Bitless bridles: What, why and how

  • From team chasing and showjumping to hacking and schooling, using bitless bridles is growing in popularity. However, if you’ve only ever ridden horse in a bit, it can feel daunting to go without. We speak to Wendy Wainwright of the World Bitless Association for her advice on going bitless.

    The different kinds of bitless bridles

    Bitless bridles take many forms, distributing pressure in varying places around a horse’s head. It’s often a case of trial and error to find a bitless bridle that suits you and your horse. Wendy Wainwright of the World Bitless Association explains that: “the different kinds of bitless bridles are defined by how they act upon the horse’s head. They vary from the mild to the very severe, and can act upon one or more of the following: nose, jaw, curb, cheek or poll.” Within this, different bridles can exert pressure either directly, with or without leverage, or indirectly using cross or running straps.

    The World Bitless Association has a comprehensive guide for those looking for more information about the different kinds of bitless bridles available. However, the main variations tend to sit in the following categories:

    • Cross-under
    • Hackamore
    • Bosal
    • Halter
    • Side-pull

    Why should you try a bitless bridle?

    There are many reasons behind trying a bitless bridle. Some horses need a bitless bridle due to physical issues in the mouth, from broken jaws and melanomas to tongue damage. Ridden behaviours like head shaking, spookiness, bucking, bolting, head nodding and excessive salivation also lead to riders exploring bitless options.

    In addition to physical and behavioural issues, Wendy explains there’s a “growing paradigm shift” occurring in the equestrian world. There’s “a shift away from the traditional ways of the last 60-70 years of horse-keeping, to a more natural and enriching environment, to positive and science-based training methods.” Part of this, Wendy explains, is that more people “are questioning what has previously been accepted — and use of bits is a part of that.”

    Bitless bridles have been observed to solve a number of issues, from head shaking and bridle lameness to napping, rearing and anxiety. Dr Cook’s Fear of the Bit publication shows in the detail the types of issues found and overcome — or at least improved — by using bitless bridles.

    What to consider before going bitless

    There are a great many positives to be found in going bitless. Wendy describes how the horses she’s worked with bitless “are often calmer, less anxious and spooky than bitted horses” and they “often move freer and more expressively”.

    However, it’s key to remember that changing bridles and going bitless won’t solve all your problems.

    “Bitless will never cover up poor training and riding, and will often uncover weaknesses that have previously been hidden by the bit,” Wendy states. She adds that: “some riders might think they are going backwards when going bitless.” So, if you try bitless and you don’t instantly succeed, don’t panic. Put more time into your training and addressing the areas you and your horse struggle with.

    Wendy’s tips for introducing your horse to bitless bridles include:

    • Introduce your horse to bitless in an enclosed space
    • Include a period of groundwork to gauge understanding and response before riding
    • Try long-reining, as it’s an excellent introduction (in-hand work is also useful)
    • Use flexing to the left and right in-hand to introduce the feel of the bridle
    • Follow this up with transitions and circles either in-hand or long-reining
    • Help your horse understand how the bridle feels by using transitions in slow paces, circles and serpentines

    Article continues below…

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    What horses do bitless bridles tend to suit?

    All horses can go bitless, as long as the correct training is done and the right bridle is found. As Wendy explains: “for some horses, the feel of a bitless bridle is very different from what they are used to, so it can take some time for them to understand and adjust to it.”

    Finding a great trainer who understands the training process is key to achieving success in a bitless bridle.

    For all the latest equestrian news and reports, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine out every Thursday

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