Should bitless bridles be allowed in USEF competitions?

Freedom models a Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle which features the cross under design.

Currently bitless bridles are not allowed in dressage competitions and are considered unconventional tack for hunters. You do see them in eventing (for the show jumping and cross country phases), in jumpers and in endurance competitions.

Increasingly I’ve seen discussion about the merits for changing the rules, especially in dressage, to allow the cross-under style bitless bridle to be permitted as an alternative to a bit. In 2008 the Dutch changed their rules to allow a variety bitless bridles in competition and now there is a motion in front of the USEF.

I’m not sure this is a great idea.

I think hyperflexion is an abusive training technique but it's not because of the bit. It's because of the way the bit is used by the rider.

My first concern is that this is a change that inexorably alters the foundation principle that dressage is built upon a horse’s acceptance of the bit.  In the best of dressage, the double bridle offers the most nuanced and subtle way for the rider to communicate with his or her horse.

Yes, it sickens me to see the power of the double bridle abused and I’m completely against the hyperflexion that is so commonly seen in warm up rings around the world. But that doesn’t mean that all bits are bad or that bitless bridles are necessarily better.  I strongly support the idea that riders and trainers be sanctioned for using abusive training techniques, but in my opinion it is not the bit that should be blamed, but the human using it.

Kroni did best in an LG bridle set either as a simple side pull or with mild curb action.

Let me clarify that I have nothing against riding bitless. Some horses do better bitless. I owned one. He  had a low palate and a thick tongue, which made many bits physically uncomfortable for him. When I found the right bitless solution for him, he practically sighed in relief. When I rode him bitless he was in self carriage, he was light, powerful and happy. He schooled up through second level dressage with no problem and he foxhunted first flight.

However, his issues with the bit disqualified him (in my mind) from being a competitive dressage horse. Not all horses are suited to every discipline. It may benefit them to school the movements, but if the horse doesn’t have the gaits, the obedience or the ability to accept a bit, why not find a job that suits them better rather than changing the rules?

The second reason I am so skeptical about this petition and the surrounding publicity is that it seems to be a product driven recommendation rather than a philosophical one. Why are only cross-under designs to be included? When the Dutch Federation evaluated bitless bridles, their judges looked several designs and from what I read in this article their preference was for a simple side pull design. In the end, the excluded those designs that were designed to be used without contact — mechanical hackamore, bosals, etc. and included other designs.

I had to try several different bitless designs to find one that worked for my horse. I tried the Dr. Cook’s bridle first because it was the one with the most published information. Kroni hated the poll pressure. His immediate reaction, which did not diminish with time, was to rear. He was much happier in a side pull. (Note: he did better in the Micklem multi-bridle because in that design the cross under strap is placed over the crown piece of the bridle, dispersing the pressure to the poll.) I have not tried the Nurtural bridle, so cannot comment on it.

On Dr. Cook’s site, he calls the double bridle “painful, frightening and dangerous” and his bridle “painless, effective, and no side-effects.” I think this is a vast oversimplification. In the right hands, bits (even a double bridle) does not need to be harsh. There are many bit designs now that allow riders to choose the type of mouthpiece that best suits their horse — just open a tack catalog and your mind is boggled by the choices.

Likewise, a bitless bridle is not necessarily painless or effective. My horse obviously found the Dr. Cook’s bridle painful because he reared when I tried it. I wanted to like the bridle. To make sure the nylon version wasn’t causing a problem by sticking during the release, I borrowed a leather Bitless Bridle and tried it too. There was no difference. I don’t have heavy hands but even just the lightest pressure on his poll caused my boy to get angry and then get light in front. He was more dangerous to ride in that bridle than in other bitless bridles or with a bit.

I think that before making a rule change, there needs to be much more thought and debate. To date, there really isn’t much data. Yes, I’ve seen the links to the “research study” conducted by Dr. Cook, Bitless Bridles touted as safer alternative for horses in new study. But seriously, this wasn’t a study that any research organization would call comprehensive: five judges evaluated four school horses who did a 27 minute demonstration ride, first with a bitted bridle and then with the bitless bridle. As the aphorism goes, multiple anecdotes don’t equal data. Four horses do not provide enough data to draw any meaningful conclusions. And if, as the press release suggests, the horses were ridden first in a bitted bridle and then in the bitless bridle, they could have shown improvement just because they were now warmed up and familiar with the routine.

So, off my soapbox! What do the rest of you think?

Read more of my writing on bitless bridles.

Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle: Will a cross-under design work for your horse?

Micklem Multibridle: Medium and strong configurations.

Micklem Multibridle: Side pull configuration.

On the Bit(less) Bridle: A comparison

23 thoughts on “Should bitless bridles be allowed in USEF competitions?

  1. I think you have found Pandora’s box and opened it. 🙂

    You made very compelling points. I agree that more than one style should be considered, if it is going to be considered for competition.

    I’m on the fence on allowing them in competitions. I can see it being a good thing with correct handling. Though the idea may have to change from “horse is on the bit” to “horse is completely on the aids”. I can see it being a bad thing: another fad instead of sound basics.

    If the rider can get “through” and “self-carriage” without a bit, great.

    All that said, not enough info, not enough data to back up the request as viable at this point, IMO.

