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?
7 thoughts on “Is Bitless Really Better?”
I do like bitless bridles, but I also use bits. As you said, depends on the horse and what I perceive their preferences to be. And of course there is a quite a difference in the types of bitless bridles out there. I have both a Dr. Cook’s and the LG variety that you showed in your post. I like having options, and I imagine my horses do too.
I use a snaffle most of the time, but I switch to the bitless in the really cold weather so I don’t have to put a cold bit in Cole’s mouth. He seems to do a little better with the bridle, but it might be my imagination. My sister switches back and forth in the arena, and her horse seems better in the bitless. She likes the snaffle on the trail because she uses a halter bridle.
Judi, are you the person who wrote “Equestrian Deception” about the White stallions of the Emperor of Japan? I am trying to get in touch with you for a book I a writing. Want to credit you. Jo Thomas, formerly with The New York Times 315-317-2266 (It’s for a section on horses, about Arabians)
I started riding bitless around 45 years ago with an old jumping cavesson bridle, a variation of the side-pull. My horse did not mind it and it was fun on trail rides.
When I got back into riding I discovered the Nurtural Bitless. I settled on the Nurtural Bitless because it seemed more fool proof than the other cross-unders. The horses understood my hand aids just fine. I introduced the Nurtural bridle to both the ladies where I ride and at the small private barn everyone else than me and the owner are required to use the Nurtural bitless on her horses.
Then I got put up on an elderly Arabian mare at my lesson barn with the most sensitive mouth that I have run into in my over 50 years of riding. I thought it would be a no-brainer, of course she would prefer a bitless bridle.
Uh, NO. That super sensitive mouthed mare preferred me riding her in a regular snaffle bridle with various bits. She absolutely LOATHED me keeping contact with her nose. I could ride bitless all I wanted to if I did not keep contact, but once I started keeping contact the head flinging started. I then tried the Light Rider Bitless bridle, she was better but by golly contact was still forbidden. She did not like the LG bitless AT ALL, and my ancient jumping cavesson was barely acceptable, so long as I did not try to keep contact
I have Multiple sclerosis. I have a hand tremor and I cannot tell where my hands are if I am not looking at them, usually. My balance is absolutely horrible and I have an extremely weak seat.
And guess what bridle both of the elderly horses I ride now prefer? A DOUBLE BRIDLE with Fager titanium double bridle bits. Both ladies I ride with have told me lately that they want me to stay with the double bridle, possibly forever, and my body is a lot worse than when I used the bitless bridles on their horses. Neither horse had ever been ridden in a double bridle before I introduced it to them.
If your horse does not like your hands I recommend trying titanium bits. Right now Fager Bits seems to be the only producer of these bits (titanium mouthpieces with stainless steel cheek pieces.) My hypothesis is that the chromium and nickle in the stainless steel cause a mild inflammation in the horse’s mouth, causing irritation from the stainless steel bits. I introduce my lesson horses to titanium bits, then I run into the problem that these lesson horses GO ON STRIKE when a stainless steel snaffle is put on for other lesson riders. Luckily I had invested in titanium coated bits when they were still available, but there are not many of those available any more so I am being a bit more cautious about introducing the horses to my wondrous titanium bits. The titanium coated bits were a lot cheaper than the Fager bits and I just cannot afford to get a Fager bit for each lesson horse at my lesson stable.
I no longer own a horse. I now ride lesson horses, many with gaping holes in their training bigger than the Grand Canyon. I have no desire to ride bitless again unless a horse tells me that it is absolutely necessary for that individual horse’s comfort. .
Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’ve seen you write about using a double bridle on COTH (I am Bogie on that forum) and considered it for my mare. It just goes to show why so many different bitting/bitless solutions are needed. Horses all have a preference and many are not shy about voicing their opinions.
I ‘rescued’ my Arab, Jordan, from a ‘riding stable’ that was shut down for neglect. (the rest of the horses went to auction.)He’d been ridden in a western curb. He was constantly rooting and tossing his head. I went to a snaffle and he kept it up. Not long after I brought him home, I had him floated (the vet said it had been “years and years),the vet said, oh, look, his left tush is missing. The scars indicate it was TORN OUT somehow.”
So in his case, it think it was fear of the pain.
I put him in an “English” Hackamore, which was basically a rolled cavesson-and the head tossing, the rooting stopped. He was so much happier without a bit.
My friend’s Hanoverian, Raven, was ridden in a Dr. Cook’s bitless for a while and really didn’t care for it. Sue rode him in a Oh dear, I can’t remember the name of the bit, darn it, , senioritis strikes again! but I would ride him in a simple loose ring snaffle and he was perfectly amenable. So I think in some horses, it comes down to hands, if all other things have been ruled out.
This is very interesting data, although I’m wondering about the data from the CU bridle, that data being quote ‘significant reduction in carpal flexion”. Did the data mean carpal from the human? because I’m not sure what part of the horse’s neck they’re discussing.
Anyway, I did do a dressage test on my leased horse, Trooper, in a sidepull, although I was not given points. Patti, the owner insisted he could not wear a bit because he had ‘wolf teeth’, so I rode him almost exclusively in a side pull. Ah, Patti, you could always tell her but you couldn’t tell her much. She thought tushes were wolf teeth….anyway, I did manage to ride him in a snaffle after a veterinarian convinced her he had no wolf teeth. He would collect in the snaffle, but not happily.