+ I am interested in classical dressage and I question whether we will be able to achieve self-carriage in a bitless bridle.
Yes! You can! There are many great examples on the internet of riders who have achieved self carriage with their horses, not only bitless, but bridleless!
Riding in the bitless bridle is a fabulous route to better self carriage! Personally, with my older gelding - when bitted, he had a tendency to get heavy in front, but now – bitless - he is finally beginning to carry himself. At 21!.
Remember, your pursuit of self carriage should be less about the equipment, and more about the riding! Riding bitless will absolutely make you a better rider, and a better rider has a better chance of helping his horse to be a better horse.
In your bitless pursuit of self carriage I would suggest a lot of transitions and lateral work produced from your body aids and not the reins. Also, developing a proper diagonal reinback, using volte, giravolte and shoulder-in, are a great place to start and will put you in the right direction, and most important for self carriage, remember: release, release, release!!!
+ I tried a bitless bridle once, and my horse didn't like it. I don't think every horse can go bitless. Your thoughts?
I think that someone should never make such an important decision after just one try, or even several attempts. There are so many different factors to consider in making the transition to bitless riding. It’s a decision that really deserves some care, thought, time, and patience.
First, there are many types of bitless bridles to consider, and they each can be adjusted in a number of ways. There is padding that can be used, or parts that can be added or deleted. Even within the different styles, different manufacturers design their bridles a little differently, and those little differences might make a big difference to you or your horse.
On a personal note, my mare was going beautifully in a beta sidepull, so, I decided that I would commit to this style, and thought I’d get a fancier leather model. The new sidepull was gorgeous, but my mare hated it! I could not understand why so I went back to the old one. A year later, while I was giving a demo on bitless bridles, i finally figured it out!
The noseband on the beta was in 2 pieces divided by a ring, so, it was very floppy and loose. The nose band on the fancy new leather bridle was all in one piece, a continuous loop, and that made it more fixed, which she obviously did not like! That very subtle difference meant the world to her, but it took me a year to even see that although they were both the same style, they were actually two very different bridles! Besides the changes for the horse, there is also the matter of the rider. Some
Riders will have to make a few changes in their riding in order for their horses to feel comfortable in a bitless bridle. Do not fear. These are proper changes that you will want to make, and will make you a better rider!
A rider will need to move away from hand riding and begin to use the full body to ride, and also the mind, will, and intention. I would urge anyone not to give up after just one, or even a few tries, in a bitless bridle. It’s a process, and if your horse is comfortable being lead, lunged, and handled in a halter or head collar, then along with some sensitive and sympathetic riding, he or she should be equally comfortable riding in a bitless bridle!
+ I am a fan of bitless riding, but isn't it really just another fad like barefoot and bareback?
I’m glad to hear that you are a fan of bitless riding! But all three things that you have just mentioned are anything but fads! These 3 things are part of the history of horsemanship!
Once upon a time, we did not have the resources to craft metals into shoes and bits. We also did not have the resources to create things like the modern-day saddles. So early equestrians mostly rode barefoot, bareback and bitless. Hardly fads, these things came way before bits, shoes, and saddles. I think it's important that we do not lump these 3 things together, as they really all represent very individual parts of our riding experience, and when they do get lumped together it seems to perpetuate the stigma of faddishness.
Of course, these three things can be practiced together, and many do, but, they also can be practiced exclusively. I have horses that are barefoot and are very happy, but some - I have tried in earnest, and they are continually sore when barefoot, so they wear shoes. I have horses that are a pleasure to ride bareback, and others who seem to feel more miserable than I do when my bony bottom is directly on their bony back.
However, all of our horses do seem to really appreciate being bitless! It is not important, let alone necessary, to marry these 3 things together, and certainly a lack of interest in wanting to go barefoot and/or bareback should never stand in the way of your interest to go bitless!
+ I am a dressage rider in seek of self-carriage for my horse, and I ride my horse in a bit. I tried a bitless bridle and it went very badly! My horse does not seem to like pressure on his face, and I also feel that he needs more of a release than a bitless bridle will offer. What are your thoughts?
I would imagine that you would actually have more successful progress on your road to self carriage with this horse by going bitless! But, this will depend on the type of bitless bridle that you choose, and require a little soul searching regarding your riding style. If this horse is able to wear a bridle on his face, and be lead in a halter or head collar, then I see no reason why he would feel offended by a simple sidepull bridle.
A sidepull, or riding halter, is very similar to a regular stable halter, and in itself, offers no extra pressure that would require releasing. And speaking of releasing, that’s why bitless is so perfect. It really is the only way to offer your horse a real true release, relief, and reward from pressure.
With a bitless bridle you can apply a little pressure, and then release, and completely relieve your horse from the pressure. With a bit, the darn thing is always there, there is never a true reward, until, of course, you take the bridle completely off. Otherwise, the bit remains, clanking against the teeth, rubbing the corners of the mouth, pinching the tongue, stabbing the roof of the mouth, impairing swallowing and breathing. Using pressure from a bit goes from bad to worse back to bad. There is no escaping the constant insult of the bit. With a bitless bridle, you use it, release it, and then there is true respite in the release.