    And as you pointed out, some bitless bridles would be more severe than a snaffle on some horses.

    I’d like to say, hey open it to the lower levels (training through second?) and see how it goes. But then the door is opened and bitless advocates are not going to want to shut it, even if the data comes back as “not a good idea”.

    What about allowing them in schooling shows?

    1. As the inventor of the cross under the jaw rein technology in 1988 {Cook stole the original design} I can tell you that there has been such bad representations of bitless dressage.
      I have proposed a symposium at which Cook of Bitless Bridle, Zoe Brooks of Nutural Bitless Bridle and myself will demonstrate the our perspective bridles. The formate has been sent to the governing bodies….lets see if they really care about the health and welfare of the horse.
      Copy cat bitless bridles do cause pain and discomfort to the horses and do not create lateral or longitudinal flexion, nor true collection………
      I can physically prove what I say about what my bitless bridle does for the horses, and I know the others cannot.
      I ride dressage without a bit and with the poll as the highest point and nose in front of the vertical.

    2. I agree! I ride in a Nurtural and would really like to have the opportunity to do so at schooling shows! My horse may not get ‘on the bit’, but he certainly does get ‘on the bridle’ and is quite soft and responsive.

    3. Really, I believe that if we believe “acceptance of the bit” requires the horse to submit to a steel rod moving around in it’s mouth, we have missed the point. Remember, dressage is the french term meaning “training” shouldn’t we be seeking the less is more approach in that effect? If my horse can do without a bit what your horse requires a bit to do, who is at a more advanced level of training? Many european dressage countries already allowing several types of bitless bridles allowed in recognized competitions, I’m sure the US will get with the program as well, but hopefully sooner rather than later. If you believe a bit is required for connection and collection, you need to broaden your horizons, your horse may thank you as well!

      1. What amazes me is that the true translation is ‘in the hand’ so on the bit is wrong. Also dressage riders have an average of five pounds rein pressure going as high as 30 pounds and rarely down to 2 pounds.
        In order to ride true pure correct bitless dressage the rider must ride with ounces of rein contact.

  2. Pandora’s box? Probably! I do like riding bitless, but there’s something about how this is being packaged that irks me. I guess that given that I’m in public relations . . . I see this as a PR effort!

  3. I always thought that the piont of dressage was to have the horse be willing to work with you. If you can do it in a bitless why not? I think its wonderful that people want to use a bitless bridles in dressage compitions.

    1. I agree. I think more than anything, people should be open minded and not so stuck on traditional ideas. Yes, bits have always been used and double bridles….but what if you can do the same thing with a bitless? Why not? Egos should be set aside and change allowed to happen.
      As you stated….isn’t dressage now about the communication between horse and rider? Let the politics fall by the wayside.

  4. Hi. I’m writing an article for about sidepull bridles, and would love permission to use your photo of Kroni as an illustration. The photo would be linked to this blog post, and I would need the name of the photographer to credit. Please let me know if this is all right. Thanks much, Jennifer Jensen
    PS – I think you’ve done well to open Pandora’s box. It doesn’t seem at all right that thee USDF would allow one type of bitless bridle, but not others. One size does NOT fit all!

  5. I have owned and competed horses from introductory to preliminary level eventing and fourth level dressage for over 25 years. I began having difficulty with my anglo-arab gelding upon reaching second level dressage when he was 7 years old…particularly with self carriage and collection. I have always been a light handed rider and have never ridden in anything more severe than a french snaffle bit, but always felt that the fault must be mine somehow. My gelding is incredibly athletic, talented and has lovely gaits and conformation that make him very suitable as a dressage mount. So I assumed it had to be my inability to use my aids correctly that was preventing us from progressing to the next level despite my efforts with clinicians and expert instruction from internationally acclaimed experts. I reluctantly tried the Dr. Cook’s Bitless bridle as a potential alternative to my problem. The difference was night and day. I agree that not every horse has the potential to reach the higher levels of dressage, but my now 14 year old gelding has advanced within months…and he is even beginning movements in piaffe and passage, and with enthusiasm and cadence! He feels like a different horse…and while he is not on the “bit,” I can assure you he is on the bridle. I agree, the poll action of this particular bitless bridle can be strong…I have learned to be very careful in applying pressure via the reins, but honestly, he is so light and forward in this bridle. He responds to the lightest touch. Why shouldn’t we have a chance to compete at USDF competitions and show the judges what he can do? I don’t see it as changing the rules to appease the amateur or aggressive riders who have had no success with a bit. I doubt they would have much more success without one since their aids are likely ineffective to begin with. But perhaps instead of interpreting the rules as acceptance of the bit to acceptance of the bridle (frankly I prefer acceptance of the aids as I have seen some high level horses perform dressage tests beautifully without the use of a bridle maintaining a collected round frame), we might see some amazing feats accomplished, and potential that might have been ignored due to the adverse effects the bit has on some horses. The question shouldn’t be why should we allow bitless bridles in dressage competition, but, why aren’t we? It isn’t so much about opening Pandora’s box as it is about acknowledging a reality and implementing necessary change for future progress of the sport. “On the bit” may not be the best way to interpret the correct form of dressage since I have seen and experienced dressage at the highest levels without acceptance of a bit.

