Having just finished a series on the five rein aids, I got a great comment from billie of camera-obscura – she asked: “When you complete this series I wonder if you might tackle the subject of rein aids from the perspective of using a bitless bridle - I am so curious whether these things can transfer to that, or even to riding in a halter with snap-on reins. How much does the bit actually have to do with it? If the Big Bay understands the rein aid, does he really need the bit?” It’s a great point! I hope to answer, in my roundabout way, all of those questions, along with some of my thoughts on going bitless.
I’d love to hear if anyone else has experience with bitless riding.
When I still had my boarding/training barn, we shared a facility with a typical H/J show barn. During that time our eclectic and unfamiliar methods regularly raised more than a few eyebrows and drew plenty of questions and comments.
So when I took my jumper into the indoor during a busy lesson time with his Dr. Cook’s bitless bridle, all eyes were on us. At first, no one even noticed a difference, because my horse went no differently than he usually did with a bit in his mouth. I was stopped by the door talking to the owner of the farm for five minutes before she said, “Oh, look! There’s no bit on your bridle!” She had been watching him go prior to our chat, and so she had a lot of questions about bitless riding, the first of which was: “So how did you get him on the bit without a bit?” That was a great question, and I involuntarily launched into one of my typical lectures.
After all, “on the bit” doesn’t come from the bit. It has little to do with the bit at all. That’s where a lot of people go wrong in getting horses on the bit. They get hung up on the “bit” part, when in reality it’s all about relaxation, attentiveness and positioning. Contrary even to the dressage manuals, it doesn’t have to come from impulsion, as a horse can be on the bit at the halt. On the bit refers to a relationship of the horse to the rider’s hand in which the horse willingly accepts, seeks and follows contact with the rider’s hand with his entire body. (I’ll probably tackle on the bit more fully in a later post.)
The actual means by which the rider and horse communicate with one another, through the hand, can involve anything from a full bridle to a rope around the nose, and everything in between. Ironically, going bitless can be a good way of testing whether the horse truly is on the bit, or if the rider is using the bit to force an artificial position.
Classical masters recognized the value of bitless training, and often started horses in a cavesson with reins attached either as a precursor to the snaffle/bradoon, in conjunction with it, or in place of it. Some even combined this with the curb to make a partially “bitless” double bridle.
The bitted bridle is a relatively recent invention in the history of horsemanship. Horses were domesticated some 6000 years ago or more, but the bit was only put into regular use a little over 4000 years ago. Early bridles were probably nothing more than a rope tied around the nose or head, and while High School dressage was unlikely, these riders were no doubt able to accomplish some pretty impressive things without bits. Take, for instance, one variety of Native American rope bridle, which is a compromise between the rope halter and a bit; it is composed of a loop of rope through the mouth and tightened around the lower jaw. This bridle often has only one rein, so the aids are limited on the side without the rein, but one can easily imagine how one would use a Direct “leading” Rein to turn one way and an Indirect “neck” Rein or Indirect Rein of Opposition in Front of the Wither to turn the other, with a single, central Direct Rein of Opposition to stop. That’s at least four out of the five rein aids accomplished with only one rein! If you have ever ridden a horse in from the field with just a halter and lead rope, you have an idea how this works.
When two reins are used, it makes no difference whether there is a snaffle, cavesson, crossunder, halter, or rope on the other end: the rein aids will work in basically the same way. The rein aids work, not because of the horse’s mouth, but because of the positioning of the head and its effect on the horse’s bend and balance. The bit only assists in this positioning.
We’re having some trusses delivered to the farm for the construction of our new indoor arena (yay!) and watching the driver back his trailer through our front gates reminded me of rein aids (and yes, I know, it’s sad how much I have horses on the brain ;-) I think of the horse’s head as the tractor part of a tractor-trailer rig, the poll (and to some extent the neck) is like the hitch (which is why a soft, mobile poll is so important!) and the rest of the body is the trailer: The careful positioning of the tractor has a direct influence on where the trailer goes. Ever watch a driver back one of those things up? The angle and direction of movement of the relatively small tractor directly determines exactly where the body of the trailer moves.
The bit is simply a tool of positioning the head, and therefore the body. Because it involves a delicate part of the horse’s anatomy, it can be the most efficient and sensitive means of communication between horse and rider, not just because the bit can have a strong, immediate effect on the horse, but also because the horse’s mouth is incredibly mobile and responsive according to his state of mind, so feedback to the rider is immediate and specific. Of course, for this to work, the horse’s mind and mouth must be sound, the correct bit fitted, and educated, sensitive hands are required on the reins. Sometimes all of these elements are impossible to bring together, and so it is often practical to dispense with the bit and go bitless. The drawback for the rider – the reduced sensitivity to the horse’s responses – is the horse’s benefit in this case, as it can spare the horse discomfort from the bit.
Most bitless bridles – with the exception of the mechanical hackamore which is quite severe and works like a curb – can be used in exactly the same way as a snaffle. Although some bitless bridles involve pressure on parts of the head that a bit might not, from the perspective of the reins, the aids are the same. The only difference is that a stronger contact may be required, a fact which makes it an ideal bridle for nervous horses who like a strong hand, those riders whose hands may be unsteady, who like to take a strong contact for security, or who may grab the mouth when nervous. I pride myself on having a fairly light, sensitive hand, but I know it’s not perfect and, when I know I’m going into a situation where my horse might be reactive, I like to use the bitless so I don’t inadvertently grab him in the mouth. I have one horse who instinctually rears/jumps when he is spooked, so I ride him in the bitless when I hack him out somewhere new – oddly enough, I sometimes feel it gives me more control than the bit because I know it won’t exacerbate a problem. I also like it for novice riders, gradually introducing the bit to a young horse, just giving the horses a break, rehabbing horses whose mouths have been ruined, and, as I mentioned, testing to see if the horse is truly on the bit. Before I got my Dr. Cooks, I used to just attach the reins to a good leather halter or the side rings of a light longeing cavesson, and I make sure all of my horses will ride this way. I also really love my Micklem Multibridle for training as it is incredibly versatile and doubles as a light longe cavesson.
I am not one of those who believe riding with a bit is inherently evil, abusive or unhealthy for the horse – like anything else, it is a matter of how it is done. I’ve seen riders act much more forcefully and cruelly with a hackamore because they thought it was “nicer” than using a bit, just as I’ve seen people yank and saw on a soft snaffle because they thought that was kinder than using a light curb, etc.. There are advantages to both bitted and bitless riding, and I think there is a place for both in all types of riding. Most horses can benefit from at least occasional use of a bitless bridle and for some it might take the place of the bit completely. Ultimately, though, what matters most is the hand and how it is used, not what equipment happens to be at the other end of the reins.