Bitless: A New Breed of Bridle

Going "bitless" has its pros and cons; is it right for you and your horse?

You've seen the ads and followed the debates on Internet equine lists, but you're still a little confused: What is the difference between The Bitless Bridle and other cross-under bitless bridles (CBBs) versus the traditional type of bit-free bridles such as the hackamore? Even more importantly, what are the advantages and disadvantages of the CBBs versus bridles with bits?

Anatomy of a Bridle

To review: A traditional hackamore is a bridle without a bit, and it consists of a bosal, a noseband that's usually made of stiff rope or braided rawhide that is knotted beneath the chin; the knot applies pressure to the sensitive nerve endings of the nose and chin. Attached to the bosal is a mecate, an 18- to 22-foot rope woven from mane or tail hair. The mecate is tied above the heel knot of the bosal, so as to form a closed rein and a lead rope.

Other hackamores have arisen from the original concept--a wider, flatter leather version that's worn high with two reins attached under the chin is a common type. A hackamore noseband (sometimes called a jumping hackamore noseband) applies pressure on the nose (not under the jaw) with a soft, leather-covered rope--similar to, but softer than, pressure applied by a conventional flat leather or nylon halter. A mechanical hackamore has the addition of a curb chain attached to shanks, functioning similarly to a curb bit by using leverage on the nose and behind the chin; the longer the shanks, the more severe the pressure. A sidepull consists of a heavy noseband with side rings that attach to a rein on either side of the nose; direct pressure on reins creates pressure on the nose and from side to side.

Hackamores provide longitudinal control--forward and backward movements and halts--but don't allow much finesse in sideways maneuvers, i.e., steering and turning, says Jessica Jahiel, PhD, an author of numerous riding and horsemanship books, including Choosing the Right Bit for Your Horse (Country Wisdom Bulletin, August 2001). Other horsemen and veterinarians believe that a skilled hackamore reinsman with a traditional hackamore can achieve a great deal of refined lateral control using a wider rein hand than is used with other bridles. Conversely, sidepulls provide better lateral signaling for steering and bending than hackamores, but they are less effective for stopping and permit the horse to carry his head higher. Although these bridles spare the mouth, used inappropriately they can cause nose pain and swelling, particularly when constructed of harsh materials such as hard or thin rope or bands.

The Bitless Bridle is a cross-under bridle developed and patented in the United States by W. Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD. It consists of rein straps that loop over the poll, cross beneath the horse's jaw and pass through rings connected to a noseband, distributing gentle pressure from flat straps over a larger and less-sensitive area.

"The pressure, such as it is, is greatest over the bridge of the nose, less under the chin and across the side of the face, and least over the poll," explains Cook, professor of surgery emeritus at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "Essentially, it gives the rider an inoffensive and benevolent method of communication by applying a nudge to one half of the head (for steering) or a hug to the whole of the head (for stopping). It's painless, but persuasive."

Jahiel, who is a clinician, consultant, and teacher of eventing and classical dressage, further explains: "When the rider applies pressure on the left rein, for example, instead of a bit pulling against the left side of the horse's mouth, the left rein acts on a strap that puts pressure against the right side of the horse's cheek and jaw. This allows the horse to bend and turn quickly and quietly in response to the rider's use of the rein, without any of the head-tossing associated with mechanical hackamores, and without the need for the rider to use a strong leading rein, as is necessary with a sidepull, jumping hackamore, or halter. Without strong restriction and forced flexion, the horses ridden in The Bitless Bridle do not lock their polls, and because there is no mouth pain from the bit, the horses have no reason to brace their jaws or necks against the reins."

Braking and steering work is accomplished by various means, Cook states, including stimulation of the sensitive area behind the ears and painless pressure applied across the bridge of the nose.

Not-so-Easy Rider

The biggest plus of a properly designed CBB, proponents say, is that it doesn't hurt the horse, even when used by novice riders. "The Bitless Bridle is forgiving of riders' rough hands," states Angelo Telatin, an international instructor in dressage, eventing, and show jumping, and faculty lecturer in the Equine Studies Department and Advisor/Coach for the Intercollegiate Dressage Team at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Penn. "The motivation is mild, so if the hand makes a mistake, it applies less pain, less pressure to the horse."

For that reason, Telatin, who's earned certifications with the Italian Equestrian Federation and the British Horse Society, and a Young Horse Trainer Diploma from the Italian Equestrian Federation, uses Bitless Bridles in teaching flatwork and show jumping.