  6. Thank you for a very thoughtout article that considers many variables. It’s my first reading on bitless bridles, and I happen to prefer dressage…so I was doubley pleased!

  7. I have just started using my micklem bridle in the ‘medium’ bitless configuration and on day one was amazed at how quicly my boy has learnt to respond to it to a similar level of finesse already to riding with the bit…but without the tongue issues. My boy is extremely light and sensitive to ride, a real trier, but he has issues with his tongue and reacts very quickly to any of the wrong type of pressure (even very light pressure..if back or down in any way) We have made a lot of progress with him and the tongue issues were lessening. He is competing elementary and won his last outing, he has lovely paces and is very relaxed and obedient but just very sensitive to the bit. I have tried everything and the most comfortable he has been is in the Micklem bridle with neule schule bit.

    I am pretty sure that our tongue issues started once I started having lessons with advanced dressage instructors who cranked up his noseband as tight as could go and made me ask for a strong contact…”between hand and leg” I now ride according to Classical Dressage principles with a light forward contact and independant hands and seat…but occasionally I revert to the old ways..when under stress ..and out comes the tongue its quite a training aid but at the expense of my horse!

    Now I you say that the dresaage horse should ‘accept’ the bit…but really if they have a small mouth and large tongue and are overly sensitive ..why should they be subjected to a bit when they can go as well if not better without..and can achieve the same balance and collection as any bitted horse? It is surely a much more humane option for them and allows them to compete on the same footing? Damage may have already been done the the extremely sensitive bars and tongue (even from previous callous and insensitve riders) so the horse may never be able to ‘accept ‘ the bit. ….I would also argue that the horse needs to be well trained in the correct way to be able to achieve true balance and collection required for dressage and this does not necessarily require a bit …many of the old masters proved that they could ride their horse as well with or without the bit.

    After only one session I am already leaning towards better as he was amazing in the bitles configuration and was simply smiling! In one session (a short session) I started with simple walking, circles and flexing (flexing was the biggest challenge but he picked it up quickly ) by the end of the session I was doing lateral work and able to get lovely light collection at walk and trot ..with fabulous free and relaxed movement, his transitions, were a joy and instant, totally without stress. I would love to see bitless bridles like the Micklem (not all bitless bridles as some are severe) given the green light at dressage competitions. The sooner the better.

  8. I have only read the above article so what is writeen below is NOT in response to anyone elses coments above.

    I agree that there needs to be a lot of thought put into changing the rules….but I also agree that the rules should be changed.

    As stated in the article some horses go better in bitless than others…..I have one of those horses who has a low pallat and a fat tongue that makes any bit very uncomfortable for him. He WILL accept a bit and I CAN ride him with one but you can tell that he is NOT happy. He doesn’t act up badly but deffinately has a temper when I ride him with a bit and ask for higher levels of movements. When i switched to a bitless…which I had originally trained him in….he was happy, outgoing, AND could accomplish the higher level movements i was asking of him without any attitude.

    The article says “Some horses do better bitless. I owned one. He had a low palate and a thick tongue, which made many bits physically uncomfortable for him. When I found the right bitless solution for him, he practically sighed in relief. When I rode him bitless he was in self carriage, he was light, powerful and happy. He schooled up through second level dressage with no problem and he foxhunted first flight.” so my question is why does this disqualify him for competitve dressage? If the horse can preform better with LESS we should be EXTATIC!!!

    A boudle bridle is a lot of metal in a horse mouth and even though in the right hands that is not a bad thing some horses don’t like it… would you say someone can’t compete just because they won’t force their horse to wear a bit? especially if the horse preforms better without one….if the horse can do the same movements at the same level WITHOUT a bit as another can do WITH one why can’t they compete? I believe that many of the tools (bits, tie downs, martingales…) can cover up issues that horses have….allowing them to compete with these things is kinda like cheating if you ask me. You should be able to ride your horse with nothing at all….if you can’t than you have some work to do on your relationship before you think about competing. But people want ribbons and titles….with or without the kinda of relationship with the horse that would allow them to fee ride. THAT is wrong.

    so, in conclusion, I believe that if a horse can be free riden at the appropriate level of movement (for any disipline) they should be allowed to compete that way. they should not be banned just because their work with their hors has become so refined that they no longer need tools to do the movement. Below I have a list of videos or horses being ridden free or bitless doing some extraordinary things…enjoy.

    everyone knows stacy westfall’s rides

    mounted archery

    jumping 6ft fence free riding

    dressage with Karen Rohlf from Dresssge Naturally (whom i know personally) flying changes piaff and passage (beginning) must watch, having fun, bitlessdressage

    even the O’Conners gave it a try!!!!
    so why can’t you?

    1. USEF blatantly refuses to accept that a bitless horse can perform equally as well as or even better than an bitted horse. The reason is simple…..they will take no actions that will allow demonstration through performances……in fact, they refused to allow me a hearing on my rule change. USEF Dressage Committee Members are each ‘willfully, knowingly, intentionally and maliciously’ maintaining the abuse of horses through the misuse of bits and the failure to allow bitless.

  9. Hello, I am an incoming freshmen for an equine studies major and I have some questions for anyone willing to help. I agree with many people here For some background, I have had no “formal training” on horseback, I have only really ridden by self training through instructions straight from the horses mouth (sorry for the pun I couldn’t resist…) and have had an interest to learn for competitive purposes, but after watching the documentary “The Path of The Horse” ( I realized that I could not allow myself to force a horse to do anything he or she did not wish to do themselves. That said I would like to experience minor competition and bonding with horses but is it acceptable to the world of horses out there to even ride without a bit or poll pressure bridles at all? What if you just use a simple piece of cord? Wouldn’t doing, that riding with you horse free to CHOOSE to trust and work with you TOGETHER rather than using force be so much more of an accomplishment? I realize that to most people who have ridden for years this idea sounds absurd, but stop and think, what if? Maybe even scan through a synopsis of the film or even watch a part of it and see if there IS another way, true companionship and trust with a horse rather than forms of restriction and punishment. I would like anyone who has the time to reply to me, this is kind of my soul searching right now to find out how I would like to work with horses for a career, so please tell me what you think, good, bad, or indifferent, and maybe, just maybe, all of us will see things a little differently (me included).

    Thank you for your time, to whoever read this, and feel free to contact me at I am 17 and live in PST time zone so if I don’t write back for a while that is why. Again thank you all for your input!

  10. Performing at dressage should not be limited to the idea of having your horse “on the bit”. Superior athleticism and training is demonstrated with “connection” through horse and rider through “collection” and balance. You can achieve all of these things without the necessity of a bit. Honestly, “Traditional dressage” is a relatively modern idea in the horse world. To understand the history of bits and equitation, you’d have to research faarrr beyond anything we practice today. I ask that you read an article published by the honorable Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, author of “Dancing with Horses”. It’s a lengthy article, but if you choose to write about this topic, I request that you become further educated. Your opinion is rather biased.
    I’ll predict that you wont take the time to read the articles that I have copied and pasted for you below, so I’ll let you sink your teeth on this thought…. a quote from article 2 by Mister Hempfling.

    “First of all this clear statement: A bit in the horse’s mouth originally has nothing to do with steering, stopping, slowing down or changing the gait of a horse! Using a bit in the horse’s mouth like that, is approximately comparable to the imagination, that in the far out future and many generations from now, people will use a laptop-computer for hammering nails in the wall, because they no longer know, what such a computer is actually made for. The nail does eventually get into the wall after some tries – just like the horse will finally after an insensitive usage of a bit painfully stand still. As described in the first part of this essay, here we talk about a kind of historical oblivion, as it can be found so frequently in the historical awareness of mankind.”

    If you choose to go further and read the articles, try also a few youtube links.
    Here is one regarding Alexander Nevzorov. He trains horses to perform at superior levels WITHOUT the use of a bit. They are at liberty.

    Just type in Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling’s name and see what you find. We do NOT have to limit our training with the use of bits.

    Mr. Hempfling writes:
    “Dear Friends,

    Our question today, which was already addressed to us several weeks ago, is also connected with the subject of my last essay about the theme dominance and trust:
    Alizé Paris V.Muckensturm asks: “I saw some (quite) old videos and pictures of you riding with bits. Do you still ride with bits? You are an amazing trainer and people like you don’t have use of such unnecessary devices so if yes, why?”

    We will look thoroughly at the theme from the perspective of the horses, from your perspective – the perspective of the rider and also from the perspective of the historical development of equitation. Only all the strands together create a good and clear – but once again in many respects probably a surprising overall picture. Once again we are at a point, where I would like to express the same, as I did already in my first book “Dancing With Horses” under the headline:

    The best intentions
    “My way of interacting with horses is a holistic system and point of view. That means I must take clear, distinct positions in order to make myself understood. When we discuss these things we never do so, to criticize or to malign reputations, we do so to further understanding. I assume that everyone has only the best intentions.”
    And at this point I also would already like to send ahead this: I personally usually ride without a bit in the horse’s mouth, but in some cases I am using one. The reasons for this and the first subtleties I am happy to explain in the following:

    Let’s begin with the horse – or rather with the natural, instinctive sensation of any species: In the area of the mouth naturally the most sensitive sensors of perception are found. Human beings just as well as most animals – certainly of course the horse – must not only differentiate countless tastes. They also have to distinguish spoiled from fresh, toxic from non-toxic etc.. With its sensation the horse is able to detect the myriad of plants and minerals, which it needs in this particular moment for health maintenance or for healing.
    Anyone who has patiently watched horses by eating and grazing, will be surprised, with how much skill and delicacy they sort out the types of grass or pick out and separate thorns from the food they gather. There is no question, that this part of the body, protected by the covering skin and bones, is one of the most sensitive and intimate at all.

    Just the thought of carrying something hard, metallic in the mouth, which is pulled at, rattled, yes even sometimes also tugged very hard at, is, without doubt, practically unthinkable to each feeling human being – even without any special knowledge. Because these manipulations simply must cause pain.
    How painful the various types of bits really may become through often even unconsciously insensitive usage and also because of the different kinds of leverage effects, is actually only known by a small group of informed people. The horse is an animal that knows no sound for pain. One can only sense and feel the suffering and read it in their eyes.

