BIT VS. BITLESS TRAINING
When it comes to the welfare of the horse, riders and trainers do their best to ensure that the horse is not subject to pain under saddle. One of the most common debates is about training horses to be ridden with a bit and training them to be ridden without a bit. There are many advantages to both methods. For certain situations, a bit may be more efficient than not using one. In other situations, riding without a bit may be more comfortable to the horse than using a bit. It depends on the situation, the training level of the horse, the rider’s abilities, and the goals that you are trying to achieve with your horse as to which method will work best.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT BITS
There is a vast array of designs for bits and many of these designs tout various purposes and varying levels of efficacy. Even though there are hundreds of types of bits, all of them can be broken down into two categories; snaffle bits and curb bits. Snaffle bits encourage lateral and elevation effects while curb bits encourage vertical flexing effects. A snaffle bit can have a solid or jointed bar as well as the curb bit. The relationship of the reins to the mouthpieces is what determines the snaffle or curb effect. Some bridles may use the snaffle by itself and some use both bits together.
The snaffle is a bit design in which the reins are attached to the bit in a direct line to the mouthpiece (otherwise known as the ‘bar’) of the bit. This arrangement offers the best level of communication from the rider to encourage the horse to flex to the left and right as well as to elevate the neck. In classical riding, this is called riding ‘in contact.’ The result of riding ‘in contact’ is that the horse’s body is rounded and soft. The horse is not pulling, leaning, or ‘taking’ the bit. The horse should be maintaining the contact with roundness and softness in the jaw and poll which should be a result of balance and self-carriage. ‘Taking contact’ is not the same as maintaining ‘in contact’ with the horse’s mouth.
The curb bit is a bit design where the reins are attached to a shank that is offset from the bars of the bit. This arrangement provides a degree of leverage on the bit that varies with the length of the shank to the mouthpiece. The longer the shank, the higher degree of leverage. When the rider pulls the shanks backward, this causes the bar and port to rotate in the mouth to some extent. If the shanks are drawn in far enough, this rotation will allow the curb chain to initiate contact on the horse’s chin and depending on the design of the bit and headstall, the nose, and the poll. As the amount of leverage goes up, less contact to the curb bit is required. The curb bit allows the rider to influence the horse’s bend along the vertical axis and is typically used with a ‘slack rein’ as opposed to ‘in contact.’
It is important to remember that some bits simply are harsh and painful to the horse. However, it is most often the knowledge of the proper use of the bit, the rider’s abilities compared to the horse’s training level, that will dictate the comfort level for the horse. In the hands of a novice rider, even the simplest and painless bits can cause pain and trauma to the horse’s mouth. Subtle communication should always be the first and foremost goal when it comes to the horse’s mouth. For beginner riders, this goal is difficult to achieve when they are beginning to find their balance in the saddle. Most often, novice riders will use the reins for balance which can cause the bit to damage the horse’s mouth. A bitless bridle may be helpful for beginner riders as they learn to use their seat, balance, and leg aids first before moving on to developing their riding through their hands.
WHAT IS A BITLESS BRIDLE?
A bridle without a bit is called a hackamore. This type of bridle consists of a noseband; that is usually made of thick rope or rawhide, which is knotted beneath the chin. This forms the nose piece called the bosal. The bosal knot applies pressure to the sensitive nerve endings of the horse’s nose and chin. The mecate, an 18 to 22-foot rope, is attached above the knot of the bosal. This rope then forms a closed rein as well as a lead rope. There are several designs for hackamores but most of them have the same general design. One of the most common types uses wider and flatter leather pieces and two reins attached under the chin. A different kind of hackamore noseband applies pressure on the nose with a soft, leather covered rope. The mechanical hackamore uses a curb chain attached to shanks, and it functions similarly to a curb bit.
Keep in mind that with longer shanks; the pressure will be more severe. A side pull is made of a thick noseband with side rings that attach to reins on both sides of the nose. The direct pressure on the reins creatures pressure on the nose and from side to side instead of at the poll. Hackamores provide longitudinal control such as forward and backward movements and stops. However, hackamores do not provide finesse in sideways movements like steering and turning. A traditional hackamore may allow for refined lateral control when the rider uses a wider rein hand than in other bridles. But side pulls provide better side to side signaling for steering and bending although they are less efficient for stopping.
