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Bitless bridles are an alternative to traditional bridles and are getting increasingly popular in equestrian circles.
Many hobby riders use them to spare their horses from wearing a metal bit in their mouths.
Bitless bridles have even made their way into Olympic disciplines, such as show jumping and eventing.
What is a Bitless Bridle?
A bitless bridle is a type of headgear that controls the horse’s movement by putting pressure on the head instead of the mouth. Some bitless bridles look like a regular bridle with the key difference that they don’t have a bit.
Although generally viewed as a milder form of control, bitless bridles can also become harsh in the wrong hands. However, if used correctly, they elicit less resistance and anxiety in horses.
How Do Bitless Bridles Work?
Bitless bridles control the speed and direction of the horse by acting upon one or more areas of the head. These include the nose, jaw, chin groove, cheek, and poll.
With most bitless bridles, pressure is distributed all around the head, instead of being restricted to a small area like the oral cavity. Other designs like the bosal and side-pull act primarily on the nose, cheek, and jaw.
Because pressure exerted by bitless bridles cannot be escaped by the horse, it’s important to ride using the lightest possible aids.
Some people assume they have less control over the horse when riding bitless and intensify their aids. However, bitless bridles are just as efficient as regular bridles.
The best thing to do is to just forget there’s no bit in the horse’s mouth and ride as normal.
As with a traditional bridle, it’s important to release the pressure once the horse has responded to win his cooperation.
Benefits of Bitless Bridles
Bitless bridles offer a variety of benefits to both horse and rider. However, they are all conditional to correct use and the horse wearing the right type of headgear.
Some bitless bridles can exert considerable pressure on the head and can be as hurtful as a bit in heavy hands.
They Can Solve Physical and Behavioral Issues
According to Wendy Wainwright of the World Bitless Association, bitless bridles can solve issues like head shaking, napping, rearing, and bridle lameness.
Some horses can’t wear a bit due to a physical injury, such as tongue damage, broken mandible, or melanomas. Undesirable behaviors like bucking, bolting, flightiness, head nodding, or excessive salivation when wearing a bit can also make riders consider bitless alternatives.
In fact, a survey by Dr. Robert Cook FRVCS Ph.D. revealed that bits are responsible for at least 50 different problems in horses.
Out of the 440 horses that took part, the bit caused behavioral problems in 58%, interfered with movement in 26%, and interfered with breathing in 16% (Source: Happy Horses Bitless).
However, as Wendy pointed out, going bitless won’t always solve your problems. “Bitless will never cover up poor training and riding, and will often uncover weaknesses that have previously been hidden by the bit”, she told Horse and Hound Magazine.
There’s no doubt that the often sharp action of bits causes stress and anxiety in many horses. When switching to bitless, riders frequently report that their horses seem calmer and happier than before.
Wendy Wainwright made similar observations when working with horses bitless. She said they “are often calmer, less anxious and spooky than bitted horses.”
More Expressive Movement
Wendy also noticed that horses in bitless bridles “often move freer and more expressively.” Indeed, studies have shown that bits can interfere with balance and movement, especially if the horse tries to escape the pressure.
No Damage to the Mouth
Depending on the type, bits can cause damage to the corners of the mouth, tongue, hard palate, and facial nerves. While bitless bridles can also cause some damage to the structures of the head, this is very rarely the case.
Dr. Robert Cook has conducted extensive scientific research regarding the use of bits in horses. After inspecting numerous equine skulls, he concluded that 75% had bone spurs on the lower jaw as a result of bit damage.
Bone spurs are essentially excess growth on bone that has suffered trauma and undergone remodeling. As these often remain hidden throughout the lifetime of an animal, bit use in such horses causes increased discomfort and pain.
As Dr. Cook explained, the gum is only about 2 mm thick over the lower jaw bone of horses. Hence why bits can easily damage the bone on which they sit, especially if the rider has heavy hands.
As mentioned above, unlike traditional bridles, bitless bridles put pressure on various parts of the head. This so-called “head-hug” mechanism not only makes them kinder to the horse, but also very effective in eliciting a response.
Horses can escape the pressure of the bit by raising or overbending their head or grabbing the bit with their teeth. However, they cannot ignore the pressure of bitless bridles, which guarantee the rider’s safety and control over the horse.
Should I Try a Bitless Bridle?
Choosing to go bitless is often a personal preference, but can also be a great solution for horses that can’t be ridden with a bit. However, some horses get confused if there isn’t a bit to provide clarity, in which case switching to bitless can be counterproductive.
You should try a bitless bridle if your horse has had a physical injury to his mouth or is showing behavioral problems when wearing a bit. If you’re unsure about committing to bitless, consult your vet or an experienced trainer for advice.
When choosing a bitless bridle, consider your horse’s needs and experience as well as your own. If you never worked your horse bitless before, remember to introduce the bridle gradually with lots of groundwork before you climb in the saddle.
