Adventures in Bitless Riding
Are you ready to leave your bit behind?
By Alexa Linton, Equine Sports Therapist
About 15 years ago I first went bitless with my mare, Diva, after a particularly passionate foray, on my part, into natural horsemanship. Riding with a rope halter and lead rope felt a little like wearing a thong bikini to a public beach, with many people waiting to see if this get-up was actually going to do the trick once we hit the water, or in this case the trails. Thankfully it did, and Diva was much happier in her new head gear, but I still remember those concerned and surprised looks even 15 years of bitless riding later. These days, I ride Diva in a half-inch rawhide bosal with a mohair mecate, and my other mare, Raven, in a leather cavesson with leather reins. I definitely think bitless is an option for most horses, given the right preparation and the correct gear. This article is for the bitless curious, a guide for riders who may not feel fully comfortable or confident leaving their bit behind.
When I first started riding Diva in a halter, I had youth and frankly, recklessness, on my side. I was in my 20s and still quite bouncy, drawn to anything rebellious or different, with a horse that tended to be slower and energy-conserving, all of which made my decision to try bitless much easier. I quickly realized that she preferred to be ridden this way and actually became more sensitive to my rein aids. As for Raven, at age eight she has never had a bit cross her lips, having been started and trained with a leather cavesson from the beginning. Bitless is what she knows and responds to, and her extensive groundwork preparation meant that her light response to leg, seat, and body aids allowed for very subtle cues from her bridle.
Why bother making the shift? Over the years I have come to realize that not everyone is going to embrace riding without a bit — it takes time, learning, training, and timing for this transition to be successful. That said, I believe learning to work in this way, even if you put your bit back in for shows, can make you and your horse a more versatile team and able to reach greater levels of comfort and connection. I have also seen ample proof in my own horses and in my horse clients. Many prefer being bitless, with less pressure on the sensitive zones of their mouth and face, a greater focus on the aids coming from seat and body, and a more release-based method of riding. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, bit or no bit — see the photo below of Diva and I working in a spade bit at a Californio Bridlehorse clinic with Bruce Sandifer a few years back.
Diva and the author working in a spade bit at a Californio Bridlehorse clinic with Bruce Sandifer a few years back. Photo courtesy of Alexa Linton
In this tradition, horses are generally started in a rawhide bosal on a simple headstall with a mecate rein. As they become lighter, softer, and more responsive, they move to more delicate bosals. They are ready to move into the two-rein, usually after several years of consistent training. In the two-rein they carry the impressive spade bit, while the signal still comes mainly from the bosal, until they are so soft and light that they are able to go “straight up” in the bridle with just the spade bit. I loved working this way with Diva, developing skills, connection and collection, building strength, responsiveness, and suppleness, then graduating into carrying the spade bit, which balances softly in her mouth. As horses learn to carry themselves well, by the time they receive the bit there is very little it needs to do. There are stories of cowboys challenging each other to tests of lightness, like working cattle all day with just a few strands of horse hair holding their reins to their bit, their horses deeply aware of the most subtle body and rein cues.
This leads to an important and potentially controversial conversation about use of the hands. If you depend on your hands for stopping, turning, or collecting your horse, it may be time to assess your riding style. Look at how you can shift your cues and communication into the seat, leg, and body. No riding style that relies heavily on hand is sustainable or healthy for a horse, whether you are riding with a bit or not. Any head gear is only as effective as your timing and release. When hands are overused, the result is often lack of communication and connection. Then a harsher and harsher bit or nose piece is employed to compensate for the numbness that occurs in the horse because of pain and shutdown. One of my podcast guests, Anna Blake, put it succinctly: “A lead rope or reins are meant to aid in light communication, not replace mental connection with physical threat.”
Next are some important questions about your bit:
- Why do you use a bit?
- Do you have a good sense of the mechanics of your specific bit in your horse’s mouth? Where and how does it apply pressure or leverage? Are you using your bit in the best way given those mechanics?
- Why did you decide to use this particular bit? Did you thoroughly research your bit or are you using it because you’ve seen other riders use it?
Many bits are marketed as gentle, but when you look more critically at the mechanics, they are actually much harsher than advertised. For example, the snaffle bit can be harsh if used inappropriately. It is often used out of habit, tradition, or popularity rather than from a place of understanding or curiosity.
If you are relying heavily on your current bit or increasing the severity of your bit in an attempt to control your horse or find a sense of safety, it may be time to return to your foundations out of the saddle. As well, if your horse is exhibiting head shaking, aversion to rein contact, a resistance to collection, the inability to bend in one or both directions, bucking, bolting, or rearing under saddle, returning to supportive groundwork and exploring bitless options can be highly supportive in restoring the horse’s contentment under saddle. If nothing else, bitless riding highlights any cracks in the foundation, showing you where clarity or more solid communication is needed around slowing, stopping, or turning; where you might be relying on your bit rather than strengthening other cues; or exposing fear or trust issues in your partnership.
Related: Traditions in Horsemanship
Once your foundation is strengthened on the ground, prioritize safety while beginning your bitless journey. Work with a trusted horse friend or an instructor with experience working in this way to support clear communication and allow you to relax. Begin in a smaller enclosed area where your horse tends to be happy and settled. The more we allow our horse to move freely the better. Many types of bitless riding shift us from constant contact to well-timed cues interspersed with plenty of release, and allow our horse to find more self-carriage. This is yet another reason why finding an instructor to support your journey to bitless is an excellent investment. My favourites on Vancouver Island are Shannon Beahen of Humminghorse, and Heather Nelson, and it’s well worth attending or auditing clinics with Josh Nichol or Stefanie Travers when they come to your neck of the woods.
The author believes that learning to work without a bit will open up possibilities for greater comfort and connection with your horse. Photo courtesy of Alexa Linton
If you’re thinking about giving bitless a try, one big question remains: What equipment is best? Again, doing your research before you invest is important. There are many nerves around the face and jaw that can be compressed with the wrong gear, and it’s easy to find ourselves with gear that doesn’t work for our unique horse. I like doing online searches and reading reviews of different options to get the lay of the land. Watch out for leverage-based hackamores with curb pieces or chain as these can put pressure on sensitive facial areas and cause pain. Many stock-made bosals contain a metal core and cannot be properly molded to fit your horse’s muzzle, causing pain and nerve pressure. Typically, a well-made bosal with a rawhide core is a substantial investment, but worth it if you are wanting to use this type of gear. A clinic or instruction in the use of the bosal hackamore is highly recommended to shape and fit it properly to your horse, and to help you learn the timing and feel of this tool. Personally, I love my bosal hackamore as it can be very precise in its signal and very gentle if used well — and it must be used well to be effective. A rope halter may do the trick for your purposes but can lack clarity for more technical work and be harsh if used with poor timing or lack of release. Leather side-pull bridles can be gentle, clear, and a great starter option for most horses.
Once again, it’s very helpful to work with someone who can support you in choosing the right tack for your transition.
Whether or not you decide to embark on an adventure into bitless riding, I hope you will take one thing away from this article. No matter what is on your horse’s head or in his mouth, commit to working with ever-growing grace, subtlety, kindness, and skill. As riders, our learning is never done, our hands can always improve, and our hearts can always grow in empathy, connection, and understanding. This is one big way we ensure that our horses stay happy and healthy.
Until next time!
- High Vibration Horsemanship
- Heather Nelson Liberty Training
- Josh Nichol Horsemanship
- Stefanie Travers
Main Photo: Find a good instructor to help you transition to bitless riding. Pictured is Josh Nichol riding in a bosal. Courtesy of Josh Nichol