    Still, as mentioned, also I sometimes use a bit. And that is for a good reason and then also always with the joyful willingness of the horse. So, let us continue with our investigations:
    Now we will venture into the history of equitation. That is of course a wide field. I will here only line out some milestones of importance for us and I apologize for a simplified representation in the entire subject – it already did become a bit longer:
    From the ‘original equitation’ of the Berbers and Iberians, we will take a huge leap to the baroque riding of a certain François Robichon de La Guérinière (1688–1751). From there on we reach the French Revolution and a somewhat dubious riding genius named François Baucher (1796–1873), the actual inventor of the ‘Rollkur’ (LDR). Then we continue over the English post-riders and further to the German military cavalry of the 19th and early 20th century.

    The individual stations mentioned here were very different in their use of reins, bits and the rider’s seat, and moreover they were something like intersection-points in the development of equitation – also precisely concerning the use of reins and bits.
    What was passed on by the Berbers and Iberians intuitively and from a very practical understanding of riding, did then in the baroque riding get a very accurately defined ‘coating’. In the original riding of the Berbers and Iberians, one of the most characteristic aspects has been, the horse’s perfectly understandable meaning for its own tasks and actions. Yes, even the horse often worked in a kind of autonomous responsibility under the entirely relaxed rider. This principle was then in parts also adopted by the French riders of the Camargue.

    However, like the plants in the garden of Louis XIV were merely allowed to grow in specific directions and nearly everything so-called „wild“ was trimmed, this principle was also more and more applied for the human beings themselves in this epoch, at least in certain parts of society – for the horses as well and also for the equitation in general. Riding a horse in a specific higher category now happened just for its own sake. It had become a kind of art in itself and as such (l‘art pour l‘art). That had among others the following consequences: For these horses now there was no directly visible task anymore – and from then on, they did no longer recognize any direct meaning in their actions and movements.
    Whereas the horse of the Vaquero-rider still knew very well its task and could fulfill it almost without any interventions from the rider, yes, often even better without interventions of the rider, the baroque horse only could cope with its figures and its movements, when it unremittingly carried out the exact intentions of the rider. Just like the garden of the King in a few days would ‘go wild’ again without the permanent regulation of the gardener.

    The level of skill was undoubtedly extremely high.
    In respect of the reins usage at the height of this art, a very clear maxim was applied, on which I, as is well known, completely agree:
    Ride your horse with a loose horse hair as rein. And that means in all gaits and figures. What was taken from the horse of ‘meaning and understanding of the task’, was now replaced by the art of ‘step by step High School of riding’ – by complete suppleness of horse and rider.
    Regarding this classical high artistry and sensitive usage of reins, which was taught at that time, history later took an entirely different course, with, one must unfortunately say, fatal consequences in practically all fields of equitation until today:

    During the time of the French Revolution pretty much everything was turned upside down. Everything courtly was frowned upon, also the „artificial and aristocratic“ Baroque Riding. A man named Baucher, certainly a genius rider, invented the principle of placing a horse between the legs (spurs) and alternating tightened reins and thus instantly collecting it. In this way within few hours, he made horses perform figures, which could otherwise only be achieved after years of education. The horse was now, with the aids of the spurs and legs, driven from the hindquarters into the reins. Baucher described and taught a principle, that was ‘relaxing’ the neck muscles by switching the forces from hands and legs. He created a kind of system which was for the horses and for the entire equitation both fatal and very painful.
    Historically mainly this remained of that rider:
    1. The hard usage of the reins was from then on introduced to almost the entire equitation and so to speak in general established and accepted – up to today’s excessive practices of the ‘Rollkur’ (LDR).
    2. The principle of the ‘neck-flexion from the ground and under the saddle’ was adopted in large areas of the Iberian equitation and interestingly enough also in the show-jumping – until today.

    In order to understand better the general usage of the reins nowadays, we will follow the development of the equitation still a bit further: With the increasing traffic of long-range trading, horses were more and more used for pulling transport carriages. They were therefore bred larger and longer, until one day an English rider of a postal carriage was no longer able to remain sitting in the trot on these new types of horses. Because by the four-in-hand carts and larger teams, for the safety often one man was riding one of the leading horses. This rider now stood up by every trot-stride of the horse. The so-called ‘posting’ had been invented – the rising trot. But with this also the now larger distance to the horse’s back.

    The ‘posting’, first of all adopted by the native
    Aristocratic riders, finally also found its way into the German and Austrian/Hungarian military cavalry. In their riding institutes, it became more and more an issue to help ‘farm-lads’ getting on a horse within a few weeks. For this purpose the rising trot (posting) was exactly the ‘right thing’. The saddles were changed significantly and from now on fastened considerably more towards the forehand; towards the horse’s shoulder. The horses grew taller by breeding – until today – and therefore more ‘loadable’ without much preparatory training. The whole system of riding was more and more aligned with the forehand of the horse and with the mechanic usage of the reins. In the early Olympic Games, in which this kind of riding was introduced as modern dressage sport, the riders were therefore mostly dressed in military uniform – because it does historically have its origin in this line.

