It can be very confusing for people when they decide to try bitless riding and start looking into what’s available. The amount of different styles of bitless bridles on the market now is astonishing. It’s a bit like all the different styles of bits, which is great because it indicates a growing interest in the horse world for bitless riding, but can be very confusing if you’ve never used or even seen a bitless bridle and don’t know what will suit you and your horse. So I will try and shed some light on the different styles and how they work and for which situations they are most likely to be appropriate. I have tried most of the styles by now and have taught a number of riding students and horses with different styles.
Basically all bitless bridles are a variation of either cross-under or side-pull. Cross-under bitless bridles have two straps that cross behind the jaw (hence the name) and apply pressure around the whole head while side-pulls have the reins attached to the sides of the bridle and apply pressure to the nose.
Of these two styles the side-pulls are easier for the horse to transition into as they feel the same as a halter and most horses have had an enormous amount of time in their life in halters so feel very comfortable with this feel. If you have a highly trained horse that never misbehaves and can be ridden anywhere in a halter then this may be a good choice for you. There are lots of different styles of side-pull on the market such as the traditional side-pull, light-rider and many others. The down-side of these is that all the pressure is in one place, the nose, so if the rider is rough with the hands the horse can develop a sore nose. Also as the pressure is only in one place the level of control that the rider can have in dangerous situations or with unpredictable horses is not high. However it is a step up from riding in a halter as the bridle fits the horses head better so there is less movement, plus it looks nicer.
The cross-under bitless bridle works completely differently. It distributes pressure all around the head in a ‘head-hug’ so when the rider applies pressure only a small amount is felt by the horse in each place. The horse feels the pressure behind the jaw, at the sides of the head, on the poll and the nose. This makes the bridle very humane as it’s virtually impossible to hurt a horse with this style, making it brilliant for novice riders. The other thing this head-hug does is make the bridle very strong. The horses’ entire head is in your hands as you ride (a wonderful feel once you get used to it). To the horse though, this can feel claustrophobic until they get used to the feel.
This bridle is as strong as a bit and so the horse should be given the time to get used to it just as they were when they were first introduced to the bit. Training a horse to respond appropriately and consistently is essential with a bit and is essential for the cross-under bitless too. If you put the bridle on and ride your horse (as many people do) without doing the appropriate training your horse may well have a few things to say to you! Especially if you are a dressage or hack rider and want your horse collected all the time. Before attempting to collect a horse in the bitless bridle they must be acclimatised to it, just as they were to the bit.
People usually spend time getting their horses used to new gear, except with the bitless bridle, for some reason they put it on with no preparation and ride, then blame the equipment if the horse resists or is unhappy with it. This is a big shame because many of these people then continue riding with a bit and the horse loses it’s chance at a pain free life. I hope this helps people trying to understand the bitless options and I am more than happy to answer any questions anyone may have.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Ph: 0401 249 263
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