If you haven’t already heard, bitless bridles and bitless riding is increasing in popularity and becoming much more the norm for natural riding. For several years riders have been calling for British Dressage to allow bitless bridles and more recently has featured in publications as mainstream as Horse & Hound.
I’m going to write today about going bitless and my experience of that transition and review the various bridles I have and used with my head gelding Teddy. If you are thinking about going bitless or you have already made the transition I hope you find this article interesting and relatable. I would love to hear your experiences, so feel free to comment at the end.
Why Did We Go Bitless?
The fundamental reason I went bitless with Teddy was to strengthen my partnership with my horse. It’s true that I’m no longer a fan of bits, but at that time I thought that my horse needed his bit simply because I’ve never ridden any other way (in a training/competitive sense). I was told it was dangerous, that I wouldn’t be insured – lots of reasons to put anyone off.
I seemed to have forgotten all the summers of my childhood tacking up my grey Welsh Section A ‘Roulette’ with a dusty head collar and lead rope and heading out over the pasture lands for a canter around a freshly cut field. It never occurred to me then, that doing this, riding bareback, sometimes backwards holding on to a rug (kids are stupid, supervise them!) that by doing this I was just having fun and letting go and letting my horse go too. I had a great bond with that pony. When it came to put on the tack I very rarely fell off as I already had balance skills and well stretched legs.
So, from my on-off late teenage years and break with riding, going back through an adult’s eyes from day dot Teddy had a bit. He was a 5-year-old when he came to me and very green, probably just backed and lightly schooled but unbalanced and scared of his own shadow.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get much time with his early education as during a time shortly after homing Teddy, I was ill and could rarely ride. I put Teddy out on loan to a lovely girl and a very good rider. She found Teddy difficult to control – which was true and mainly due to my lack of time for training from said illness. She suggested some other bits and tried them out, I then received feedback that he had started bucking. Teddy bucking?! What I did know was that was unlike him and frankly he was far too lazy for that, something must be wrong. So then came the saga many of us have been through – Investigating.
The saddle change, thermal imaging, the feet and back check, diet check, more groundwork – £1000’s later and he was still strong as ever and evading the bit and just basically running off when he felt like it and throwing in a random buck. I was determined I would change this and as I recovered and was able to complete more groundwork he started to come better but I could tell he wasn’t enjoying it. Schooling was a painful experience for both of us. He hated it, even with lots of communication on the ground he wasn’t listening to me under saddle.
Then something changed.
In 2016 I moved abroad, to Ireland for my husband’s job. We rented a farm house in Co. Kerry opposite the mountains known as the Killarney Reeks. Surrounded by meadow and a small farm out back, we rented some land and a stable and Teddy was brought over on a transporter. I put him in the field and left him to it for a couple of months. Let him just chill out and be a horse. I was planning to start again.
Rather than go back to his usual tack, I decided to stick only to natural horsemanship methods and picked up a halter and rope and started groundwork patterns in the field. In a short space of time we solved a lot of issues but none were focused on the bit. Previously Teddy was difficult at the mountain block, he would fidget, barge and was incredibly sensitive to stimulus outside of our training, he would also walk off as soon as you sat on him.
The groundwork patterns developed further with our communication as I started to listen to him and he listened back. After one of our sessions I asked him to wait at a large stone for me as a mountain block and to my surprise he did. I left it there for the day ending on a good note.
From then on we progressed in small steps almost daily. He would sigh and relax and seemed to be happy with me standing over him, rubbing him and even moving away from him. From only a few sessions we connected so strongly I felt like I had never really understood him throughout our previous training. He was always there, I just didn’t tune in, from then on in, we had a partnership. This was also the beginning of creating my relaxed horsemanship program.
Transition to Bitless Riding
Changing from a bit to nothing is not something I would suggest anyone take lightly. Every horse is different and I think it depends greatly on you assessing 3 things.
- Where are you starting from – Your horse may be less or more well-trained than where we started. So, don’t base your training purely on my method in this blog, you may need to do more work to start from the same place.
- Where you have been – Your horse may have negative experiences, removing the bit does help with relaxation, but it doesn’t remove experience.
- Where you are going – I am not suggesting for a moment to put on a headcollar and go hunting. Apply some common sense. This transition will take time, in some ways we are still transitioning because there are more bitless bridles than you may realise and not all of them work for your horse and they do different jobs (like bits). Make sure you have been through a lot of training before going to compete or hack bitless – don’t get caught out, be smart.
Our transition began 18 months ago, that sounds like a long time but I don’t believe in rushing and we have tried a lot of methods and bridles. These are our steps, as I mentioned before, this may not suit your horse so listen to him/her. Remember, your horse is your best instructor.
We began our journey with the humble halter, training regularly, Teddy was very comfortable with the halter from day 1. I would note it is important to make sure it is fitted correctly.
Pressure release and neck flexing exercises became a key part of our groundwork. Teddy would be ridden with both 1 and 2 reins to ensure that he was listening to the 1 rein stops. Again, all done from the ground. Using a long rope secured on the underside loop created a bridle which was used in a lot of groundwork.
When it was time to get in the saddle, (always after groundwork) we had a few moments and the focus was on relaxation and practicing the groundwork he already knew well, on his back. This was so that it was like to always be successful and he was receiving praise and positive reward.
Finally, after working on transitions, seat aids etc we went for a short hack on a quiet road on a sunny Sunday afternoon and it went very well. We didn’t go fast, but we spent time along the way working on halt, walk and trot. I wanted to make sure he was listening to me and not watching the cows in the field.
I would suggest a halter is good in the initial transition from groundwork but not a practical long-term solution as they can soon desensitize the contact areas over time, which isn’t useful when we get in to a bosal or other headstall.
The bosal halter is a very interesting and different piece of kit. I had trained with one several years ago when we used them to start grounwork. Rather than applying a constant contact like you would in a bitted bridle, you want to do quite the opposite with the bosal. It could easily hurt or desensitize so it’s about re-training yourself to be lighter and more seat and balance orientated, which is exactly what my boy needed from me. In the following photos notice the shoulder and shape difference in the neckline.
Although the bosal halter is great for general training, western trail & hacking I like to complete my flatwork & jumping in the Dr Cook. This is down to a few reasons.
- The Dr Cook looks and feels more like a general English bridle – spectators are usually more accepting towards this.
- If I were to compete in any flatwork competition such as showing I would use this bridle. So, it makes sense to train in it.
- It’s difficult for the horse to lean due to the poll pressure nature.
- Unlike the bosal you can maintain a more constant contact and ask for smaller details such as a shoulder-in and 10metre circles.
I have found that my horse doesn’t respond as well the Dr Cook as much as he does the bosal halter so I go between and change my training during the week. This also gives him some variety and he certainly doesn’t find our work boring and mundane. I think the response is due to the cross-under not releasing pressure as quickly as the bosal so cues can come late.
5 Tips on Going Bitless
- Remember that bits are not brakes and it’s your safety first – always.
- Try before you buy. Not all will suit your horse, it’s a good idea to work with a fitter.
- Spend time training your horse to be responsive to your seat & voice aids. Learn a 1 rein stop – even if you still ride with a bit this is useful.
- Try bridles in an arena after completing groundwork so that acceptance and relaxation are present when bitless is introduced.
- Do your homework on bitless bridles or work with someone experienced who has various bridles you can try out.
Help Going Bitless
If you would love to go bitless but just don’t know how to start the journey myself and other experienced trainers can help. Please visit Bitless Horseriding Ireland for more information of bitless trainers in your area – includes details for Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK.