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Have you ever considered riding without a bit in your horse's mouth? It is becoming a more acceptable option for some riders. Three experienced riding enthusiasts talk about successful transitions to bitless bridles.
 

 Watch riders of horses wearing bitless bridles in a Team Hunt Chase

Bitless riding options

 (By Avis Senior BHSAI (Regd) Animal Communication Practitioner, Equine Reiki Master Practitioner, Author of ‘Horse Riding Choose Your Weapons')

 I will begin this piece by asking the following question:

 Do you know that the ‘bars' (the gaps between the incisors and the molars in the pony's mouth) were not created to accommodate ANY type of bit?

 The ‘bars' are a result of equine evolution. They were a part of the horse's anatomy long before humans ever thought of dominating this beautiful animal by jumping on his back. The ‘bars' are extremely sensitive and can become very sore and swollen when exposed to any kind of trauma such as a dental problem, a knock to the gums, a scratch from a sharp foreign body while grazing, and even a bit. Have you ever had a sore mouth, an ulcer perhaps on your gums, a cold sore on your lip, and found it very difficult to eat or drink. At least, at these times, you were able to tell your parents, your peers, your doctor how much pain you felt and how miserable it made you feel.

No matter how well a bit ‘appears' to fit, it will always bear down on the tongue, the gums, and other areas of the pony's mouth with some level of discomfort and pain.  All bits have the potential to cause excruciating pain, more so when combined with an already sore mouth.

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Avis Senior riding Amber in a bitless bridle

 

The pony's reaction

A pony will initially try to conceal his discomfort because he won't want to appear weak in front of his rider. A sore mouth, a wolf tooth invisible to the naked eye lurking under the surface of the gum, constantly bombarded by the pressure of the bit will eventually cause the pony to present behaviours and body language in particular ways, to alert his rider to his pain that is now becoming intolerable.

If the rider doesn't recognise the signs he is desperately trying to convey, he will use his ‘fight or flight' instinct. The ‘fight' instinct, in my opinion is incorrect; the pony would never wish to fight with his rider. We merely interpret his negative behaviours as ‘fighting' us, when in fact he is literally fighting for his life! 

He may, on the other hand, use his ‘flight' instinct, at which point he is fleeing for his life! We are taught to interpret this behaviour as ‘the pony being too strong or hard in the mouth or evading the bit'. At this point a stronger bit or the tightening of the noseband may be wrongly advised. Of course, the rider may also be told to pull on the reins to slow the pony down. Pulling on the reins will make the pony speed up as he makes an even more desperate attempt to flee the enemy.

The myth of perceived danger

There appears to be a myth that riding a ‘strong' pony or a pony that ‘pulls' would be a dangerous pastime without the security of a strong bit. However, if the culprit causing the pain (the bit), was removed, the pony wouldn't feel the need to feel strong, pull, or speed up.

Very simple changes, lots of praise, patience and understanding in the direction of the pony, and coaching by a person who takes into account the absolute wellbeing of the pony as well as the rider's  own wellbeing, will transform their riding, the enjoyment of both rider and the pony, and most importantly the relationship between the two!

Two of my good friends - Brenda and Elinor have kindly agreed to write down their own experiences of riding bitless. Their stories are enlightening and life changing.

Avis Senior's book Horse Riding Choose Your Weapons is available on Kindle.

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Brenda Pullan competing in a hackmore bridle

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USG Bitless Bridle Connection

Bitless Bridles from Amazon

Buy Bitless Bridles


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Enlightenment (Elinor) and Relief (Sophie) - An account of bitless riding by Elinor Mary Thomas

Sophie has been with me for 18 years, since she was 6 years old.  We used to show jump in a bridle with a flash noseband and a running martingale - all suggested by BHS instructors. The martingale didn't seem to make much difference, so I got rid of that. When we stopped competing I got rid of the flash and ditched the stick.

Before

Sophie used to snatch at the reins intermittently and randomly. As my hands became arthritic I lost the ability to grip normally, this meant that Sophie could snatch the reins out of my hands at any moment she chose. (I was not heavy-handed and the bit was a copper KK loose ring bradoon snaffle.) She was a bit of a head-shaker as well.