However, if you are holding the reins so strongly as to get such a big negative reaction from your horse in a bitless bridle, then I’m sorry to say, the self carriage that you seek is very far away, bitted or bitless! If your horse gets very upset with the amount of contact you take in a bitless bridle, I would strongly suggest that you take his advice, and lighten up!
Self carriage means just that. The horse is carrying himself. If you are feeling several pounds of pressure on the reins, then too much is being relied upon by the use of the bit and reins, and in order to make a smooth transition to bitless riding much work will need to be done, such as work in-hand, ground work, etc. Some people, and horses, make a very easy and quick transition to bitless riding, while others will have a more difficult time. Switching to bitless riding will really shine a spotlight on your weaknesses as a rider and trainer, and most of us have an ego that would not want to realize that a weakness might exist.
I switched to riding bitless about 5 years ago, at 46 years old, and after riding my entire life. I was miserable to uncover some truths about my own riding. All of those years that i thought i had been learning to "ride", but, I was sad to discover that my education had actually been about learning how to use a bit and reins. It was tough, but I put my ego aside, and now, 5 years later, at 52, I feel that I am the best rider and trainer that I have ever been, and I owe that to my journey with the bitless bridle. Plus, I don’t feel stuck anymore, and I can clearly see how much more there is ahead of me. It’s an amazing journey! Less really is more!
+ My horse can no longer wear a bit because of a dental problem. I rode bitless for the first time the other day, and everything felt strange, which made me feel really out of sorts and I got frustrated. It almost seemed like I was on a different horse and that I was completely starting over. I did not feel our usual connection in the bridle, and I'm concerned that I won't have a connected horse through bitless riding. What's going on?
In a way you are starting over, but don’t let that idea frighten or frustrate you! It’s a good thing! And it really won’t take very long to make this transition. Plus, I assure you, it’s worth it!
I promise that when you are riding bitless consistently, you will find those feelings that you are looking for, but in a completely new way! This just takes time and patience. I’ve had a few students get very frustrated with the transition, and some have even quit the whole thing. In a way, you are lucky, as your horse’s situation is making it almost mandatory that you go this route and that you stick to it. And stick to it you should! On a personal note, my mare did not want to make a nice connection at the walk when I rode her with a bit, so, I certainly felt it would be impossible to find this connection bitless.
But, only after switching to the bitless bridle did she finally accept contact at the walk, and that’s where I realized how much i had learned to "cheat" with my bit, and I was never even a strong handed rider! But, nonetheless, I had learned how to use and work the bit, and my mare was insisting that she did not want to connect with me in that way. She wanted something else for us. She wanted me to learn to use and work my body!
Riding bitless made me completely aware that I was not utilizing my body to ride, and I wasn’t even quite sure how to go about fixing this, so I let my mare show me the way. I experimented with using my body, and by paying careful attention to her responses to the things that I tried, she soon trained me, and soon after, she was beautifully connected at the walk. It was an eye opening experience that I would not trade! I’m 52, and have ridden my entire life. I believe from 35 to 45, I really learned almost nothing in my riding and training, just repeating the same old stuff with minimal to moderate success. Since switching to bitless, its been like opening a treasure chest of learning, and I am actually truly growing as a rider and trainer again. Actually, I think I’m the best rider I’ve ever been, and I’m excited about that because i think as we get older, we feel our prime is somewhere behind us, but now, I feel like mine is just beginning!
So, dont get frustrated, instead, rejoice, and realize that you are on the path of an incredible journey!!!
+ My horse is 20 years old, and has been in a bit his entire life. Is he too old to switch to bitless? People at my stable think I'm crazy for wanting to teach an old dog new tricks.
No!!! I don’t think anyone is ever too old for positive change! And just so you know that you are in good company, almost every horse that we have switched is a senior! The oldest being my first horse, Speedy. He was actually already retired when I tried him bitless, but I really wanted to see what he thought about it, so I put him in the Dr.Cook’s, and rode him around the property, and he was wonderful. He was 30 at the time! That was our very last ride together. He died 2 years later, but I’m so happy that I had that one chance with him to be bitless and beautiful!
Almost every horse that we have switched to bitless has been older, and each has gone better for it. A hot little mare of 28, who had very bad "brakes", finally has a nice halt now that she is bitless. My 21 year old, a very big, very strong off-the-track Thoroughbred, who is 17 hands, transitioned just over a year ago, and it’s been wonderful for him! He is in a Lightrider, and it has really helped him become much lighter, and in turn, I even think getting him off of his forehand is helping with his soundness. Also, a 19 year old very petite Arab mare, who was annoyed by any type of bridle, finally is at peace in her Dr. Cook’s. I think the older horses really appreciate the switch, and by that age, many of them know their job so well, they could go without a bridle!
