By Cynthia Cooper
The term ‘on the bit’ has become commonplace and used to denote a certain frame or level of head carriage and collection of the horse.
But what happens when you don’t have a bit in your horse’s mouth? Can your horse still collect and if they do, what can you call it? Well – since ‘on the bit’ means acceptance, collection and responsiveness to the bit, maybe ‘on the bridle’ can refer to those same qualities when a horse wears a bitless bridle.
After all, we are still looking for acceptance, softness, responsiveness and collection in the horse for the purpose of easily carrying a human during intense periods of collected exercise such as in dressage, show hack classes, jumping, reining and many other competitive events of short duration.
Up until recently, the bit has been the norm for the ridden and driven horse.
But now that the bitless bridle option is available, those who understand that bits can be damaging to a horse physically, or who are keen to overcome behavioural problems associated with the bit, have discovered that their horses can respond just as well, if not much better without a bit.
The horse below for instance (a thoroughbred gelding) avoided the bit with a raised head and tossed his head a lot. He now loves the Light Rider Bitless bridle and as you can see, and is happy to go in a relaxed frame that will eventually lead to collection through self-carriage and engagement.
Horses are taught to accept and yield to all kinds of pressure (preferably light rhythmic pressure) to achieve the manoeuvres we ask of them. This is no different when we put pressure on the reins, except when there is a piece of metal contacting one of the most sensitive parts of the horse – the bars of the mouth. The bars have about as much skin and flesh covering them as we have on our shin bones.
Can you imagine walking or jogging along with a piece of metal suspended in front of your shins that is controlled by another person? What would it feel like when that person puts pressure on it? Would we hope that the reins were made of elastic so that the pressure was never great enough to cause pain, and could we put up with the discomfort of metal bumping on skin for very long? Try it sometime!
So, if you were a horse, what would you prefer, a lump of metal in your mouth or nothing? Why do we see so many horses wearing tight nosebands? If a horse wasn’t constantly opening his mouth to avoid the bit or show discomfort, then we wouldn’t need to tie it shut! Does your horse really need a noseband?
The same goes for severe types of bitless bridles with harsh nosebands that may also work on leverage.
A simple padded noseband sidecue style of bitless bridle is infinitely more comfortable for the horse provided it isn’t over-tightened.
The same goes for martingales and tie-downs. If the bit wasn’t causing pain, the horse wouldn’t feel the need to throw it’s head up in reaction.
Riders who use a bitless bridle are reporting that their horses are much happier, behave better and respond better to rein aids without a bit. Without the threat of pain (that a bit represents) a horse can focus on what you’re asking. They can respond to gentle noseband aids because, without pain, they remain able to think, whereas pain causes a horse to react – a natural ‘life-saving’ response ingrained into their nature as a prey animal.
Some people argue that you can’t control a horse without a bit. But how is painful pressure from a bit going to get a response if the horse really wants to fight for its life?
I’ve seen and heard of many horses who have been out of control in a bit and would ascertain that the bit actually causes the horse to resist control because it can’t think when the pain becomes severe.
In a bitless bridle, the horse can get out of control when in a fearful situation, but you have a greater chance of regaining control when there is no pain involved.
True horsemen recognise that control is not achieved by pulling harder on two reins anyway – only pressure from one rein (and your leg) can cause a disengaging of the hindquarters which then controls movement.
It is therefore important to teach your horse how to yield to rein and leg pressure in the bitless bridle before you get on and ride, just like people spend time ‘mouthing’ a horse before riding to teach them to respond to rein pressure via the bit.
And just as horses can learn to respond to rein contact by giving to the pressure with their nose, so they can learn it without a bit (and without the associated issues).
It’s all just a matter of spending the time teaching your horse in small increments to trust the rein pressure will be released/rewarded (using positive reinforcement), will be gentle and will be rhythmic so they don’t feel the need to lean against your hand.
Eventually, you will have a horse happy that is ‘on the bridle’ provided you keep your hands soft and your demands for concentrated effort short until the horse has the physical fitness and suppleness to achieve that dressage test, reining pattern, jumping round or show class. It also takes time riding in enclosed areas and at all gaits, before a rider who may be used to relying on the reins for control, will feel comfortable without a bit and with softer, looser reins.
So give yourself all the time it takes to develop YOUR confidence in your horse too.
This video shows what you can achieve with bitless education – a soft responsive horse who is ‘on the bridle’. Interestingly, this horse was lame whenever the bit was used. Once allowed to remain bitless the lameness never reappeared. Featuring Suzanne Bellette riding Tombay.