"Beginner riders often use the reins for balance, pull themselves up by the reins whilst they are learning to do a rising trot, etc.," observes Jahiel. "All of this is painful for the horses because by jerking, pulling, and waterskiing on the reins, the riders are putting strong and erratic pressure on the bit. The Bitless Bridle is a great boon to the horses that carry people who don't ride often, don't ride well, or simply haven't done enough riding to be balanced in their saddles. It can save horses a lot of unnecessary pain. With The Bitless Bridle, the riders have full control, but the horses are much more comfortable, as they are protected while the riders learn to balance themselves and achieve the body control that will keep them from using too-strong pressure or making inadvertent jerks or tugs at the reins."

Adds Cook, "The CBB is much safer for novice riders than a bit. A rider does not have to be skilled before he or she can use The Bitless Bridle correctly. Riders of all skills are less likely to trigger bolting with a CBB than with a bit."

Multiple Choice

Another advantage is that CBBs can be used in most disciplines by riders at any stage of skill development. "The Bitless Bridle can be useful for just about any type of horse, training situation, discipline, etc.," states Jahiel. "It is especially useful for recreational riding when the rider wants communication and control (both longitudinal and lateral), but doesn't want to use a bit. Many racehorse trainers are convinced that horses ridden in The Bitless Bridle can move and breathe more easily than horses ridden in conventional bridles."

Additionally, CBBs help address or are suited for other concerns as well--horses that tend to toss their heads a lot, that have a disorder or injury of the mouth or teeth, or that are unbalanced (or their riders are). "Riders become better riders because they don't trigger multiple behavioral aberrations caused by pain," Cook states. "They can focus more easily on their riding skills, and recognize that 'seat' and 'legs' are more important than 'hands.' Because their horses are not impeded by pain or a painful foreign body in the mouth (a bit), they behave more intelligently and perform better."

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Maybe So, Maybe Not

Still, as with any piece of tack or training equipment, a CBB is not perfect for every situation or person.

"Some horses feel claustrophobic in the nose; they hate poll pressure or constriction of the jaw," relates Telatin, whose final thesis was in horse behavior. "These horses do better if you take off the noseband and use a soft rubber snaffle, which allows them to open their mouths." He says horses with nose problems also feel more comfortable in headgear that doesn't have a noseband.

Telatin says he believes that a horse can run off more easily in a CBB: "I'm not convinced that the brakes work better than with a bit. If you're not a skilled rider, some horses could take advantage of a bitless bridle and run away."

Additionally, Telatin is concerned that CBBs reduce communication--an element critical to good performance--between the skilled horse and rider. "Your horse waits for more information, but you communicate less accurately," he says. "Once you are very good and correct with your communication, the horse starts understanding that there is a dialogue going on; the horse can memorize many small vibrations. That's why I prefer to compete [in show jumping] with a rubber snaffle bit: There is no pain involved, but there is a lot of soft communication that goes back and forth through the horse and the rider. You lose a little bit of that with The Bitless Bridle."

In contrast, Jahiel finds that especially at the lower levels, The Bitless Bridle increases the rider's ability to communicate, and that most horses are equally or more responsive in this equipment as they are in a regular bridle. "Horses in bitless bridles don't have to hesitate for that initial moment of evaluation, 'Is this going to hurt me?' " she says.

Although Jahiel recommends The Bitless Bridle for bringing along riders, she notes that riders who always go bitless can sometimes overestimate their skill levels and not fully develop their aids. "A bit requires a great deal more self-control, coordination, and finesse on the part of the rider," she says. "It's not until these riders have to use a bit, for whatever reason, that they discover their shortcomings."

On the other hand, "Riders who have been using a bit to enforce poll flexion and, thereby, obtain false collection, may find at first that they are unable to get their horse into a frame when they move into a CBB," Cook says. "Such a situation exposes a fault with the rider, not the bridle."

Right or Wrong?

When comparing bits, traditional bit-free bridles, and cross-under bitless bridles, it's not a black or white situation, but a case of what works best--referring to comfort, communication, and performance--for the individual horse and rider combination.

"In the hands of a master horseman who has learned to ride with seat and legs and who hardly uses the reins when riding a fully trained horse, the most severe bits may be completely pain-free," Cook states. "Conversely, a supposedly simple snaffle in the untutored hands of a novice can become an instrument of torture."

Take-Home Message

The bottom line is, regardless of what kind of bridle you use, learn how to ride and communicate properly by developing sensitive, correct hands and aids. Says Telatin, "Once you learn how to communicate with your horse, your horse will be happy to please you and you'll have fewer problems."

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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