Back in 1999, Dr. Robert Cook, professor emeritus of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, introduced his bitless bridle and did a tremendous job of creating the bitless vs. bit debate. Bitless is supposed to be kinder than putting a bit in a horse’s mouth. Bits, according to Dr. Cook create pain reactions by applying pressure to one of the horse’s most sensitive parts — the bars of the mouth. Instead, bitless bridles, like Dr. Cook’s use pressure on various parts of the horse’s head or, in the case of a hackamore, on the horse’s nose (also a very sensitive area).
Bits hurt horses. They cause the six Fs of fear, flight, fight, freeze, facial neuralgia, and physiological confusion. In the wild, the first four responses favor survival but only the last four (‘freeze’) enhances the safety of the domesticated horse. Frightened horses are nervous, excitable, ‘hot,’ and unpredictable. They are accidents waiting to happen. Bit-induced episodes of rearing, bolting, asphyxiation and fatigue result in horses incurring fractured skulls, broken backs, breakdowns, pulmonary bleeding, fractured jaws and other disasters. Bitted horses that bolt are literally blinded by pain and are a danger to themselves and their riders.Dr. Robert cook
Twenty three years later, bitless bridles are still not legal for dressage and have been banned in horse racing. Hackamores and hackabits are frequently used in show jumping and eventing, but very few of the bitless bridle designs are used in competitions. A recent study, Noseband and poll pressures underneath bitted and bitless bridles and the effects on equine locomotion, has shown that bitless bridles may not be any better than a properly fitted bitted set up, but only a different solution that may suit some horses more than others.
Researcher Tracy Bye with the University Centre Bishop Burton in Yorkshire, and student Nina Robinson used five university-owned horses in a study using three types of bridles: a bridle with a snaffle bit and regular noseband (SN), a cross-under bitless bridle (CU), and a sidepull bitless bridle (SP). The nosebands on the bitless bridles were fitted to manufacturer instructions and the bridle with the snaffle was tightened to the “two finger” rule. The researchers then measured trot kinematics (the features or properties of motion in an object) in all three bridles over three days.
The SP bridle showed a significantly higher average noseband pressure (4.42 ± 1.52 N/cm2; median ± IQR) than the SN (2.67 ± 1.00 N/cm2) with the CU sitting between the two (2.96 ± 1.00 N/cm2). The pressures exerted by the SP design could be capable of causing tissue damage if sustained for long periods of time. The pressure increase is likely due to the attachment of the reins directly to the noseband in the SP bridle, meaning rein tension is concentrated on the frontal nasal plane, rather than being distributed more evenly across the head.
There was no significant difference in headpiece pressures between the bridles. (My horses might disagree with that finding. Both Kroni and Freedom got very “light” in front with a cross-under design, when the Dr. Cook’s bridle didn’t release fast enough).
In the CU bridle a significant reduction in carpal flexion (98.10 ± 7.98o) and a more extended head and neck angle (112.04 ± 3.01o) were seen compared to the SN (93.58 ± 7.32o and 105.94 ± 6.98o respectively). These changes are associated with an extended back posture and reduced performance, and may be a result of avoidance behaviors arising from pressures underneath the jaw due to this bridle design.
Obviously, the sample size of this study is very small, so it might not play out over a larger population. However, over the past 20 years, I’ve had horses that vastly preferred being ridden bitless (my Trakehner had a small mouth and a large tongue that made it difficult to find a bit that was comfortable) and horses that preferred bits. Freedom wasn’t a big fan of bitless, although I did try it with him on occasion. With Zelda, I use both. The fact that she opens her mouth and sticks her nose into the bridle suggest to me she doesn’t find a bit painful, although it took me awhile to find a bit that she liked. I often hack her in a bitless bridle (I use a Nutural bridle for her) and she enjoys how easy it is to eat. Maybe a bit too much.
Ultimately, I think that if your horse doesn’t have a physical reason for not wearing a bit, the bit is properly fitted to the horse’s mouth, and the rider’s hands are sympathetic, bitless bridles are not necessarily better than a bitted solution.
What are your experiences with bitless bridles?