And, please don’t take bitless advice from non-bitless riders and trainers! If your horse has some good training, and you are a sensitive rider, there shouldn’t even be that much work involved to make the switch. Most of our older horses made the transition without doing any prep work at all, and it's worked for us. I would highly recommend doing some ground work or in-hand work, before you get on, and then start the mounted section in a small enclosed area. That way you will have an idea of what gaps in the training you may have to fill in, and if the bridle you have chosen is acceptable to your horse. I think switching an older horse to bitless is like bestowing a great gift on that horse, and in return, you will receive a bounty of gifts!
+ I want to go bitless with my horse, but I’m so confused about what type of bridle I should use. There are so many choices, and everyone has conflicting advice! Can’t I just keep it simple and use my regular halter?
It’s true. There are quite a few choices between brands but there are really only 4 main types: the hackamore family, which work on leverage, the cross-unders that combine both direct and indirect pressure and divide the pressure throughout the entire face and head, the sidepull/riding halters that work on very clear and direct pressure, much like a halter attached to a lead rope or lunge line, and the scrawbig style, where the reins are attached to a strap that runs under the horses chin which adds a little pressure in that area along with some noseband pressure, but puts little to no pressure on the poll and cheeks. As far as picking a style, your horse will be the best one to make this important decision! Listen to your horse. Please don’t take the word of anyone else such as trainers, chat rooms, tack stores, etc. Everyone will have an opinion, and most people will mean well but you and your horse need to make this choice. It is essential that you try as many styles as you can to ensure you’ve chosen the best option. I would absolutely not settle on a stable halter and leadrope. These are made for leading, not riding. A stable halter will generally move around too much on the head and have a lack of stability but, with that said, you can temporarily use your halter in the experimental phase and if your halter seems to be working, then you might be very happy with a side pull. If it seems like you need something a little more assertive, you can go for a Lightrider (scrawbig), or LG (low leverage hackamore). If you need a bit more clarity in your communication, a Dr. Cook’s (crossunder) would be great! If you prefer the action of two reins, there is the Transcend. Try not to be overwhelmed. There is a perfect bitless option for everyone. You just have to experiment, and not just with the different bridle styles and brands, but also, by trying different adjustments on each bridle. Luckily, many bridle makers and several on-line tack stores have generous return policies, which will hopefully allow you to find just the right one. Once again, remember, you can’t go wrong if you let your horse be your guide!
+ I tried a bitless bridle and my horse was very heavy in my hands, sometimes almost pulling. She was never heavy in her snaffle bit! I am feeling very disappointed.
This does happen, and it means that there are some gaps in your basic training. Fixing this issue is going to fix some fundamental problems, and this in turn will help you break through any walls you may feel you have come up against in the past! Fix these things and you will see a great boost in your progress! Let’s start with baby steps! You will first want to make sure you fill in any holes in your riding and training. The first step is to take a little test, the no reins test. You can do this bitted or bitless. You will tie your reins in a knot and then you will see how well you can steer and stop and even move laterally with just using your body, eyes, weight, seat, mind, etc. No reins. I was shocked to find how much I was riding from my bit, and not from my body when I made my transition to bitless. I have always been the one yelled at in the lesson to do more with my hands, and told that I was too passive with them, so, boy was I surprised at how much I was actually depending on my bit! Let’s get some answers from this test first, but here is an overview of where we go next. You will continue to play the no-reins game in your ridden warm up but, now, before you mount, you will do some simple in-hand work. We are simply going to be cementing in some vocal cues so, you can be lighter and lighter on your reins. That’s the whole idea about the no reins game and the vocal cues. Learning how to find other ways to communicate the aids so, we can be lighter, and invite the horse to be lighter. When we are not heavy, they are not heavy. When we give them nothing to pull against, they don’t pull. Just walk alongside, using the word “walk,” then use a good, clear, resonant word for the halt. I use “ho,” very low, and dragged out a bit. I try for a vibration in my diaphragm, so when I say it mounted, the horse has another clue for halt, when it feels that vibration. Remember how sensitive they are. They hear, feel, and see everything. So, first day, just do some walk, and halt transitions, then you can add some reinback in a few days. After you finish your vocal cue session, and before getting on, you will do some flexion exercises. Standing on each side, you will give each rein some gentle vibration, sponging, to ask the head to come to that side. Make sure you use lots of praise or treats for all of these exercises! When you mount, you will do these flexions at the halt, and then at the walk. The most important part for you and your horse in all of this is the release!!! She turns her head and gives, you give, with a good clear release! If your horse feels heavy when you switch to a bitless bridle, she has been using you as a fifth leg for balance. She has been asking you to help carry her. You need to help her to develop her self-carriage, and then she will be very light. The reason you did not feel this in the bit is because the discomfort of the bit was backing her off, and THAT is exactly what the bit is meant to do and why they devised it! It’s a shortcut to good training and muscle building, and makes the rider’s job much easier, but sadly, as we have learned, at the expense of the horse. So, your snaffle has been working just as it was meant to, and your horse has not developed the muscles to truly carry herself, just the muscles to back away from the bit. so, my suggestions are not a quick fix, but rather, the start of a very wonderful journey in your riding! A little deconstruction, before a wonderful new construction is developed! I hope you will choose to take this journey! It will be well worth every step!