What? Are you crazy? Ride a horse without a bit?
Yeah, I used to think the same thing too. That was, until I witnessed something amazing in January of 2008.
It was the first year for the Festival of Horses in Arizona. Various clinicians and horse people came out for demonstrations, and there were a lot of vendors. One of the highlights was the stallion showcase, where local stallion owners and ones from neighboring states were welcome to bring out their stallions to show them off and hopefully get some breedings.
When I walked into the gates of the festival, I walked past a few owners and their stallions patiently waiting to go into the ring on their turn. One of the stallions turned and looked at me. He was a coal black Percheron with a mane practically down to his knees. I stopped and look right back at him, and much to his owner’s chagrin, he walked right up to me
Turns out this was the future sire of my gaited draft cross, Phoenix (more about Phoenix in Part 3). Merlin, as the stallion is named, stole my heart right then and there. His owner told me how he had been so abused that it took her two years of work to bring him around. He used to try to attack people as soon as you were near his stall. Now, her assistant was riding him bitless and bareback in the stallion showcase. The bridle she used was a Nurtural bridle from www.nurturalhorse.com. Later on in the festival, when I watched the demonstrations with Cynthia Royal and Blanco, the horse that played Shadowfax in the Lord of the Rings films, I also learned that she rides all her horses bitless in Nurtural bridles as well.
This began my thought process about going bitless. If this former fire-breathing dragon that is now a family-safe, gentle stallion can go bitless, and if Blanco, who has problems with applause, can be ridden bitless during a large exhibition, then why can’t my horses? And so began the research.
The first thing I knew I needed to learn was how the bridle works. Just as with any piece of tack that we use on our horse, it is our responsibility as riders to know how that piece of equipment is to be used before we use it on our horse. This includes the bit, draw reins, cavesson, martingale, tie down, hobbles, spurs, everything. We must learn how the equipment affects the horse’s body and way of going. For example, a tie down is not to be used to force a horse not to keep his head up. It’s to be used with proper horsemanship exercises on the flat to help a horse learn where we want his head to be in relation to the rest of his body.
With the bitless bridle, the goal is to use the horse’s whole head rather than just his mouth to communicate what we’re looking for. This bridle is not to be considered a sidepull or a hackamore, although those are good bridles to use as well. Most bitless bridles will have the cross-under design, where the cheekpieces cross underneath the horses jaw and are run through rings on the opposite sides of the horse’s muzzle. This means that when the rein on the left is engaged, the horse will feel engagement on the right side of the bridle along his cheek and his poll. He will turn his whole head in response to the rein rather than just feel pressure in his mouth. In this manner, it also saves the horse from potential pain in his mouth. Sometimes we humans can be clumsy and forget to not use soft hands. If we get heavy-handed, the horse will be less likely to react to the sudden pain he would normally feel in his mouth if we’re using a bitless bridle. This leads to a horse that will think about the cue that’s being given rather than react to sudden pain. Since there is also engagement of the poll, the horse is more likely to bring his head down rather than go up when a cue is given. This keeps the horse in a more relaxed state of mind, for all of us know the old adage: head up, brain off.
When we take the focus away from the horse’s mouth, we suddenly have better communication as well. For example, imagine your friend grabbing you by one arm, squeezing tight, and trying to steer you over to a store window to see a really cute purse or the current score of the big game. What is your reaction? Now imagine it if your friend gently took you by the shoulders and guided you over to the window. What would your reaction be then? The same happens with a horse. The bitless gives better communication because it uses the horses whole head rather than just his mouth, and the potential for pain is much less likely than if a bit is used.
Coming up in Part 2: My experiences with the bitless bridle and how me and my horses are better for it.