    Baucher was the one who first and most consequently broke the law of loose reins and placed the horse between the spurs and the bit. This principle established ever deeper in nearly the entire world of riding until today. Today one may see members of practically each riding discipline handling also the sharpest pelham and curb bits with physical force – the historical development abandoned on a large scale the natural compassion and empathy for the silently suffering creature.
    Today many people just do it, ‘because everybody does it’ – and ‘because it has always been done like that’. But that is not correct! It had a beginning – and this beginning can be traced historically!

    This time we have worked out, how sensitive and susceptible to pain the horse’s mouth is. We have worked out, how, historically parallel with the allocation towards the forehand, the usage of the reins has changed from the original riding of the Berbers through the Baroque Riding up to today, where it is mainly focused on a riding, which almost only mechanically ‘drives the horse from behind’ into the ‘collection’.

    But what are the alternatives? If we have recognized the development of history, what can we then set against it today – particularly also for the wellbeing of our horse? When, and in which way, can we with a clear conscience put a bit in the mouth of our horse? What does a hackamore have to do with a cavesson? Why do I recommend none of my students to ride with a cordeo (neck-rope)? How are the basic principles of the signal- and weight-riding, the collected riding at loose reins, to be understood? I will get to that in the 2nd part of this essay – again here on your KFH Facebook page.

    Finally the concluding questions of our Reality Check this week:
    1. The being with horses might as well be accepted as the oldest and most important cultural achievement of mankind. Anthropologists agree, that the development of mankind is only describable and explainable in connection with the history of the horses and equitation. The knowledge of historical connections, also in this field, gives enormous insights also in the very individual and practical doing with ones own horse. Do you have enough background knowledge? Are you eventually prepared, also for your horse’s benefit, to go more intensively into these connections? The question of rein usage, of the rider’s seat, the saddle, the riding style – all that is certainly also a question of ones own historical position and association.
    2. Hand on heart – do you also use the reins for more than only transferring light signals to the horse? Then you should in any case avoid, putting a bit in your horse’s mouth. Of course you do not want to cause your horse any kind of pain! But you do, when you tighten the reins or pull at them! Are you eventually prepared to change and improve your entire riding style so much, that signals may be transmitted to your horse only by body balance and light leg aids? About the question, how to swap safely, maybe only temporally, from ‘bit riding’ to a proper alternative, we will talk in the next part of this essay.

    As preparation for the 2nd part and to go deeper into this theme, I would like to recommend watching “Hempfling’s Signal-Weight Riding”:

    Thank you very much for your interest in these explanations.

    All the best,
    Yours, Klaus
    Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling”
    A BIT?
    Do we – and if – why do we need a bit? What does a bit mean in the horse’s mouth – for the horse and for the rider?
    If you missed part 1, here the link:

    Dear Friends,
    First of all I would like to thank you for your interest in this important but also wide theme, for your many thoughtful reactions and last but not least for your openness also towards sometimes completely new aspects.
    Today we talk about the basic principles of collected riding at loose reins. Once again I would like to apologize, that I, due to the limited space, sometimes breakdown profound principles into more compressed pictures.
    As always, I am also now describing an entirety – because only as overall picture it becomes comprehensible.
    If I ride a horse, it has first of all been strengthened in its entire personality, it is independent, joyful, full of vitality and urge to move – for example like the stallion Ferdinand (Clip:
    It has been collected and strengthened from the ground, for example like the stallion Yunque (Clip:
    And on its own initiative it seeks to be close to me, because I have become an important part of its world, its herd, for example like for Habanero, shown in the last video (Clip:

    Now the horse will proudly carry me on his back with dignity and respect and he is prepared to sense one thing: How enormously dependent I am upon him in this situation and position. And how enormously important it is for my and his own health, that he responds to the slightest signs. Also in this process, like all the time before, I promise the horse, that I proceed in the softest and most sensitive way, of course also including the use of reins and bits. To find the best entrance to our subject, we should take a look at the authentic principles of riding. Therefore, I here refer to the last posted clip with Yunque:
    This PRE stallion, which displays a particularly strong stallion instinct, is letting me dominate him with ease not just from the ground, but also from the saddle, equipped only with a soft halter at loose reins in front of a mare in heat. And this happens by means of body language – here especially with my legs. Because I use them in accordance with the authentic nature of the horse. With this it is possible, also in critical situations, to avoid pulling and tugging at the reins – to see also in: Hempfling’s Signal-Weight Riding

    The last time we have on one side looked at the general usage of the bit in the horse’s mouth on the background of the historical development of equitation. On the other side we have become aware of the sensitivity of the horse’s mouth in general. We came to the conclusion, that if a bit in the horse’s mouth may ever be justified at all, then only if the reins are transmitting slight signs while permanently sagging. The questions remain, why then at all a bit sometimes makes sense or can be of helpful use and how the horse, IN ACCORDANCE TO ITS NATURE, should be steered, guided and stopped without?
    Like in part one, I would once again like to express the same, as I did already in my first book “Dancing With Horses” under the headline: The best intentions. “My way of interacting with horses is a holistic system and point of view. That means I must take clear, distinct positions in order to make myself understood. When we discuss these things we never do so, to criticize or to malign reputations, we do so to further understanding. I assume that everyone has only the best intentions.”

