelvis, not because he tries to get
away from the pressure of the bit.
Q: How can one ride a horse onto the
bit, without a bit?
A: The question is; ‘what is onto or into the bit’? Here
we find that people give the same answer as for ‘connection’.
But again it has everything to do with the whole
body of the horse and with the seat of the rider, which needs to allow
the horse to use his body in a healthy way.
‘Onto the bit’ therefore only from the Academic Riding
or Classical Dressage point of view appears totally by itself, just
from having a correct seat, practising the classical exercises and
keeping a ever so soft contact with the head (without ever restricting
or interfering with the head position!).
If one realises this, then it is not at all hard to imagine that the
same result can be reached without a bit.
From dressage rider's point of view, if the
horse is onto the bit, he is moving correctly.
The problem is though that it takes an enormous amount of riding skil,
to really know when a horse is on the bit. And a lot of riders mistake
a horse that is bending his head to try to get away from the pressure
of the bit as a horse ‘onto the bit’. And now, the bit
(or the hands holding it) is actually preventing the effect that is
supposed to come from being onto the bit.
Without the bit, it is therefore much more easy for the horse to reach
out for that soft contact with the riders hands by moving correctly
through his body.
As far as I am concerned, the phrase ‘onto
the bit’ can go to the dustbin and be replace by ‘onto
For it is the feeling in our seat which should
tell us if our horse is moving correctly. And this can also be very
well the case without reins or a bit even.