From  "Horsepower" - Nov/Dec - 2009

by Kelly Howling

We have all dreamed about flying across a field on our horse, bareback and bridleless. Really, this dream isn't as far from reality as some may think. People have been riding horses without bits from the time horses were domesticated. It is likely that the first horses ridden were controlled with a loop of leather or rope around their neck; later, this same material was used around the horse's nose or lower jaw. Early bits were made of wood or bone. We have certainly come a long way from there!

Types of Equipment, and How They Work

The most common bitless equipment includes hackamores, rope halters, bosals, "cross-under" bitless bridles, and sidepulls. Each one cues and controls your horse slightly differently. It is important to understand how each bridle works before trying it on your horse, so that you can use it properly.

The majority of bitless bridles work off of three main pressure points (some bridles use additional points or variations). The first is against the bridge of the horse's nose, the second is against the side of the horse's face, and the third uses minimal poll pressure.

The Bitless Transition

Obviously, these pressures are not the same as that of a bit. Due to this, it is a good idea to spend as much time introducing the bitless option to your horse as you would with any other type of equipment (a saddle or driving harness or bit, for example). It makes sense that we teach our horses how to give and respond to the pressures of the equipment before hopping aboard. For those trying bitless riding for the first time, I strongly suggest seeking the help and supervision of your coach and using all of your safety equipment (ie. helmet) and precautions.

Fit It!

Just like any other piece of equipment that your horse wears, it is important to make sure it fits properly and does not make him uncomfortable. Improperly fitted bitless equipment can potentially cause rubs, swelling, and even interfere with your horse's breathing if you adjust a noseband too tightly and too low.

Is It For You?

Riding without a bit can be tough for some people to understand - many riders associate control of their horse directly with the use of the bit, when in fact control over your horse comes from being able to cue each part of his body individually with yours, instead of just relying on rein cues.

With proper preparation, anyone can give riding without a bit a try. For some horses, it is a useful option when dealing with a training or health issue, such as while your horse is recovering from a sore mouth or dental surgery. It has also been helpful for horses in lesson and therapy programs, when the riders are still learning to have steady hands and a balanced seat.

It isn't always an appropriate option for those looking to show, though - depending on your discipline and the level of competition, competing bitless may not be allowed. Be sure to check the shows rules.

Going bitless, whether long-term or just for fun, can be a positive experience for horse and rider. Be safe, and have fun!

Kelly Howling runs EquineAware Horsemanship out of Cambridge, Ontario. Her broad background in training, covering a wide range of disciplines, enables her to solve common groundwork and training issues with many different horse/rider combinations. Visit