Types of Bitless Bridles
The five most common types of bitless bridles are hackamore, bosal, side-pull, cross-under, and halter. These can exert pressure either directly or indirectly, with some incorporating leverage action.
It often takes some trial and error to work out which design suits you and your horse, but it’s always worth it in the end!
Here is a more detailed look at each type of bitless bridle:
The hackamore is often the go-to bitless option for elite riders whose horses can’t be ridden with a bit. It provides a high level of speed control, allowing the rider to slow down, collect, or stop their horses with the lightest aids.
Like curb bits, mechanical hackamores use leverage action and feature a curb strap and shanks. They often have fleece-lined nosebands, which gives the illusion of a mild piece of tack. However, hackamores can exert considerable pressure on the horse’s nose and poll and must be used very gently.
Although hackamores have excellent brakes, they only make steering difficult with the reins. Therefore, horses wearing this bitless bridle must be skilled at responding to seat and leg aids to effectively communicate with the rider.
“Bosal” is a Spanish term for “noseband,” which is essentially what it is. Made from leather or braided rawhide, it encircles the muzzle and ends in the “heel butt” underneath the jaw.
Bosals usually come with an English or Western-style headstall, often decorated with beads or leatherwork. The reins are made of an 18 to 20 foot rope that attaches firmly to the heel butt.
When using a bosal, the rider gives indirect aids to the horse, encouraging it to move away from pressure. By seeking the most comfortable position, the horse takes up the posture, direction, or speed the rider is asking for.
For maximum efficiency, it is vital that the bosal is the right fit and size for the horse. Any rubbing or discomfort in the normal position will make it difficult to transmit clear signals via this bitless bridle.
The side-pull is one of the mildest types of bitless bridles and causes very little discomfort to the horse. It works by applying direct pressure on the horse’s muzzle with no leverage action.
When using a side-pull, riders can easily change direction by pulling on either of the reins. Stopping is signaled the same as with a traditional bridle, although it’s somewhat less effective.
The severity of this bitless bridle can be increased by tightening the noseband, which might be necessary for horses that are difficult to slow down.
In many ways, a side-pull is very similar to using a halter with reins as a bitless bridle. However, since side-pulls have a fixed position on the head and are often padded, they may be more comfortable for the horse to wear.
The cross-under bitless bridle is a clever design that was developed by Dr. Robert Cook nearly two decades ago. It gives as much control over the horse as a bitted bridle, making it ideal for transitioning riders.
The reins of this bridle connect to a strap that slides through a ring on either side of the noseband, crossing under the horse’s jaw and running up the cheeks to the poll. There, it connects to the strap from the opposite side of the head.
The cross-under design makes it possible for the rider to simultaneously apply pressure to the muzzle, lower jaw, cheek, and poll. Because of the bridle’s “head-hug” mechanism, there are no pressure points that could develop into sores on the horse’s head.
While the cross-under bridle is a popular design, some riders expressed concerns over the release not being instant or sufficient due to the straps wrapping around the whole head.
If you have confidence in your horse, an ordinary halter can work perfectly well as a bitless bridle. All you have to do is attach a set of reins to the side rings, and you’re good to go!
Riding with a halter will feel very much the same as riding in a side-pull. You’ll be able to give clear directional aids to your horse, although slowing down might be more difficult.
If you require slightly more control, go for a rope halter with knots on the noseband that will increase the pressure on the muzzle. Some rope halter designs come with side rings and reins so you can easily convert them into a bitless bridle.
Best Bitless Horse Bridles
Rambo Micklem Multibridle
Perhaps the best bitless bridle on the market right now is the Rambo Micklem Multibridle. It can not only be used as three different bitless bridles, but also as a bitted bridle and lunge cavesson.
You can easily switch between a mild side-pull, a medium bitless, and a stronger cross-under option with the attachments provided.
The bridle’s anatomical design and padded headpiece also guarantee maximum comfort and an overall happier horse.
Dr Cook Bitless Bridle
Dr. Cook’s cross-under bitless bridle is ideal for training as well as everyday use. It’s available in various styles, including English, Western, and driving.
All Dr. Cook bitless bridles are made from high-quality, durable leather that ensures smooth gliding action. There are also budget-friendly nylon options available.
Western Leather Headstall, Bosal, and Reins
This beautifully designed bosal from Etsy seller American Tack is made from long-lasting materials that will not disappoint. The bridle is available in full size only and comes with 22 feet long mecate reins.
Customers of American Tack have praised the seller’s quick turnaround time and great communication.
Justin Dunn Bitless Bridle
This Justin Dunn Bitless Bridle is a great option for bitless western riders. It’s available in all sizes with the option of black or brown leather for the headstall.
Weaver Leather Side Pull
This quality leather side-pull from Weaver will give you great control in any situation.
The bridle features a double rope nosepiece that attaches to a second set of rings. By connecting the reins to the rings, the rider is able to stop or change direction effortlessly when using the side-pull.