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.
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.
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.