Less Is More?

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Throughout much of our history with horses, we have controlled them with bits. Primitive drawings and artwork from over 3,000 years ago show man riding—both with and without a saddle—but he seems to always use a bridle and bit to control his steed. As horsemanship and tack evolved, alternatives to bits were introduced, including hackamores, bosals and sidepulls. But the bit remained the most popular method for controlling a horse.

That is now changing. In the past few years many horsemen have sought to improve their relationship with their horses by turning to more natural horse training methods, avoiding harsh punishment and seeking tack that’s more comfortable for their horses. As part of this quest, many horsemen have turned to bitless bridles.

Proponents of bitless bridles claim that bits put pressure on the horse’s bars, mouth, and lips, causing discomfort. They also believe that traditional bitless alternatives put pressure on the bridge of the nose or poll, also causing discomfort. Furthermore, they point out that with bits and the alternatives, a horse can get his tongue over the bit or clench it in his teeth and then ignore all rein aids. Bosals and hackamores can generally stop a horse, although determined horses can walk through them, but they’re not useful for signaling a horse to turn. Sidepulls communicate signals for steering but lack the ability to signal a horse to stop.

In contrast, makers and fans of bitless bridles say that they provide horsemen with a way to stop and turn their horses without discomfort. Dr. Robert Cook, Professor of Surgery Emeritus at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and chairman of The Bitless Bridle Inc., holds a patent for the crossover-design bitless bridle. His Bitless Bridle (www.bitlessbridle.com) pushes the horse’s head in the rider’s desired direction because when the rider pulls on one rein, the bridle pushes on the opposite side of the horse’s head, and the horse moves away from the pressure. When asking the horse to stop, pressure on the reins squeezes the horse’s entire head, triggering a response to submit and balancing the horse at the poll, bringing him to a stop.

Daniel Mills, Head of Biological Sciences at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., has conducted research using the Spirit Bridle (www.bitlessspirit­bridle.com), which is a crossover design bridle licensed and sold in Canada. Dr. Mills has found that it seems to help horses that react strongly to a bit or have problems with headshaking. He does caution that not all bitless bridles are made the same; some are very harsh and have a nutcracker effect on the horse’s head, and should be avoided.

After studying equine behavior for years, Dr. Cook has identified many behavioral problems that he believes are caused by bits, including spooking, bolting, rearing and difficulty catching. He also attributes cases of stumbling, sluggishness and refusal to work to bits as well as diseases including bones spurs on the bars of the mouth, erosion of premolars and tying up. Dr. Cook provides clients with a questionnaire with over 100 behavioral problems and conditions he attributes to bits. He says it is not uncommon for a rider to check multiple problems on the questionnaire, and then see all but a few resolve within weeks of switching to The Bitless Bridle.

Equine behaviorist Jessica Jahiel is also a fan of bitless bridles, using The Bitless Bridle with horses at clinics. She has seen several horses relax almost immediately when changed to a bitless bridle, and says that horses seem to understand how the bridle works almost at once. Unlike many bitless bridle proponents, Jahiel doesn’t disparage the use of bits. But she believes that riders with unsteady hands and those who don’t know how to properly fit and use a bit should focus on bitless bridles. Candidates for bitless bridles, therefore, include horses in riding lesson programs, on dude ranches and in therapeutic riding programs where unsteady and uneven hands are more common.

What You Should Know

There are a few things that riders who decide to change to a bitless bridle should know. Many riders feel insecure when first trying a bitless bridle and worry that their horse will not stop when asked, so it is best to first try riding in an arena until both rider and horse are comfortable and communicating well. Horses with tumors on the face or jaw or other facial deformities may not be comfortable with the pressure of a bitless bridle. If this is a concern, check that the bridle fits properly and is not rubbing or pushing on the tumors or sensitive areas.

Those who compete with their horses should understand that most competitive disciplines do not currently allow bitless bridles. However, some riders opt to school in a bitless bridle at home during the off season and change back to a bit before and during shows.

The cost of bitless bridles can be an issue for some—they can range in cost from approximately $130 to $300 for a headstall and reins, depending on the type of bridle and materials (leather versus various synthetic materials).

Regardless of the type of horse or the discipline, bitless bridles may help a horse in your care by relieving health or behavioral problems. Better yet, they may help someone in your training program become a better rider. Either way, this relatively new piece of tack is finding favor among many equine professionals and might be another good tool in your trade.