    First of all this clear statement: A bit in the horse’s mouth originally has nothing to do with steering, stopping, slowing down or changing the gait of a horse! Using a bit in the horse’s mouth like that, is approximately comparable to the imagination, that in the far out future and many generations from now, people will use a laptop-computer for hammering nails in the wall, because they no longer know, what such a computer is actually made for. The nail does eventually get into the wall after some tries – just like the horse will finally after an insensitive usage of a bit painfully stand still. As described in the first part of this essay, here we talk about a kind of historical oblivion, as it can be found so frequently in the historical awareness of mankind.

    The bit in the horse’s mouth, from a natural point of view, has in principle the following positive use:
    1. Transmitting the final relaxation to the highly educated horse in the most comfortable way – completely without pain at an always loose rein, and
    2. offering the highly educated horse the final-form-aid for the most comfortable head posture in relation to its genuinely collected hindquarters at always loose reins.

    These are the primary naturally given reasons, to carefully lay a bit into the horse’s mouth – after trust building and strengthening.
    Please try this simple series of exercises with your partner or a good friend for a first practical verification:
    Exercise 1: Please hold your partner at the ear with your thumb and index finger, to carefully steer him or her – for instance to the left. The result is: Your partner will bend the head towards the left. But the person’s shoulders and body will ‘break out’. Your partner will move to the left, but in the entire body a tendency towards the opposite direction will clearly remain. The experience will be entirely different in our
    Exercise 2: Please stand behind your partner and put both hands gently on your partner’s hips. Like this you steer your partner with both hands. Now, you will definitely be much better understood by your partner. And above all his/her entire body will now sensitively, balanced and comfortably be aligned in the direction you are indicating. Your partner will convert even a slight sign of your hands. Something similar happens with weight- and leg-aids in my school of Signal Weight Riding. Now I direct the entire body of the horse. Finally we come to the natural way of stopping a horse in our
    Exercise 3: Your partner is again in front of you with the back towards you. Please put softly one hand on your partner’s back and steadily increase the pressure. The reaction of your partner will be, to press the body against your hand. And this is precisely how I stop a horse without reins. And consequently this is also, how I make it move backwards without reins – and this belongs for me to the beginning of all riding (in detail described in my fist book ‘Dancing With Horses’).

    Now let’s move from our human-human exercise to the horses. Again we will begin with the naturally given principles. Because we should know and accept, that
    1. The hindquarters of a horse are constructed entirely different than the forehand, namely like an ‘accordion’. Therefore it is only on its hindquarters, that the horse can carry a higher amount of additional weight without feeling pain, similar to the effect of a shock-absorber.
    2. The horse is built like a ‘bridge’ – the forehand and the hindquarters are ‘forming the pillars’. Only, when the middle of the bridge (the horse’s back) is strengthened by an upward tendency, like the bow of a tunnel or the thin eggshell, it will experience the strength and power to carry a rider.
    3. The horse is, so to speak, carried by a band of muscles and tendons, reaching from the tail-root to the ears. Which means that
    4. the head is carefully and as a natural effect pulled upwards, when the croup is lowered. In this natural process, the ‘bridge-band’ between ears and tail-root will be curved upwards. Therefore
    5. nearly our entire attention and focus is on the hindquarters of the horse – from the ground as well as by riding. (See clip: ‘Shape The Free Horse’: Because if we can activate them, then all the wonderful consequences occur practically by themselves: the collection, the hock bending, the physical and mental strengthening of the horse and the entire erected carrying-shape.

    As a consequence of all this, we now get to the rider’s legs and their actual function: The legs of the rider are nowadays mainly used to drive the horse forward, even towards the reins, or, depending on the riding-style, they are not or nearly not used. That, however, is not the original purpose of the leg-aids, when the horse’s nature is the underlying basis.Then the legs are first and most used to collect the horse with each step, keep it on the spot and also to make it move backwards – as it is to see in the upper mentioned clip with Janosch. All this can be done with the finest signals.
    In contrary, trying to drive a horse forwards with the legs often means, that the leg-aids become more and more dull and that the rider finally works more on top of the horse than the increasingly sluggish horse works under the rider.

    I do exactly the opposite:
    First of all I acknowledge, that the urge to move and to go forward is a part of the genuine nature of the horse. If I encourage the horse in this, by neither internally nor externally debilitating or even ‘killing’ it, this point is clarified once and for all. Now my way of riding functions somehow ‘the other way around’. With my body language, in this case mainly with my legs, I simply may reduce and limit the horse’s idea ‘to go forward’. This has many very big advantages: For instance every time I softly apply my leg aids, the horse will push its hindquarters under its own weight; it will collect. From now on I control its hindquarters by the simplest, invisible and natural aids of my legs. Riding becomes a great pleasure – the rider connects with the earth underneath through the sensed hoofs of the horse’s hindquarters.
    When I am already able to keep the horse on the spot, then the horse also will naturally change to another direction, as soon as I myself shift my body weight in exactly that direction. This is admittedly not so easy and requires practice, since my upper body must always remain strictly upright at a right angle to my shoulders.
    Now the horse has ‘become mine’ and together we form a genuine unity. I collect it, keep it on the spot, slow it down, stop it and direct it backwards with the slightest leg-aids and I turn it with my body weight.

