Is bitless riding the same as with a bit?
When riding with a bitless bridle, there are some perceived, and a couple of real differences to riding with a bit that will help with your transition and training.
Confident riders and well educated horses who have a good basic foundation generally won’t have a problem adapting to a bitless bridle because essentially the principles are the same – ride with your mind and seat first, then legs and hands second, keeping the feel soft and light.
But if you lack confidence or knowledge and are not riding a responsive educated horse, here are some things that will help your bitless riding.
1. Watch your thoughts.
The biggest influence is the riders mind. If we think we’re safe just because we have a piece of metal to over-power our horse with (resorting to pain) then we are fooling ourselves. 500kg of scared, frustrated horse will easily push through the pain if they feel the need to.
So fear of the horse not responding or stopping is usually the big one, but fear can be overcome with knowledge, practice and by listening to your self talk and changing that when it’s negative.
For instance if you say to yourself “I hope he doesn’t run off with me” then your horse probably will because he/she will pick up on the feelings associated with the “hope he doesn’t” which is unsure and negative.
By changing this to “I trust my horse to remain in control” while visualising a good ride, then you share that positive picture with your horse and its more likely to happen.
2. Training is the key.
Educated riders recognise that control is not achieved by pulling harder on two reins – only pressure from one rein (and your leg) at a time can cause disengagement of the hindquarters which then controls forward movement.
It is very important to teach your horse to yield to rein and leg pressure in a bitless bridle before you get on, just like people spend time ‘mouthing’ a horse from the ground before riding so your horse has some understanding of the cues and gets a reward for disengaging to a stop.
This article by Philip Nye explains disengaging in more detail.
3. Rhythmic pressure is best.
Just as horses can learn to respond to rein contact with a bit by giving to the pressure, so they can learn it with a bitless bridle provided you use clear consistent feel that is rhythmic rather than a solid hold.
When we use lighter aids with rhythmic pressure, the horse will respond better because the rhythm gives them nothing to lean against.
Try this experiment – have someone hold a rope firmly while you take hold and pull against them with a steady pressure.
Two things happen – they pull harder to resist being pulled forward, and they can hold against a steady pull quite easily.
Then try picking up the rope and using a rhythmic on/off feel – the person holding the rope will not feel they need to resist the ‘asking’ and even if they choose to, you can increase the intensity of the rhythmn and actually pull them off their feet.
Rhythmic feel is the one important ‘method’ to learn, with its lightest form being your little finger opening and closing on the rein, to a full-fisted on-off bump on the rein for a a very resistant horse.
Allan Buck (inventor of the Spirit Bitless Bridle – the original crossunder) says…
“Lightness for most riders means a light rein contact. When I ride, I ask for and then release the contact till it is in ounces. I try to avoid any form of consistent pulling.
When I ride my fingers are doing the talking with touch, hold, release. Its a give and take method for which the horse learns quickly.
For instance, when I trot, my fingers touch and release the reins in the rhythm of the trot, so there is no constant pulling of the reins. This produces the tempo and gets the horse to slightly swing the head in time with the trot…relaxing the poll and the neck.”
4. Take your time.
It takes time riding in enclosed areas and at all gaits before a rider who is used to relying on the reins for support, will feel comfortable without a bit and with softer, looser reins.
It can help to practice riding with one rein to develop your independent seat. The Parelli program has a strong foundation of one rein riding.
Give yourself all the time it takes to develop your confidence, balance and skills.
It also helps to spend time developing the relationship with your horse by not riding. Try going for walks for a change while your horse wears the bridle to get used to it – they will love the opportunity to graze and browse plants they wouldn’t find in their pasture.
Take your horse along the trails you intend to ride and practice challenges like water crossing, going over logs and different terrain. Many horses will gain confidence from you being a leader on the ground before they have to lead while carrying you.
You could also learn to lunge or ground drive your horse with long reins. It’s best to use lightweight cotton reins run through the stirrup leathers and attached to a non-tightening part of the bitless bridle (like the sidepull rings) so leverage isn’t constantly maintained.
If you take the time to teach your horse in small increments so they trust your pressure will be released, will be gentle and will be rhythmic, they won’t feel the need to lean against it and resist.
Eventually, you will have a horse happy to be ‘on the bridle’ provided you keep your hands soft and your demands for concentrated effort short.
I takes time for the horse to have the physical fitness and suppleness to achieve that dressage test, reining pattern, jumping round or show class in a collected frame of self carriage.
For more tips on bitless riding see my Bitless Riding Tips.