A popular bitless bridle that is used today is the Bitless Bridle that was developed and patented by Dr. W. Robert Cook. The Cook bridle consists of leather straps that loop over the poll, cross beneath the horse’s jaw and then passes through rings that are connected to a nose band. This design allows gentle pressure to be distributed over the flat straps over a larger and less sensitive area. The pressure is at its greatest capacity over the bridge of the nose, less under the chin and on the sides of the face, and the least over the poll. This gives the rider a more peaceful method of communication by applying a gentle nudge to half of the head to steer and a soft overall hug to the whole head for stopping. It is painless yet persuasive.
Horses ridden in this bridle do not lock their polls, and they do not brace their jaws or necks against the reins. The greatest plus of a properly designed bitless bridle, such as Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle, is that even in the hands of an unskilled rider it does not hurt the horse. The persuasion is mild, so if the rider’s hands make a mistake, it applies less pain through less pressure to the horse. For this reason, some trainers use bitless bridles during training.
One of the advantages of bitless bridles is that they can be used in many disciplines by riders of all levels of skill development. Bitless bridles are very useful for recreational riding when the rider wants communication and control, but they do not want to use a bit. Bitless bridles may also better suit horses that have a tendency to toss their heads, horses that have an injury to the mouth or teeth, and if the horse or rider are unbalanced. Horses that are not hindered by pain or a sharp object in their mouth such as the bit behave and perform better. It is possible to train the horse to be ridden without the use of a bit from the beginning of its training. Many advocates of natural horsemanship training use bitless bridles.
Showing a horse without the utilisation of a bit is possible. However, there are some horse show associations and governing bodies that do not allow bitless bridles to be used. For example, dressage will require that you use a bit. Horses that will be shown will need to learn to respond to an appropriate bit.
If you are riding a horse that uses a bit, you can make the change to bitless. It is best to use the bitless bridle for the first few times in an arena until you are sure that your horse will appropriately respond to all of your cues while using the bitless bridle. Most horses will make the transition with few problems. Some horses may require more time working on transitions from faster to slower gaits as well as stopping and backing up.
Even though these types of bridles do not use a bit and do not harm the horse’s mouth, they can still cause pain and swelling around the nose and other areas if they are inappropriately used. A bit in light, pliant hands is more comfortable than a bitless bridle or hackamore in harsh, rough hands. A side-pull can cause pain and damage to the sides of the face if used improperly. Mechanical hackamores with long shanks can be very painful if the rider does not know how to utilise the bit and the curb chain. If misused, bitless bridles can cause behavioral problems just like the behavioral problems found in horses that have been traumatised by bit misuse.
Several arguments surround the bit versus bitless debate. Most of the arguments stem from significant concerns for the horse’s welfare in regards to bit use and pain from using bits. Let us look at some of them:
Argument #1: “Bits are painful to the horse.”
If the bit is selected, fitted, and used correctly, the bit should not be directly painful to the horse. Some horses do not feel comfortable using a bit even if they are not in pain. Some do not mind using a bit.
Argument #2: “Bits are harmful to the horse.”
Again, if the bit is selected, fitted, and used correctly, the bit should not be directly detrimental to the horse. However, there is a greater potential for physical damage with a bit due to the nature of the delicate tissues in the horse’s mouth.
Argument #3: “Bits are not necessary.”
A bit is a method of refinement. Refining a horse’s mouth means that the bit should work with the horse, not against it, and aid in enhancing the horse’s responsiveness and ability to communicate to its rider.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
As with any tack or equipment item, a bitless bridle is not suitable for every situation, rider, or horse. Some horses do not like pressure around the nose and poll. Other horses do not like constriction of the jaw. These issues may be addressed and resolved by removing the noseband and by using a soft rubber snaffle. The lack of the noseband allows the horse to open its mouth and it may feel more at ease.
When it comes to overall safety, it has not been determined that bitless bridles are by any means safer for the horse and rider in all situations. A horse may run off with a rider while using a bitless bridle. Even though bitless bridles encourage communication through a different method than traditional bridles, the connection shared with a bitless bridle is less accurate. For many, bitless bridles are excellent for trail riding and recreational riding. But for training and competition, the needs for the horse to flex, bend, and balance are greater. In these situations, using a bit is the best way to achieve these goals and maximise the horse’s athleticism.