If you don't like the idea of putting a bit in Sassy's mouth or she suffers from a mouth issue, a bitless bridle could come to the rescue. These devices vary in severity as much as bits do, so it's important to make sure your bitless bridle is properly fitted. Terminology can also be confusing.
With a hackamore, a horse responds to pressure on his nose rather than in his mouth. That's why it's crucial that the hackamore is properly fitted. The noseband, or bosal, must rest high enough so that it's on the nose bone, not the cartilage. Check that it doesn't drop down when you slacken or tighten your reins. A low bosal causes pain and even breathing issues. A wide bosal is less severe than a thin one. You lift the reins, creating nose pressure, to stop Sassy or slow her down. You can't ride with constant pressure, as that means constant pain for your mount.
The mechanical hackamore adds a curb chain under the chin. Also known as the German hackamore, the mechanical hackamore is not a kind device if used incorrectly. In the wrong hands, it's capable of breaking the jaw or nose bones and even choking the animal. The one thing that can be said for it is that if you want to go bitless but have a horse that needs brakes, this will provide them.
If you've ever clipped a lead rope on either side of the halter, mounted and gone off for a ride, that's similar to the rope halter type of bitless bridle known as a sidepull. The jumping and English-type hackamores are similar to the sidepull. Many "natural" horsemanship trainers promote their own lines of rope halter sidepulls, but proper fit is very important. Actual rope halter bridles, as opposed to two lead ropes on the halter, generally have two knots on the sides of the nose, with a large knot beneath the chin. You connect your reins to two loops on the halter. If the noseband is too big, your rope halter ends up being ineffective and possibly dangerous. If you've ever ridden with two lead ropes and a halter, you know that steering is a lot easier than stopping.
Veterinarian Robert Cook, developer of the bitless bridle bearing his name, states that his bridle doesn't resemble traditional bitless devices such as hackamores. According to Cook, these older forms of bitless bridles are just as "pain-based" as bits. Cross-under bridles similar to Cook's claim to be better for steering and stopping than other types of bitless equipment. Brief pressure on both reins or alternate pressure on each rein “applies a gentle squeeze to the whole of the head and triggers a 'submit' response,” notes The Bitless Bridle website. The design employs independent straps that "cross under" the jaw.
Horses and riders aren't one size fits all. You might have to try several types of bitless bridles before finding the right one for you and your horse. It's also possible that Sassy responds better with a bit. Most bits aren't cruel -- it all depends on the skill of the rider's hands. Even the mildest snaffle can hurt a horse in the hands of an unskilled rider. Put safety first -- if you have doubts about whether you can stop your horse in a bitless bridle, think twice about using it. Depending on your equine discipline, you might not be able to compete with using a bit. Check with the governing body of your discipline's organization for rules concerning bitless competition.
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Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.