While I was scrolling through Facebook, the question ‘Can bitless bridles be harsh?‘ popped up on a group and I thought it was such a great question I decided it needed some extra room to fully explore the answer.

The short answer is, YES! Any bridle can be harsh and bitless bridles in this respect are no different. I spend a lot of time explaining the reasons why bitless can offer a light communication and I am often met with a response that a bitless bridle can be harsh and cause pain. So let’s learn how we can avoid this and concentrate on keeping horses as comfortable as possible.

Type of Bitless Bridle

There are many types of bitless bridle, which I explain with more depth in my Bitless 101 guide.

Mainly there are 2 types of hackamore; active and passive. The active hackamore relies on action around the horses face, with multiple pressure or contact spots. Passive hackamores have no action, such as sidepulls and bosals for example. The more active the hackamore, the more contact points and the more pressure it will put on the horse’s face.

Some horses do not like the feeling of a highly active hackamore, they may well respond negatively with resistance. Perhaps they find it uncomfortable or even painful if they have a problem such as tension, previous injury or acute pain such as toothache. So if we take for instance, the crossunder, the most highly active type of hackamore, this could be harsh for a horse who experiences jaw pain, but for another horse who finds that pressure pleasurable, it could be a great experience overall. So the type of bridle and how harsh it could be is subjective to the horse.

The Bitless 101 guide illustrates both bridle fit anatomy and the process whereby the horse is assessed, offering the rider the knowledge and skills to make an informed decision.

Bridle Design

It is important to consider the materials and design of the bridle when measuring harshness. Such as bare rings or poorly placed buckles. These elements may lack comfort but are not necessarily harsh.

If the hackamore is an active shank design, the length of the shank will affect how much pressure is put on the curb and poll. Personally I prefer short and adjustable shanks under 15cm as these have shown in my own testing to exert minimal pressure over the poll. Some materials will inevitably be harsher than others, such as metal, chain, rope and rawhide. We could say that the harshness will depend on the user, which could be true, but neither metal nor chain is never going to offer comfort. Rope and rawhide could be uncomfortable, but not to the same extent. This is why I personally consider metal chain harsh and unsuitable for any bitless bridle.

Instead look for bridles which are well padded, less pressure and good quality. Be careful when asking for recommendations, as not everyone may consider the elements described above as harsh. When in doubt, listen to both common sense and the horse.

Bridle Fit

Even if you select the correct bridle for the horse and it is wonderfully padded, if fitted incorrectly it can still cause discomfort in use. The main areas to consider are the nasal bone (see below), cheek bones and Temporal Mandibular Joint (TMJ for short). By far the nasal bone is the first and more imporant area of fitting as if fitted incorrectly and with enough force could in theory cause a fracture to the unsupported area of the nasal bone. This cannot be said for a correctly fitted bitless nose band.

Find out what Robert Walsh has to say on the importance of a properly fitted bridle.

The Rider

There is no denying that the hands of the rider will determine the pressure and contact that the horse receives down the reins. Every rider should be learning to practice a balanced seat at all paces without relying on the reins . Think of the rein as a communication aid, ‘How light can you set the communication?‘ is a fantastic goal to have.

Transitioning the horse correctly to understand the cues of the bitless bridle should not be underestimated. We can do this following L.I.M.A (Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive). How we practice all training from ground to saddle and present the teaching to the horse will impact on their association to work the tack and to us. Through the understanding of how horses learn coupled with knowledge of behaviour, we can truly be mindful in our approach.

If you think you are a light handed rider, ask yourself if you can ride on the buckle or neck rein 🙂 Answer truthfully, there is always scope to improve!


What makes a kind bitless bridle?

  • A bridle the horse is comfortable with
  • A bridle that uses minimal pressure
  • A bridle that fits correctly
  • A bridle that does not cause pain
  • A bride the horse understands
  • A bridle used by a mindful and balanced rider

Want to learn more?

The BITLESS 101 guide illustrates the assessment process and gives you helpful information in both selecting, measuring and fitting the bridle for your horse.

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