Todd from Melbourne asks, “I’m starting to see more riders with Bitless bridles and I know it’s more humane for the horse. I ride Hunter-jumper my question is, how do they work? Also is it a long transition to switch?”
Thank you Todd, this is a very good question, and not the simple answer you may expect.
First, there are several different types of ‘bitless’ bridles and all of them work differently.
1. Mechanical Hackamore – this bridle is designed with a circle of metal with slots in it for a cheek piece, a nose strap, a chin strap and a rein. The pieces are attached with the noseband at the top–sometimes offset to the front–the cheek piece in the next slot toward the horse, the chin piece–sometime offset to the back–and the rein is attached to the front, usually on a downward curved shank.
This design gives leverage in such a way that when the reins are pulled the side piece twists putting pressure on the nose and sensitive bones running along each side of the lower jaw. Many nerves are near the surface in this area and, depending on the materials used for the nose and chin straps (which include anything from bicycle chain to soft woven straps), this can be a very sensitive or a very severe bit.
Used by insensitive hands, or with harsh materials, this bit can break a horse’s jaw or nose, and/or damage the nerves of the face. It has the possibility of being a far more severe bridle than one with a traditional bit, especially a snaffle bit.
On the other hand, there are side pieces that are round with slots and not shanks that are far more horse friendly and are more suitable for unschooled hands.
Mechanical hackamores are good for control of the forward motion of a horse but due to the way they work on the nose and fine bones of the lower part of the face, do not necessarily encourage flexion from side to side.
2. Bosals – Generally used with Western or Arabian riders, true bosals are made from stiff materials covered with braided rope or leather shaped something like a teardrop and tied under the horse’s chin in a large knot. The reins. or mecate, are made of rope and attach to the knot. The original design of the bosal is heavy and severe even in the hands of a good trainer and needs special training to learn to use properly. This style of bridle was not intended to be the end training. It was designed to be used as a training aid before the horse was considered old enough for a standard bitted bridle.
There are many softer and less sever styles of bosal that have come into practice, but a bosal should be used only as a training aid and not as a permanent bridle.
Bosals are another bridle that is good for forward control of the horse and for teaching flexion through the poll and lowering of the head. However, once again, they are not well designed for teaching bending through the neck.
3. Side Pulls – As the name suggests, this type of bridle has the reins attached at the side and when rein pressure is used it encourages the horse to bend through the neck. The design looks a lot like a snug-fitting halter with stabilizing pieces from the bit area to the nose band and cheek pieces. Some side pulls are made so that the pressure tightens the noseband or chin strap via sliding straps and some have strategically placed knots that affect pressure points and sensitive locations on the horse’s face.
4. Bitless Bridle – This is a new version of the side pull bridle that has additional straps crossing from the rein on one side, across beneath the cheeks, around the poll, back under the horse’s cheek and across to the opposite rein. The noseband is a separate piece and buckles at the side in the same manner as a bitted bridle.
The design, with crossing straps, tends to spread out the pressure and move it away from the sensitive lower part of the face. It also means that when you pull on the left rein, not only does the pressure of the rein pull the horse’s nose to the left, but the crossover strap on the other side puts pressure on the right side of the horse’s face pushing it in the same direction. Pulling back on both reins puts pressure on the noseband to stop or slow the horse.
Second, there are many types of bits and bitted bridles from the severe Gag bridle used most commonly by Polo riders who need immediate control in sometimes crowded and fast moving situations, to the double bridles of advanced dressage riders who need a lot of control but in a different way, to gentle hollow snaffle bits and severe double twisted Pellam bits in ordinary bitted bridles.
For the sake of argument and because you are asking this question on what is usually a jumper-flavored blog, I am going to make an assumption that you are speaking of a possible switch to either the more common mechanical hackamore or the bitless bridle in section 4 above.
Both of these bridles require training and practice for two reasons. First, it’s all new and your horse needs to be sure what the signals are before you go to a show in crowds of people and ask him to jump a course of fences. Second, you have no idea how strong or sensitive you need to be in order not to damage your horse but at the same time to get results.
If you are using a bit that is comfortable for your horse and you both understand the signals and work well together, stick with what you have.
On the other hand, if your horse is not comfortable, or you feel you are hurting your horse, try a bitless bridle as in #4 above. Make sure you understand how it works and have control before showing in it.
And, most important, if your hands are hurting your horse and you are already using a soft snaffle bit, do not under any circumstances go out and get a Mechanical Hackamore.
Vickie Kayuk for Back Home in Bromont