How to tell if your horse would prefer to go bitless?
How to transition to them?
Where to get them?
What I’ve seen from working in the early stages of re-training is just how much tension some horses have surrounding bits and mouth pressures.
As horses are discriminatory grazers, they have many nerve endings in their mouths that mean their lips and tongues are super sensitive. Combine that with strong and/or unrelenting pressures and a tense and anxious horse is created and it can be a long long journey of retraining to undo.
The difference I have seen in many horses after the bit is removed is quite beautiful to see.
No more open mouths, stressed eyes, chomping, ducking behind the vertical, not stopping. Simply just calmness in their approach to ridden work.
Yes bitless bridles can still add pressure to the horse’s nose and poll, but due to the sensitivity in the horse’s mouth, the potential of even more aversive pressure from a bit is removed.
How do you know if your horse could try a bitless?
Tension with the bit is usually from confusion with the stop response. If horses have been ridden where rein pressure means 'head down into a frame' as well as reins meaning slow or stop, it's quite easy to spot why confusion sets in. I've also seen reins being used as a 'look at me' where both turn and stop are applied to mean 'bend your neck round to me' and don't move your legs at all.
My first assessment with horses involves looking at their basic responses of stop, go, turn and yield. For stop, both in-hand and under-saddle, I look at what happens to the horse when the stop aid is applied:
What does the horse do with their neck?
Do they curl their head towards their chest?
Do they raise their head?
Do they open their mouths and start chomping?
Do they decelerate at all?
Do they stop in 2 steps?
What happens for stepping back, walk to halt, trot to walk, trot to halt, canter to trot?
Sometimes, this assessment simply means the horse needs a clearer understanding of the stop response.
When tension is apparent however, the horse will often work with an open mouth, excessive chomping, perhaps head shaking, dipping behind the vertical or with a high head carriage, tongue over the bit or hanging out to the side.
Simply seeing how your goes without a bit can be all you need as evidence they would prefer it!
For some owners, like myself, you just might like to go with less on your horse! I will be riding and training my 2 young percheron's in a bitless.
My horse is strong in a bit, how will we ever stop in a bitless?
This is a common worry for many when bitless is mentioned. It is often the reason why bitless bridles aren’t t allowed at clubs, as it is seen as having no control. However, with personal experience I have seen many horses with lesscontrol because of the tension associated with a bit than I have with those in a bitless!
A horse in pain cannot ‘listen’ to a rider’s cues and learning is prohibited (can you learn when you are stressed or hurt??)
Some through in-hand work can show you what your horse knows about the bitless.
Check points in-hand then, are:
Stepback instantly from light pressure
Walk to halt with light pressure and in 2 steps
Trot to halt with light pressure
Then, when those are clear, ridden work for the first time is safer in a smaller enclosed area, like a round yard. Having a handler on the ground is also a fantastic way to make sure the responses are safe and transitioning nicely from the ground to under-saddle. Only when all downward transitions are light and instant is it a good idea to move on to the dressage arena.
The next area I like to check in on is the turn signal. After the stop signal, the turn is the one I see horses finding easy to ignore without the bit. A great starting point is to first install a tap on the opposite shoulder of the desired turn, for example – tap the left shoulder to ask the right leg to turn right.
Once you have control of slowing and turning in walk, trot and canter, then you can test them out in different environments.
I do like to add in an extra handbrake for any “just in case” moments! I make sure riders are ready to virtue the rein pressure - a ‘tug tug tug’ of the rein. ALWAYS light pressure first and if there is a delay with deceleration then 'pulling' harder is futile. Quick tugging movements are more likely to stop horses in their tracks – remembering to stop the tug tug (release the pressure) as soon as the legs stop!
Where to get them?
The design I love is that by fellow ESI colleague Portland Jones from Equine Insight. The design is simple – in fact, just like a headcollar with a browband – and provides instant release of pressure because of this simplicity. Due to most horses having an understanding of pressure form a headcollar, the transition to this bridle is really quite smooth.
There are 2 designs - one has a rope noseband which can help with a bit more pressure initially and the other a leather noseband. I've always found the leather noseband to be suffice.
Who GetsTo Choose?
The one greatest sadness about bitless is the limited options for competition and/or Pony Club attendance. My own horse Roy, above, is calmer in a bitless and yet, alas, we can’t compete with one. This is often the main reason I see owners persevering with bits, despite the tension, as they know they’re limited in what they can do with their bitless riding.
“ONCE THE RULES ARE UPDATED, BIT-FREE HORSES ARE LIKELY TO OUTPERFORM BITTED HORSES”
- Dr Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD-
I do hold some hope that we will one day have more choice in how our own horses go best, but for now, Roy and I will keep practicing at home.