I came across more and more articles about the painful nature of even the ‘mildest' bit. My relationship with Sophie was (is) very important to me and so I researched alternatives to the ‘instrument of torture' I was using on my friend.

Transition 

I chose to try the Dr Cook cross-under style bridle. Sophie has always been ‘sharp' and forward-going (and still was at 23) so the thought of going bitless was a little daunting. I therefore prepared for the transition by riding with a more "Western" style of longer reins and some neck-reining.  I also clicker-trained her (playing with "toys" like balls, a Frisbee and targets). This meant she understood that she would be rewarded for following basic voice commands e.g. "Whoa"! She enjoyed the games and her ‘brakes' worked well just from using my seat and voice.

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After

I led her round for a day or two in her cross-under bridle so she could get used to the "feel" of it. Then I got on board. She was fine straight away and took directional changes from minimal aids from my legs, body position and voice. I have to say that she also reads my mind - if I visualise a change of rein on a long diagonal, a 20 metre circle or going up the centre line - she does it! I was having so much fun ‘playing' with using my mind and rewarding her with clicks and treats for halting and doing transitions when asked that I forgot about the reins. Then I noticed that she only occasionally snatched the reins (more from a habit than anything I think) and now it is hardly ever happening. The head-shaking only occurs when flies are at their worst.

Once warmed up, she offers a better outline than she did when she wore a conventional bridle and bit - without me even ‘asking'. She is definitely happier and that is so important to me. The bridle is fitted with a noseband, which I fasten more loosely than the instructions recommend. I did not want to swap mouth discomfort for nose discomfort.

Thoughts

Any piece of equipment must be sensitively used with animals. Any piece of equipment can be an instrument of torture in the wrong hands.  Some can be instruments of torture even in the ‘right' hands. There is no quick fix for achieving a great partnership with a horse, but getting rid of painful equipment is a great start. How much do you love your horse? Think about it!

  • Availability of bitless alternatives in Ireland. I got mine on the Internet (complete with a 28 day trial period with a refund if returned).
  • Yes a hackamore can be very severe. This should not be confused with bitless bridles. They are not the same. In the "wrong hands" any equipment can be severe.
  • I no longer compete but I refer you to the following :
  • http://youtu.be/T9D1vEP98rc
  • http://youtu.be/JwyHqmsAXRs
  • http://youtu.be/0jBjg717TJc

 

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Twenty years riding bitless - by Brenda Pullan

I have ridden bitless for over 20 years. All my homebred youngsters were started in halters and ridden away quite happily in those. None have ever felt the need to run away with me on board, probably because they are not in pain or discomfort, and they have total trust in me.

More relaxed

I find that my horses relax much quicker when being ridden bitless, especially the horse who is a ‘worrier thinker' and always on danger alert. When faced with shadows, she tenses up; all I have to do is drop the reins and let her know she can eat. Her head goes down, a quick munch, and very quickly I have a relaxed horse who is willing to go through the ‘dangerous' shadows.

I dropped out of ‘mainstream' learning when a riding club trainer insisted that all horses would happily work in an eggbutt snaffle and that my horse was using her ‘fear' as an excuse to get her head down for grass. I know my horse and I was confident that she simply wasn't happy or comfortable with a very expensive chunk of metal in her mouth. Expensive or cheap metal bit, they all have the same outcome -unhappy unwilling horses!

Bitless competing

I have competed with all my horses totally bitless in hunter trials, team chases and BSJA, with many wins and places. We have been placed at local agricultural shows in working hunter classes, all bitless.  No judge has ever made any comment; they may not have noticed or maybe they just weren't interested.  Whatever the reason was, we enjoyed ourselves and we were both happy!

My horses have always been willing to come to me; they offer the next movement the moment the thought enters my head! They stop, turn, back up, go sideways with the smallest change in my body movement or thought.  How much better can it get; we have a true partnership, all without gadgets and metal bits. I no longer compete; perhaps when the archaic rules are changed to allow bitless riding in all disciplines, my and horses' enthusiasm may show itself.