Written by  2013-11-29

Bitless is not always bitless

(9 votes)
Bitless is not always bitless
Bitless is not always bitless
On facebook a vet showed pictures of a horse with a severe wound in the mouth coming from sharp teeth pressing against the cheek. The vet said the bitless bridle was to blame. He concluded bitless was not always more friendly than a bit. An important note though, the bitless bridle used in this case was a hackamore.
No matter how much fluf you put on a hackemore, it remains a dangerous and painful tool!
To define what is friendly or not we should probably first define the term bitless. Many say that a bitless bridle can be as harmful or even more harmful then a bit. They say it all depend on the hands that hold the reins and I agree to certain extent. But before we leave it at that let us take a closer look to what a bit does and what several types of bitless bridles there are.
A bit works on the mouth bars which are as thin as the back of a butter knife and only covered with a membrane filled with nerves. We could assume that if the bit just lays there it will already hurt after a couple of minutes. Metal on bone will always start to hurt after a while. Imagine two bits and imagine someone pulling the metal against your bone or moving it around. 

The bars, look at how thin this bone really is where the bit is supposed to 'rest'. Common bone damage seen in ridden slaughter horses on the right.
Of course, the horse can lift the bit from his bars with his tongue. Assuming that the horse’s mouth is not being shut by a crank noseband. Also, hopefully, the hands of the rider will not inflict the nutcracker effect of the snaffle on the tongue by pulling both reins. Lastly, many riders explain how they keep the bit up high in the corners of the mouth so as to not hurt the horse in his mouth and when the horse relaxes the jaw, they let go of the bit and let the horse lift it with his tongue… many possibilities indeed. But the complexity of it is enough for a lifetime full of mistakes at expense of the horse, so many riders now turn towards bitless, which at first glance would make me very happy.
The old Masters held the reins slack and the spurs away from the horse for a reason!
At second glance we see things happening that do not make me happy at all, but rather make me feel really tired. The feeling you get when you just go round and round in circles and do not get anywhere… you probably know what I am talking about.
The point is, just taking the bit out of the mouth of the horse does not make it any friendlier if one replaces it by a bridle which can easily hurt the horse’s nose or other parts of the sensitive face.
Simpler put, the bit has just been replaced to an other spot on the face, most often the very sensitive nose bone! To start with hackemores, they were only designed to stop hunting horses who would not stop with a bit! Imagine that! That must mean a hackamore is even more severe, and it is! It can break the nose and prevents the horse from breathing. The hackermore is a very dangerous tool and has – to my view- only one place: The hunting museum.
Next to the hackamore, there are many other bridles now designed with harsh nosepieces. And as if that is not enough, I see riders now adding leverage to the hard nose pieces like in a hackamore, placing the hard nose piece on the most sensitive and fragile part of the nose. Slap something against the point of your nose and see what it does: tears spring from your eyes? Next close up your nostrils now and try to run for 5 minutes… I do think you’ll see my point.
An other thing I would like to discuss is the rope halter. Many riders seem to think it is friendly and soft. Let me make this very clear: it is not! The rope halter, just as the bit and the hackamore is designed to have control over the horse. To offer him instant pain as soon as he does not obey. To test it out, take a piece of rope and put it over your face, no jerk back your head away from the rope. Hurts a lot does it not? To add on your pain, make some knots in the rope and place these on your cheek bones and all the sensitive bony areas on your face, now repeat action by pulling. I do not know how you would call that, but I would call that an effective way of torture. One would think that just using a rope halter would be enough but, no. I have seen riders now adding hard nose pieces and even leverage to the already severe impact the rope halter offers. To each it's own, of course. But I must stress out to every one that this is not the 'friendly option' to the double bridle. I am no scientist, but common sense tells me that a rope halter with added harsch nose piece and leverage has at least as much impact as the double bridle.

The thinner the rope, the more severe the effect of pain by pulling or even slight pressure
”Yes, but the rope hangs slack, I am very gentle with my hands” is often the reply I get when critiquing the rope halter. Why, indeed, but what is the difference with a bit, or two even? Or a hackamore? As we all seem to have such delicate light hands? And what if we make a mistake, or the horse spooks and pulls on any of the former named tack options?
No matter why the horse experiences pain - just once - with any of the tack options that can hurt as soon as pressure is put on to them. Something really negative happens from my point of view: The horse will fear the bridle, the reins/rope and in fact your hand and thus, you! Now, if you are going for biomechanically correct training, the first thing you want is for your horse to stretch into his bridle with complete trust. The stretching into the bridle, whether in hand or under saddle will cause the nuchal ligament to stretch. This is the only way to your horse being able to start carrying you without harm to his body.
You may wonder now, what bridle to use then? There has been a bitless bridle since the 16th century, designed by no one less than Antoine De Pluvinel to encourage horses to stretch into their bridle without having to ever fear pain. A bridle that helps the horse balance and is an excellent help with Stellung (Lateral bend in neck with loose jaw) to help the horse lift his shoulders. Antoine made them of tick velvet rope, placed high op de nose where the face is least sensitive. Later this bridle has been made out of leather.
Antoine De Pluvinel, second from the left, teaching his Pupil Louis XIII to train his stallion bitless
It is still used in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna today. Within Natural Riding Art we use this bridle called the soft cavesson combined with a cordeo for optimal comfort, Gymnasium and two-way-street-lightness.
Because the soft cavesson is almost no where to by found in the world any more, I brought it back. Simply for the fact that is is highly effective in the Gymnasium process and the safest bridle for a a horse I have ever encountered.
If you would like more info on the soft cavesson, visit our webshop.
Of course, there are many other soft bridles out there, you do not have to use what I think is best. But if you have your horse's best interest at heart... note the following: As long as the nose piece is soft, wide and high on the nose (at least two fingers underneath the cheekbone of the horse) and it lies stable on the horse’s face it is comfortable and can not harm. Also make sure there are no other hard pieces on the bridle that could hurt your horse (also think about metal and how hot or freezing it can get due to sun or frost). Best to let your horse answer the question for you: does he go 'forward and down' all by himself? Does he feel free to express himself and move his head as he sees fit? Bingo, you have a safe pain free bridle. Now it is up to you to inspire your horse to move his body in the most healthy and effective way by offering the Gymnasium!
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