Bitless bridles have existed for as long as humans and horses have partnered. For many horses, especially those with certain mouth issues, bitless is the way to go -- it eliminates the bar pressing on the inside of the horse's mouth. That doesn't mean every horse should be ridden in a bitless bridle. While bitless bridles have many advantages, as their advocates claim, they also have disadvantages. Much depends on the individual horse and the skill level of the rider.
The Bitless Bridle
A bridle with the trade name "Bitless Bridle" was developed by British equine veterinarian Robert Cook. His device features two cross straps underneath the horse's chin; each move independently. Introduced in 2007, the bitless bridle was praised for not causing pain to a horse, even if a rider's hands were rough and uneducated.
Still, even bitless advocates expressed concern that it was easier for a horse to run away in a bitless bridle, especially with a novice rider. For experienced equestrians, the lack of a bit may result in less communication between the horse and rider, as the subtle vibrations available with a bit aren't possible.
Riders who always use a bitless bridle may overestimate their actual level of expertise, because the proper use of a bitted bridle requires additional coordination.
Even renowned reining queen Stacy Westfall had a bad first experience with a bitless bridle, resulting in a runaway situation.
A type of bitless bridle that applies pressure to the nose, a hackamore consists of a headstall, bosal -- the braided leather piece fitting around the nose -- and the reins, or mecate. To control the horse, the bosal must lie about 1 inch above the curve of the mouth. An inexperienced rider should not start out using a hackamore but should learn to control the horse with a bit.
The same holds true for the green horse -- start out with a snaffle bit, then progress to the hackamore when the animal knows the basic aids. It is somewhat harder to stop a horse with a hackamore, especially if rider or horse are inexperienced, and it's not the best way to teach neck reining or backing up.
Besides whether a bitless bridle is better for the horse, there are practical considerations. These include:
- Whether your discipline allows competition in a bitless bridle.
- Whether your insurance company will cover you in an accident involving a bitless bridle.
- Fitting a bitless bridle is exact -- there's no wiggle room. If the bitless bridle doesn't fit correctly, you may have little or no control of the horse. An ill-fitting bitless bridle can cause your horse pain.
While it's easy for you to find out what the competition rules are involving bitless bridles and any insurance limitations, it may not be so easy to have your bridle properly fitted. If your trainer is well-versed in fitting bitless bridles, that's one thing, but otherwise you must seek out an individual with expertise. Ask your local tack store for a fitting recommendation.
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.