Riding bitless doesn’t mean lack of control

Riding Bitless
You can read this article on the Chronicle of the Horse by clicking on the photo.

No, Kelly McKnight did not forget his bridle. He also didn’t forget that horses get some “say” in how they are ridden. When you read the horse bulletin boards you’d think there was a “magic bit” du jour. That if your dressage horse doesn’t like a loose ring snaffle, if your show hunter isn’t perfectly mellow in a D-ring, or your eventer can’t go cross country in his dressage bit that you are somehow doing something wrong.

For many years I hunted a Trakehner who loved to be ridden bitless. In fact, he told me very clearly, and for a long time, that he didn’t like bits, that they were

Once I discovered this bitless set up I had a much happier horse.
Once I discovered this bitless set up I had a much happier horse.

uncomfortable in his mouth, where his big tongue and low palate didn’t leave a lot of room.

Eventually, I tried riding him bitless. First I tried the Dr. Cook’s bridle, but he didn’t much care for the poll pressure. Then I discovered the LG bridle, which is basically a side pull bridle with the reins attached to a wheel. You can achieve a bit more leverage when you attach the reins to a spoke that turns the wheel very slightly.

This discovery was a real turning point for us because suddenly I had a happy, willing partner. He was soft and light in my hands, he jumped beautifully and he was never out of control. I hunted him bitless for many seasons. Sometimes it surprised people, who wondered if I had enough control in it.

Certainly, this isn’t for every horse. I’ve tried riding Freedom and Zelda both bitless and I don’t have a lot of control. It’s fine for a hack, but out hunting? I don’t think it would be much fun. But I think that everyone should try, on occasion, to give their horses a break and see what kind of ride they have without a bit. Who knows? You might never go back!

Remember Sheldon? The CANTER horse I had before Zelda? He also was a much happier horse without a bit. The important thing is to listen to your horse and see what works for him.

How about you? Do you ever ride bitless?

4 thoughts on “Riding bitless doesn’t mean lack of control

  1. I have never seen a bridle like the one you picture there. And I thought bitless just meant riding with a halter and lead rope or in a hackamore. I should try going bitless once and see how it goes with Knight
    It would be an interesting experience.

    1. There are a number of different bitless bridle designs and they apply pressure to different parts of the horse’s head. The trick is to find a type that works for your horse. My Trakehner, Kroni, hated poll pressure and the traditional hackamores were too severe for him (some of those with long shanks have a lot of leverage). Once I found the type that worked for him, he was a happy camper. I rode him without any leverage for daily rides and then dialed up a bit of extra control for hunting. What you can’t see on that photo is that there is a curb chain under his chin. The LG Bridle was pricey but there are several other options now that make it more affordable.

  2. When I am feeling lazy I am more then happy to hop on my boys bareback in just a halter and leadrope to do some flatwork. Would I ever take either of them show jumping or cross country like that? No. Have I in the past, yes but it was not a particularly nice experience for any of us. Would I try it in the future? Yes definitely, depending on the horse.

    1. I ride bitless a lot in the winter. I think it’s more comfortable for the horses than putting cold metal in their mouths. And if there is snow on the ground, it slows them down!

Leave a Reply