Until a few years ago there used to be very few choices if you wanted to ride without a bit in your horse’s mouth.
There was the western style bosal, the mechanical hackamore or the rope halter, mostly used by western riders, showjumpers and endurance riders in that order.
But now, with our awareness that horses don’t need a bit to be controlled, we are faced with a huge choice of bridles that use various means of action to put pressure on the horse.
This article will look at the more readily available options and why they would be used or what purpose they are better suited to.
Lets start with the plain rope halter. These usually have two knots either side of the nose, a larger knot (the Fiador) below the chin and 2 loops to connect a lead rope or reins to. The rope they are made of can be either thick (10mm) or much thinner (as fine as 6mm) and their severity increases with the smaller diameter sizes.
The rope halter works well in the hands of a skilled horseman provided it fits well. The fit can vary according to the maker, as just about anyone can construct these if they have a pattern. Quality fit is seen in the Parelli, Natural Equipment, Nungar Knots and Lodge Ropes halters (from my own experience).
The noseband of the halter should sit at least 5cm (2″) or approximately three finger widths below the cheek bones to be effective. If your horse has learned to ignore the pressure from the noseband, then dropping it a little lower until it rests just above where the hard bone begins over the nostrils, will give you more effective leverage.Photo: Examples of noseband too high and noseband too large, making both halters ineffective with two reins.
The downsides to riding in a rope halter apart from those issues just discussed, are that they can cause a lot of pain in rough hands, and can wear hair and skin off in this situation. They don’t allow much room for error in fitting them.
However the downsides are that the weight of all that rope can cause discomfort for the horse even to where a ridge will appear on the nose from constant pressure over a long period of wearing it.
Also, badly fitted natural hackamores have the same issues as rope halters. Another major problem is the reins can easily cause a wreck if the horse steps through them while grazing or drinking, as they are generally tied shorter than lead rope reins. It is essential to always double loop the reins around the horse’s upper neck, or take the reins over the head when you are dismounted to avoid this problem.
Photo: A well fitted natural hackamore with the lead rope tied safely in a quick release knot to a string on the saddle; so it will break free if accidentally hooked on something.
Following in the rope line is the rope side pull bitless bridle which is essentially the same as a rope halter except there is a ring incorporated in each noseband knot .
This allows reins to be clipped on which is slightly better than a rope halter in that they generally don’t get caught up against the neck as they do with a lead rope.
However, using one rein can cause the noseband to twist around, reducing its effectiveness. (see photo). Again, this bitless bridle can cause some of the problems seen with a rope halter if it is not fitted correctly.
Another trap is that sometimes a rider is tempted to clip the reins onto the loops below the fiador knot and this results in turning that knot inside out, causing a real mess if you don’t know how to re-tie a fiador knot.There are leather versions of a side pull – these would be a preferable option to a rope version in my opinion, as the noseband is generally fitted closely and therefore much more effective.A side pull bitless bridle is denoted by the ability to just affect the nose – there is no pressure on other parts of the horse’s head.
Before we leave rope products, the latest type of Bitless Bridle to become available is the LightRider Bitless Bridle which has been invented by the author in her quest to find a simple, light weight, kind and effective piece of head gear to ride in. It is an adapted side pull but differs in that it has a sliding chinstrap that releases when the rein is relaxed.
This allows the horse softness and freedom to move its jaw (for drinking and eating if needed) so is very suited to endurance and trail riders, or pleasure riders who like to allow grazing in between training tasks.The action of the chinstrap when pressure is applied, causes the horse to seek relief by yielding to the pressure, giving very good control with one rein or two.Other features that ensure comfort for the horse are a covered noseband and soft chinstrap. The most useful feature is that the bridle quickly converts to a halter and lead rope, making it handy for endurance where a rider might want to run beside their horse and for ease of vetting, and for a trail rider who might need to negotiate an obstacle on foot or train their horse over a new obstacle.
The LightRider bitless bridle is also made in an English, Western and Stockhorse style from Biothane, a synthetic leather material that is stronger, longer lasting and easier to care for than leather.
These bridles have the advantage of looking like a traditional bridle yet work on the same principle of a releasing chinstrap which suits horses not able to cope with the ‘whole head’ pressure of the crossunder bitless bridles.
With the reins attached in a similar position to a bit, the Light Rider Bridle delivers a much clearer, more direct message to the nose.
The unique chinstrap of the Light Rider Bridle offers effective control by tightening (to a point) when pressure is applied. When the rein is relaxed, it releases to reward the horse.
Horses find it much easier to learn and become lighter when they receive release from pressure.
Pulley type bridles:
A combination of rope and leather is found in the Jeffrey’s Bitless Bridle. With a double rope noseband and rope that goes up to the poll for the reins to clip onto, this bridle puts pressure on the poll and the nose if used in the way intended. Some riders prefer to remove the rope pulley system and just use this bridle as a side pull, as such, seems to work equally effectively. On some horses the cheek pieces seem to fit too close to the eye.
The reasoning behind this design is that just as a horse is sensitive enough to feel a fly landing, it can and will respond better to a bridle that applies minimal force. Because the pressure is dissipated over the whole head, rather than concentrated in any one area such as the bridge of the nose or the poll, it is, according to Dr Cook’s research, virtually impossible to cause pain with a correctly designed and properly fitted crossover bitless bridle.
The noseband of this bridle must be positioned reasonably low and firm to be effective.
The pressure releases when the reins are relaxed although the noseband stays the same.
No-Bit Bridles and Nurtural bridles are both slightly modified copies of Dr Cook’s original. They differ in materials and design. The Nurtural has a round keeper under the jaw that the crossover straps go through, and a stiffened, rubber-gripped noseband. According to Dr Cook, these additions may reduce the design’s ability to act as a gentle whole head hug.The crossunder bitless bridles are more readily accepted in performance events (except dressage, where only bitted bridles are ‘legal’). They look more like a traditional bridle and seem to be readily accepted without any specialised training by most horses used to wearing a bit. From personal experience, I found some horses may need time to adjust to the feel of the ‘whole head hug’ and to understand direction, particularly young horses.However, many horses used to ‘giving’ to a feel will be very responsive to the pressure of this bridle because it allows for very clear communication without pain. Whilst over-flexion can occur when such a horse is ridden with a heavy hand, it also means that horses that may have leaned or ‘sucked back’ from a bit to avoid pain can be re-schooled to accept very light aids without the need for a bit.
There are many more styles and types of bitless bridle available internationally – you only have to do an internet search to see the vast array. Most work on the principle of reins attaching somewhere close to where a bit would, which is the main difference from the rope, mechanical and bosal halter or hackamore.
Prices vary enormously from $50 to over $200 depending on the materials used and the style so it pays to shop around and look for the product that is going to suit your needs best.
There are many choices nowdays and most bitless bridles are sold with a return guarantee so it’s easy to find the one that works best for your horse.
When trying a new bridle, give your horse time to adjust and follow the steps in the next article on How to Transition to a Bitless Bridle.