Bitless bridles are not new, but the trend to riding bitless is growing in popularity across all disciplines. Mechanical hackamores have been used in show jumping for decades, and young horses are often started in a bosal for western disciplines.
Although some disciplines (like dressage) do not currently permit bitless bridles for competition, you can alternate between working in a bitted and bitless bridle when training or hacking out.
Horses with issues about having a bit in their mouth, whether due to poor riding in the past or physical problems (i.e. teeth, tongue, TMJ, etc.) will benefit from switching to a bitless bridle.
Bitless bridles have been shown to solve behavioural issues such as head shaking, bridle lameness, napping, rearing, and anxiety. Removing the bit can also help to generally decrease the horse’s stress.
If you suspect that your horse’s unwanted behaviours or stress are being caused by the bit, it is important to have him checked over by a veterinarian and also have his saddle fit checked to eliminate any other possible underlying issues.
How Bitless Bridles Work
There is a belief that bitless bridles are gentler than bits, but just like bits, these type of bridles can be mild or severe. And the hands holding the reins also impact the horse’s level of comfort.
There are several categories of bitless bridles, including:
Crossunder and Crossover – pressure on the nose, cheeks, and poll (head hug)
Rope Halter/Natural Hackamore – nose pressure only
Mechanical Hackamore – leverage over the nose and under the jaw
Side-pull – pressure on top and side of nose
Bitless bridles work by applying pressure to different areas of the horse’s head when the reins are used. The pressure is either direct – with or without leverage – or indirect through cross or running straps. The pressure can happen on one or several areas of the head including:
- nose – top and/or side
- under the jaw
The type and thickness of material used on the bridle will also effect the pressure and comfort of your horse. Narrow, harsh materials like rope or cables on the noseband can leave a mark on the horse’s nose with prolonged use and/or the use of heavy rope reins.
Knots, metal pieces, bulky keepers and even decorations on the cheekpieces can create additional pressure points and discomfort.
Correctly Fitting The Bitless Bridle
Correctly fitting the bridle is imperative to the horse’s comfort. Sidepulls, crossunder and crossover styles often require the noseband be tight enough to prevent the bridle from slipping. A sensitive horse might not be comfortable with this style. Some bitless bridles have a jowl strap that helps to stabilise the bridle so the noseband can be fitted more loosely.
Placement of the noseband of any style of bitless bridle is critical. If it is placed so low that it sits on the fragile split end of the nose bone it can cause damage to or even break that bone. A too low noseband will also impact the horse’s nostrils and ability to breathe easily.
As a general rule, the noseband should be placed above the area where soft tissue ends and hard bone can be felt around the entire nose. This placement is also in line with the start of the back teeth and 3-4 fingers below the cheekbones.
Check that the poll strap does not put any pressure on the back or base of the ears.
Introducing the Horse to Bitless
It might take some trial and error in finding the type of bitless bridle that works best for you and your horse. Going bitless is not a replacement for good training or riding. The change can even uncover weaknesses that had been hidden by the use of a bit.
Going bitless can, however, help reduce stress and tension leading to more relaxation and willingness in the horse.
Introducing your horse to bitless is similar to introducing him to a different bit. Try it in a safe, enclosed environment first and start from the ground. Lead your horse with the bridle, applying gentle pressure as you would from the saddle to steer, half-halt and halt.
If your horse seems calm, relaxed and appropriately responsive with this exercise, then it’s time to try it out from the saddle in an enclosed area. As an extra safety measure, you might have a trusted person on the ground leading or lungeing you to start out.
Work at the walk first, experimenting with the appropriate contact, which might be a lot less than you are accustomed to. Practice moving forward and halting calmly in a relaxed frame. Apply tension to the reins to ask for stops and turns and lateral flexion, releasing when the horse responds. Back up, making sure the horse remains calm and relaxed.
Don’t increase the pace until you are both confident and comfortable. Take a buddy with you when you venture out on the trails bitless for the first time.
Remember that good riding comes from the seat and leg aids first, followed up by the reins. No bridle – whether bitted or bitless – is a replacement for good training and a good foundation in horse and rider.