    The unrestrained head of my horse has naturally come into a very beautiful almost vertical position. First because of the effect of my body signals from the ground and later by riding with the aids of my weight- and leg-influence on the hindquarters. If I now apply a perfectly fitting bit hanging gently in its mouth – then without any kind of pain it will do two things:
    1. It will start chewing. Since it is confident and one with its rider, it will now very contently with the mouth and the tongue attend to this amusement with pleasure. The chewing has another, very calming and relaxing effect on the horse altogether.
    2. With its head it will follow the direction and the weight of the bit and thus assume a final perfection of the posture all by itself and all natural. After around 3 to 7 years of intensive engagement from the horse-person the horse has calmly and gradually become a true riding horse and as ‘reward’ it now carries a bit at permanently loose reins.

    From the beginning we have communicated all ‘keeping and directing signals’ with our body language. Now with the little finger of the one rein-hand the rider can respond to the soft chewing of the horse – by tiny ‘ringing’ with the little finger. Now the big circle is completed. The horse is confidently positioned between the gently applied legs and the weight of the rider, to read from there what is actually supposed to happen. Between the gentle rein-hand of the rider and the chewing mouth of the horse, feeling always comfortable, a tender and affectionate dialogue of relaxation arises only through the weight of the reins. That is, what I call riding! And that is in my eyes the only and right use of a bit.
    Like the computer, which one day in the far future may be used for hammering nails in the wall, the bits are nowadays mostly used for something, they were not meant for. We do not need a bit – at least not for a very long period of the horse’s education.

    This is the question of our Reality Check this week:
    If that, which I have explained here, makes sense in your eyes, including the photo- and video-examples, would you then be prepared, eventually to change parts of what you have so far understood by riding – even sometimes into its exact opposite?

    Writing all this, the space is running out to continue with the remaining questions. So, these subjects we are going to discuss, among others, in Part 3:
    How to swap safely, maybe only temporarily, from ‘bit-riding’ to a proper alternative? What does a hackamore have to do with a cavesson? Why do I recommend none of my students to ride with a cordeo (neck-rope)? What are the most important requirements for my horse in regard of dominance and trust – both from the ground as well as under the saddle – to respond to the finest aids? Which rider does at the end need a bit for the horse at all? What is a good, if not the best alternative for a bit? How are the reins being used by bit-less riding?

    I will get to that in the 3rd part of this essay – again here on your KFH Facebook page.

    Thank you very much for your interest in these explanations.

    All the best,
    Yours, Klaus
    Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling”

    1. Until a rider experiences true correct and pure bitless, they will have no idea how quiet a horse’s mouth really is.
      Mr. Ferdinand, I would like nothing more for you to work with me and discovery the freedom of pure correct and true bitless. Even Walter Zettl told spectators in 2004 that Spirit Bridle is what everyone should learn to ride with before they try to ride with a bit.

  11. I think that if bitless bridles are allowed in dressage, they should not allow crossunders. They don’t have enough release, which makes it much harder to give a subtle cue to your horse like the cues given in advanced dressage. The website of the Dr. Cook crossunder bitless bridle says it delivers a ” whole head – hug” to the horse, which means that the pressure is squeezing (which is uncomfortable for many horses) and that the pressure is applied to the whole entire head, which means that there are pretty much only three cues the horse can recieve- pressure to the right half of his/her head to turn left (the crossunder design works by making the horse move away from pressure rather than towards it like with most bridles), pressure to the left half of his/her head to turn right, and pressure on both halves of the head at once to slow down/stop. It eliminates the ability to deliver a small, subtle, barely noticable cue to signal your horse to perform complex dressage movements, because the pressure is so spread out it is impossible to make it subtle. If a subtle dressage cue in the hands of a master horseman/woman is like a “whisper”, then a cue from the crossunder bridle is like a yell- not painful, but very, very noticeable and clear in its meaning. I have nothing against bitless being allowed in dressage but I just don’t think crossunders are a practical design.

    1. I agree. The cross under design does not allow continuous contact, so you can’t feel the horse in your hand. I’ve had much more success with side pull designs, which are more like a bitted solution. Rather than riding with my reins looped (as is necessary for release in the cross under) you can maintain a steady contact and feel so you can have more of a dialogue with your horse. The cross under design may work for many disciplines, but it is contrary to the fundamental basics of dressage (IMO).

  12. Very late to the party, but I had an Arab gelding who, when I got him, was in a ‘tie-down’ (the owners rode him western and in a long shanked curb bit). He was ‘avoiding the bit”, they told me. I have to say this, I’ve always had ‘light hands’. I am learning to ride dressage..I had no western saddle and no western bits.
    When I got him home, I thought, I do have a nice snaffle. Still, he tossed his head, rooted, almost pointed his nose to the sky, did anything to avoid the bit. Soooo, I took it out of his mouth completely and put him in an “english hackamore”..a rolled leather nose band, no shanks. The difference was night and day. He took several moments to realize that he had a bridle on but no bit in his mouth. He never gave me another bit of more rooting, no more stargazing.

  13. My Trakehner was the same way. When I started riding him bitless he was a changed horse, and much for the better. There’s a very scary article right now on showing the lesions in the mouths of eventers — all caused by bits. I’ve had horses that weren’t particularly responsive to bitless bridles but the damage caused by the bits was pretty disturbing.

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