“Does anyone agree on bits? No. Is riding bitless the perfect solution? No. I’ve been asked for some bitless information, and I’m not sure I can even do that without talking bits, too. Even then, it’s idle chatter if there is no horse in the conversation.” – From the book “Going Steady: More Relationship Advice From your Horse” by Anna Blake
Have you ever ridden bitless? I am not “anti-bit,” but you may have noticed that I ride my horse, Shiloh, in bitless bridles. I thought someone out there might be curious as to why I made this choice. Thus the topic of this post.
I have ridden with bits, currently have bits in my collection and no doubt will ride with bits again. At the same time, I am a big fan of riding a horse who is feeling comfortable. If a horse is telling me that they are not happy with carrying a bit, I am motivated to try an alternative.
I can read all about how great a particular bit (or any piece of equipment) is. But then I remember that the horse doesn’t read the same magazines and websites that I do. They react organically to what they feel, not what I think they should feel. I’ve been wrong plenty of times.
When I “test drove” Shiloh for the first time, I noticed that he spent most of the ride chewing the bit, a simple full-cheek snaffle. He had been turned out to pasture for the previous five years with only a handful of rides during that time. I figured his chewing was probably related to his feeling fuzzy about this whole riding thing. I surmised it would probably go away with time. On the other hand, I was also told that he had been kicked in the face as a foal and was left with a slightly off-set jaw. So I also wondered if there might be an anatomical reason for the fussiness.
Long story short and whatever the reason, as I began to ride Shiloh at home, he kept chewing, gaping and fussing. I got the distinct feeling from him that he was so distracted by the discomfort of the bit that he was having trouble paying attention to any of my cues. Changing bits didn’t help. Adjusting how high or low it sat in his mouth didn’t help. One link snaffle, two link snaffles, straight bar snaffle, curb bit, metal bit, rubber bit, plastic bit- all rejected.
Fortunately, I have ridden other horses in bitless bridles and am comfortable doing so. When I tried one on Shiloh, it became immediately apparent that bitless was the way to go with him. No fussing or mussing with his mouth or carrying his face at slightly funny angles. He felt more relaxed and less distracted under me. I WOULD still like to find a bit that he might carry comfortably just so we have that option, but two years on now, we continue to make progress together while riding bitless. So bitless we remain. At least for now.
I have seen several varieties of bitless bridles out there, but I only have two that I rotate. One is a Dr. Cook’s bitless bridle in the Western style in leather. It is a quality headstall that has stood up nicely over time (I think it is about seven years old now). While a lot of research seemed to go into the design of the bridle according to the marketing literature, I have read that others have criticized the bridle for hugging the head to closely and not providing enough release of the rein aids after rein pressure is applied. Having had the bridle for many years now, I have to agree that I can see why folks say that as compared to other designs. Even so, Shiloh and another horse I have had previously, seemed to go quite well in the bridle despite this apparent issue.
The other bitless bridle I use is a European design called the LG-Zaum (Zaum is the German word for bridle). I first saw it advertised on the well-known USA based blog HorseandMan. The “bridle” is a leather nose piece and curb strap/chain connected by two metal wheels (with or without shanks) that you can attach to many different kinds of headstalls. I currently use a Weaver Leather Stacy Westfall ProTack Browband Headstall that I bought five years ago from Valley Vet Supply and attached it to the bitless nosepiece. The LG-Zaum can be used several different ways depending upon where on the metal wheel you attach the reins in relation to the nose and jaw pieces, with the reins either on top of OR below the jaw piece. You can see the current configuration that I use in the photo below.
If you are interested in reading more about bitless bridle options, I noticed that the September 2020 issue of Horse Illustrated contains a pretty balanced article about the subject. The article interviews several professionals including Linda Tellington-Jones, Karen Rohlf and Luke Gingerich about the pros and cons of bitless riding. Digital copies of Horse Illustrated can be bought online. I also see that many Tractor Supply Stores carry Horse Illustrated as part of their magazine offerings if you prefer a hard copy.
Having started with an Anna Blake quote about bitless riding, I will leave you with one more of her thoughts on the subject. It is something I aspire to in my riding but am still learning to achieve.
“Instead of conversations about which bit is kinder, I would rather see people actually make the effort to learn kind rein contact with a good trainer. It’s the most subtle and challenging work a rider a rider can take on, learning to maintain a neutral seat and working in balance with a horse. Learning to quiet our instinct to control the last four inches of a horse’s nose and instead ride the entire horse, relaxed and forward. There is simply nothing more important.” – From the book “Going Steady: More Relationship Advice From your Horse” by Anna Blake