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A BIT of a Change on Bridles

I grew up using bits on horses. It was normal to me. The exception being one of our elder horses, SJ, who was ridden bitless due to melanomas in and around his mouth. Other than SJ, every horse I rode had a bridle with a bit. Of course I was taught to ride with a light hand, but the bit was still there and I didn’t think twice about it. After all, I was a kid at the time. I simply took what I was taught because that was just how we did things.

Now that I am older, I no longer subscribe to the idea of “do as you are told” when it comes to horses. Rather, I have read, watched, tested and developed my own thoughts on what goes on in the horse world. When you reach a certain age and/or experience level, it is your job to question everything you learn, see and hear. One question I have been thinking about a lot lately is regarding bits.

I once heard John Lyons say that “there is always a better way” when it comes to working with horses. I aim to live by that. I may not know a better way at the moment, but I will always be seeking one and if I discover it, I’m going to put it into practice. With the access we have now to YouTube and other internet sources, there is no excuse to not attempt new methods. Ignorance is no excuse.

It all began with some YouTube videos of a guy who was completely against using bits on horses (or any metal at all on a horse’s face). He rides his horses in rope halters only. Like most horse people I see, I don’t agree with everything this guy says, but his reasoning behind this particular viewpoint was sound, and got me thinking.

When you start a horse out, you begin (at least you should) with a rope halter or other bitless bridle setup to get the horse used to the gear and to teach them how to respond to guiding. Eventually, they are introduced to a bit. But why? If the horse responds to the signals from just a rope halter or other bitless set-up, why do we feel the need to put bars of metal in their mouths? The simple answer is “control”. It makes us feel better, safer and like we have more power over the horse because we can cause pain and discomfort with the bit. But is it necessary?

This is a new train of thought for me, and I gave it whirl for the first time less than a year ago when I had the opportunity to work with a Tennessee Walking horse. I had been offered a bridle to use on her, but then I thought, “Do I really need that?” Although I had observed her lack of manners before I started working with her, after spending time doing groundwork with her, I was confident in my ability to handle whatever she threw my way. So, I ordered a rope hackamore/bitless bridle (not a mechanical one) online, put it on her and hopped on.

She didn’t stay at the barn long, so I didn’t get to have very many rides on her (less than 10 rides, because most of my time with her was spent on groundwork sessions), but every ride was done bitless and we did just fine, even in the not-fenced-in outdoor ring. That’s when I realized something. If I can get on a horse that I just met whom I suspected would have behavior issues without a bit, I sure as heck can do it on any horse!

When I was given the opportunity to ride another horse, I did use his bridle the first few times. Then I decided that we were going to nix it completely. Every ride on him since, whether indoor, outdoor, or on the trail, has been done in his halter. Just a regular halter with a set of reins attached to each side. I have had zero “control” issues, even when we experienced that rather frightening thing in the woods a while back (check out that story in my post “What Lurks in the Woods”).

I also started riding Dreamer with just his halter. I must admit that with Dreamer I was more apprehensive about going bitless on the trail. I had some difficulties even with a bit, so I was anticipating a much worse situation should I go bitless. However, I decided that I could not allow that to stop me from trying. The issues I have with him are my problems that I need to figure out, and I don’t need a bit to solve them! But, this was not an overnight process, so I decided to test it out first.

Our first trail ride of the season was at the new barn he was moved to a short time ago. I tacked him up as usual, including his bridle. However, I left his halter on and attached the reins to that instead of to the bridle. I suppose you could say that it was my shameful safety blanket.

bitless riding. no bit. trail riding.
The test ride. Bit in, but reins not attached to it.

His new housing situation is quite different than the old one. That being said, his behavior has changed from what it has been the last two years I have leased him. He is quieter, more docile, and no longer “more go than whoa”. So when we headed out on the trail, it was the first solo ride that I have actually been able to relax and enjoy the ride. Despite the hikers, bikers, dogs, and wildlife, he did very well and remained fairly calm. I was very proud of him. Surprised, but proud. I never had to switch my reins from the halter to the bridle and from that day forward, we nixed the bridle and use only a halter.

Despite having grown up using bits on pretty much every horse I have ever ridden, I no longer believe that bits need to be, or should be, used. It took me until almost age 30 to truly understand that bits, despite how people like to spin it (and boy do they try), are simply pain devices.

Any horse can be ridden bitless. If someone tells you that their horse cannot be ridden without a bit, I encourage you to ask them why they believe that. It’s likely the response will be something along the lines of “he doesn’t listen” or “she can’t be controlled without it”.

Responses of that nature should be a warning to you. Those phrases indicate human failures. They want shortcuts. They do not want to take the time to gain control through education, they want to gain control through pain and discomfort. These are not phrases that have anything to do with the behavior or ability of the horse, and everything to do with the human’s lack of knowledge and ability.

I also want to note that if you are riding bitless, you should not use a mechanical hackamore. Mechanical hackamores are leverage devices which are specifically designed to cause pain and discomfort. A rider can cause serious damage to a horse using a mechanical hackamore.

For those who are unfamiliar, here is a brief explanation of how mechanical hackamores work:

When the reins are pulled, the shank (the bars that the reins are attached to) causes three things to occur simultaneously: (1) the strap at the poll presses down, (2) the nose band presses into the nose, and (3) the curb chain/strap tightens under the jaw. You are basically crushing the horse's nose area.

mechanical hackamore
Longer shank = harsher setup
mechanical hackamore
This isn't even the worst one, but sort of looks like a medieval torture device, no?

There are many types of bitless setups that you can use (if you don't want to just ride around in a halter). Below are just a few examples.

bitless bridle. side pull bitless bridle. hackamore.
bitless bridle. hackamore.

bitless bridle. side pull bitless bridle.

As I stated earlier, this was not a change that happened overnight. I ruminated on the idea of going bitless for months. I watched, learned, listened, tested, analyzed, and reached a conclusion. It took me until almost age 30 (and this change occurred even after starting this blog) to learn this better way. It is never too late to learn that you are wrong about something and make a change. I want every change in my horsemanship to make horses’ lives better. I have now discovered one of those things, and I know it is making me a kinder, better horsewoman. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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