Whether you ride bitless or bitted, it’s important to have a working knowledge of how to be safe when riding your horse.

Have a Plan

In an ideal world we ride calm safe horses – that never do anything wrong and we can just fall asleep on them all day long… That would be great wouldn’t it? But life gets in the way. Therefore, we need a safety plan and we need to practice it. I call this PLAN B.

PLAN A is that we can say ‘Whoa’, or ‘Stand’ or just that we breathe out, roll on to our pockets and our balance will be the gentle cue for our horse to stop. With training, PLAN A works brilliantly most of the time. But then there are times when our horses do something that could endanger both us and them.

It’s easy to pretend that this doesn’t happen. Some folk might say that it’s only a type of horse that will bolt, the ‘naughty horse’, the ‘ex-racehorse’, the ‘spooky horse’. But in fact, this could be any horse.

Why do Horses Bolt?

The horse is a prey animal. They have a highly developed Fight/Flight/Freeze (FFF) mechanism, which for thousands of years, their survival depended upon. Under stress, the horse’s instincts take over, flooding their body with hormones, cutting off the ‘thought’ part of the brain. They become reactive instead of responsive.

There are two main reasons horses bolt. Fear and/or Pain.

It all relates to Trigger Stacking

Please check out my earlier article ‘You Can’t Train with Pain

Fear/Pain, which can come from anything from a sting of a wasp to a pinching saddle – if your horse is reactive for much of the time, please do investigate that your equipment and management is working for them. For example a horse without turnout cannot move enough and can become stiff in the enclosure. However, fear/discomfort can be rooted in both emotional as well as physical well-being. For example a horse that does not feel safe could stop eating as much, being stressed in combination develops ulcers.

Real Life Example

Picture that you are riding down a country lane, you notice your horse is becoming more and more stressed – there are multiple triggers affecting them. Their heart rate becomes elevated. Their body floods with hormones and they are in a reactive FFF state. We feel their bodies tense, we notice they are looking around more, become a little anxious – naturally we tense too. The horse feels our response, adding to the anxiety – just then a bird flies out of a tree (just like they have been doing the whole ride), except this time the horse shoots forwards in a blind state of panic and begins to bolt.

What happens to us when our horses bolt?

Humans too have an FFF response. It may not be as finely tuned, but if our horse spooks, stops suddenly (planting/napping) or bolts, and our body feels that our life is in danger, our Limbic system will overtake and we will lose the ability to process a reasonable response. This is why it is so important to know what to do automatically before the situation occurs.

What would you do in this situation?

  • Freeze and do nothing, hoping the horse just stops.
  • Automatically react by Flight (bailing from the horse).
  • Or have a practiced and developed Fight response.

What was the outcome of the story?  I used my Fight response in a one rein stop, which slowed the horse down within only a few steps of bolt.

It’s important for me to say that I do not regard the horse as naughty, in this case it was trigger related. Those triggers had been noted and at the time of the bolt, we were heading for home.

Develop a Safe Response

The one-rein stop asks the horse to flex their head to one side. In this position, it makes it more difficult for the horse to continue at the same speed in the same direction and can force them to slow. You don’t want to stop too abruptly as this would be dangerous, but keeping the horse at a steady flexed angle will slow them down inevitably.

Before riding a new horse in an open situation – such as a road, lane or field, I must first work on their flexibility of the neck, their response to my cues and gently practicing the one-rein stop. I do not think that it is a good idea to practice it harshly, but for you to be able to learn it enough that it will become an automatic response. So, if you ever find yourself in that unfortunate position, you will have an auto-response and your horse will have the flexibility to perform with less chance of injury or muscle strain to themselves.

Practice is Important

I will practice the qualities of the one-rein stop on the ground first and then in riding. I check-in with my horse that we are both okay to perform spirals, circles and walk into a 5m circle, stop and gently flex.

This is a lovely gentle warm up to incorporate in to your routine and allows you to see how responsive your horse is to your aids. Learning gymnastics, such as Straightness training, is of huge benefit and importance here, I highly recommend groundwork and ridden flexibility training to warm up before each ride. If you can do this, you will have more confidence in yourself and your horse, that you both have an understanding.

Bitless vs Bitted – Which is safest?

When the horse first reacts and shoots forwards, as riders we are likely to lose our balance and instinctively bring our hands back to stop the horse. In a bitless bridle this would have a momentary additional pressure to the contact points on the bridle, but in a correctly fitting, gentle bitless bridle it should not put pressure on any sensitive parts of the face, nor the weakened area of the nasal bone.

In the bitted bridle, the bit will be forced backwards, putting pressure on very soft and sensitive areas such as the tongue, bars and palette. I believe this action will send an extra dose of those hormone releasing pain signals, increasing the reaction of the horse, it can also lead to injury or at the best, soreness.

This is the reason why I do not believe there is any justification of the bitless bridle being classed as having ‘less control’.

Learn about this technique and much more at my Bitless 101 Workshops UK Tour 2019



Image Credits

  1. https://punch.photoshelter.com
  2. https://2conv.irim.us
  3. Equine Partnership
  4. Charlotte Bailey
  5. https://www.hay-net.co.uk

Leave a Reply