Moving Away From Bits

By Karri Nadazdy.

 

About Bitless Bridles

There is a wide range of bitless bridles available these days, and each style works in a different way, and each brand will be made slightly differently.  Choosing a bridle is a very individual process, every horse and human combination is unique, and some bridles suit certain actvities better than others.

In a broad sense, the more complex a bridle, the more precise and specific your communication can be with the horse.  However the more complex the bridle, the more sensitive and soft your hands need to be to not be confusing to the horse.  Riding a horse, whether you use a bit or not, comes from the seat, not the hands, and with driving, voice replaces the seat.  Any riding text, or good instructor, can explain these concepts in detail, if you are unfamiliar with them.

Personally, I recommend someone new to bitless start with the simplest tool they can - a halter or side pull is a great place to start.  By starting simple, you're ensuring that your seat or voice is as good as it should be, and that your horse understands the basics.  If you're having trouble just moving off, and making basic turns, and stopping, a more complex bridle is not going to fix these issues.  If you find the basics are easy, but you're lacking the precision you require, you can always try a more complex bridle, until you find the right bridle to help you achieve the desired results.  It gives you room to move.

Bitless Bridless are not all created equal, and just like bits, some are more severe or complex than others.  The more leverage (squeezing) in a bridle, the stronger it will feel to the horse.  Less is always more.  Bitless bridles generally, in order of gentlest to harshest are: halter, sidepull, bosal, scrawbrig, crossunder/crossover, hackamore, double crossunder.

If you are considering a harsh bridle to start with, please be aware that many difficult bitted horses are not difficult in a bitless bridle, so please give the horse the benefit of the doubt before you assume that because you need a harsh bit, that you will also need a harsh bridle.

Horses in bitless bridles need just as much attention from an equine dentist as do bitted horses.

Stage 1 - Test the Fit

  • Choose a bridle to start with.  The simpler the better. 
  • Introduce it to your horse as you would any new piece of tack, allow the horse to smell and taste it, and rub it against his neck prior to putting it on.  Hold the bridle up next to his face to estimate the fit, and if it doubt adjust the bridle to be a bit too big rather than a bit to small. 
  • Put the bridle on, and adjust the fit.  Check any instructions that came with the bridle, as some have unique details.  Ensure any buckles will not make contact with the horse's eyes, and that the browband can easily fit a couple of fingers under it and that the noseband is not too low or tight.  Some bridles twist on the nose with use, and if this happens, try another style or brand until you find one that doesn't rub.  Padding to prevent rubbing isn't very effective.
  • Be aware that most bitless bridles are NOT designed to be used with a constant contact, particularly any with leverage (that squeeze the nose or face).  They are designed for pressure and release, not constant pressure with no release.  Some bridles may be used with constant contact, some sidepulls, and specially designed bridles, but please think long and hard about why you would want your horse to lean on your hands.  For a horse to be "On The Bit", he needs to be in self carriage, not held onto the bit.  If pulling on the reins is the only way you know to collect a horse, then please invest in some lessons with a qualified instructor.
  • Lead your horse around on a loose lead for a few minutes, so he can get a feel for the new bridle before you start putting pressure on it. 

        

Stage 2 - Ground Work

  • If at any time, the horse becomes confused or upset, ask him to stop, reassure him and start again.  If you find any gaps in your training, fill in those gaps before moving on to the next step.  Being thorough now, and ensuring your foundations are solid will be your safety net later on, when its really important!
  • Working in a safe, enclosed space, halt your horse, and standing to one side of his neck, ask your horse to bend his neck, and back up.  Give him more time than usual to respond initially, as the bridle may feel very different to what he is used to, and he may need to think about what you are asking.  Just ask gently, and wait a few seconds before increasing the pressure gradually.  Ensure you release immediately when the horse offers the correct response.  If you use positive reinforcement, use your treats accordingly. 
  • If 'good brakes' are important to you, ensure that you make stopping a good thing.  Give a treat, or leave the horse alone and give him a break every time you stop.  If you wish to teach the horse a voice cue you can count on in an emergency, you can teach this at the same time.
  • All going well at halt, move on to walking next to your horse, ask for some simple turns, halt and back up. 
  • Using long reins, repeat the above step, so you can create some distance between you and the horse.  Its best if the outside rein goes over the horse's back or through lunge roller rings or even the stirrups of your saddle so that they do not put pressure on the bridle from their weight.  Walk along with your horse to one side, don't stay in one place. 
  • All going well, up the pace to trot, and canter.  Ensure that you are confident that your horse understands the cues. If at any time your horse becomes confused, go back to the last step where it was going well, and work from there.  End on a good note, when your horse is feeling confident.

       

Stage 3 - Riding or Driving

  • Give the horse a break between the long reining and this next stage - even if it is all going quickly and perfectly, let him have some time (at least an hour) to process all the information before you try getting in the saddle or hitching up the carriage.
  • In a safe, enclosed space, saddle up, or hitch up as you normally do, with your bitless bridle.  Test what your horse thinks of the bridle after having some processing time by long reining him again.  Now he's had time to think, you may find more gaps in your training to fill in, before you get in the saddle or box seat.
  • Once you are confident that you and your horse understand each other with th new bridle, its time to ride or drive! 
  • If you are nervous, or not confident, do a few more days of ground work before moving on to riding or driving.  If you're still nervous about getting on bitless, you can fit a bridle with a bit under the bitless bridle, with a second set of reins to give you confidence, and a back up, or have a person on the ground with a lead rope attached, who will not interfere unless you need them to.
  • Mount as you normally would and sit in the saddle, or vehicle for a few moments before asking to move off. 
  • Practice what you have on the ground, starting at a walk, and only increasing the pace and speed when both you and horse feel good about it.  Relax!
  • If you're having trouble, don't fight with your horse, get off, and go back to ground work and work through the problem.
  • End the session on a good note, and don't ask for too much the first time.  Even just a break of 30 minutes helps your horse process the session.
  • When you get off, give your horse a special treat!
  • If you're still nervous or concerned after everything went well, seriously consider getting a few lessons, or attending a clinic to help you work through your nerves.
  • Be proud of yourself for doing a great job!  And come on to the Bitless Inc Members Forum and tell us all about it!

        

Stage 4 - Leaving Home

  • Leaving your safe space or preparing for competition is more of the same - introducing things gradually, building on the strengths of you and your horse, and ending each session on a good note.
  • The key to training horses is to be consistent, and clear, and have good timing. A good instructor can help you get good at this.
  • Tell us all about your achievements, big or tiny on the Bitless Inc Members Forum, everyone would love to hear about it.

        

Karri Nadazdy is a former independent saddle fitter and equestrian rehabilitation therapist, and has experience as a rider and driver with a wide range of horses, from unhandled ferals to problem horses. Karri is the Founding Secretary of Bitless Inc. 

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