4 Reasons Why you Should Try Riding Bitless

Zelda rocking her bitless bridle
Most of the summer I’ve ridden Zelda bitless — mostly using the Flower Hackamore.

Since the end of June, inspired by Anna Blake’s post on riding bitless, Zelda and I took it on a challenge. I’ve tried both the Flower Hackamore and a Nutural Bitless bridle. I also tried a leather bit that attaches under the chin, with no headstall. That was a complete bust. She spit that bit out with gusto and I was left with a set of reins attached to . . . nothing! She is quite clear that she likes the Flower Hackamore the best.

It has been years since I’d ridden bitless on a daily basis and it reminded me why it’s an important exercise. Not, as you might guess, because I think bits are inherently terrible. If you have light, steady hands and the bit fits your horse’s mouth well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using one. In fact, the communication you have with a bit is very subtle. Nope, riding bitless is good for the rider because it shows you where the holes are in your technique!

Here are my reasons for why you should try riding bitless.

  1.  Bitless bridles make you realize how much you ride with your hands. Remember that I just said that bits give you very subtle communication? The opposite is true with a bitless set up. And that’s often a good thing, because as humans we are noisy with our hands. We move them, we jiggle the bit, we want to fix everything with them. Remove that noise and the silence is deafening. Your horse will be happy when you leave her mouth alone (when I switched my Trakehner to bitless many years ago, he immediately started to jump so much better! It was sobering to realize that I had been picking at his face on the way to every jump). In fact, you might think she’s not listening at all. Persist, even if she ignores you for a time, because you will find new ways to talk to each other.
  2. Riding bitless makes you ride with your seat. As soon as your horse starts listening to you, new conversations emerge. Your horse becomes more attuned to the way you use your seat, how you shift your weight, whether you control your speed by half halting with your thighs. Suddenly your hands aren’t so important.
  3. It’s much easier for your horse to snack. With so much lush grass around, Zelda is very grateful to not have a bit in her mouth. Although she is not allowed to eat during our rides, she certainly takes advantage of this as soon as we’re done.
  4. There’s no bit to clean. And in the winter, there’s no bit to warm. There’s an appealing simplicity to riding bitless.
A bit of lipstick
It is a good thing when your horse has a bit of foam around her lips. This is a result of the horse having a relaxed jaw. Although this is often associated with bitted riding, all of my horses produce a small amount of foam around closed lips when ridden bitless.

I’ve taken Zelda out on the trails and also schooled her in the ring. She goes just as well now in a bitless bridle as she does in her bitted one (although I’m not sure I’d take her hunting bitless).

The Zilco Flower Hackamore uses the placement of the rings to apply some leverage/pressure both on the chin groove and very slightly on the poll. Unlike the Nurtural bridle, which uses a cross under design, you use a direct aid very similar to a bitted bridle. I’ll write more about the Nurtural Bridle later, but since Zelda had a clear preference for this one.

One safety precaution. When you first try riding bitless it’s a good idea to start in an enclosed arena. I was very glad I did that with the leather bit because once Zelda spit it out, I had no control.

With the bitless bridles, I never felt out of control but it did take a few rides before Zelda was listening in the same way she does with a bit.




Zelda takes the bitless challenge


Anna Blake’s Bitted vs. Bitless post got me to dig out one of my bitless bridle attachments and try it on Zelda. It’s off season so it’s a great time to work on responsiveness, balance and obedience. Bitless bridles don’t let you ride off your hands so you have to ride more off your seat and get your horse really listening to you.

Zelda is modeling a flower hackamore. It’s a variation on the Happy Wheel design with a very small amount of leverage provided by the attachment point. Zelda was happy: it’s much easier to grab a mouthful of grass without a bit in your mouth! As you can see, there was a lot of beautiful tall grass on our ride.

Beautiful grasses
The light was beautiful when we went on our ride. The grasses were swaying in the wind.

For the most part, Zelda was well behaved. We had one “oh crap” moment when a deer spooked her in the woods, but a bit wouldn’t have helped much in that case. Luckily, she came to her senses and I stayed on.

I never get tired of these views. In some light the leaves look illuminated.


Today we worked in the ring. It’s amazing how much her lips move when there’s no bit. It took her longer to start working through her back and staying straight but in the end,  we had a good ride. I think I’ll keep working her without the bit for awhile — and she’ll enjoy the opportunity to snack!

Bit vs. Bitless? It depends!

Bitted or bitless is idle chatter if there is no horse in the conversation.

via Bit or Bitless? You Won’t Like the Answer. — Relaxed

I love this posting by Anna Blake, probably because it reinforces my own experiences in the Bit vs. Bitless debate. Which is better? It depends! I’ve had horses that loved going bitless — like my Trakehner — although he hated the cross under bridle designs. When I

Barefoot, Bitless and Treeless
Freedom going Barefoot, Bitless and Treeless. However, he’s not the easiest horse to ride in a bitless bridle unless you want to really move along! He gets very strong and reverts to race horse mode, leaning into the contact. I prefer to ride him in a Micklem Short Shank.

finally found the Happy Wheel style hackamore, he let me know right away that it was a winner. Without a bit he was willing to come into my hand and really work through his back. I also foxhunted with one and never had any trouble controlling him.

I restarted an OTTB for CANTER who also loved going bitless. He had a lot of anxiety with a bit in his mouth that really disappeared when that was taken out of the equation.

My current horses have chosen different solutions. While I still hack them out bitless, I find they both go better (at least for now) in their preferred bits. Zelda likes the PeeWee bit, which is a thin mullen mouth. Freedom likes his Mickmar short shank bit that has a roller in the mouthpiece. When he gets nervous I can hear that roller spinning! Maybe it’s time to try them bitless again, but I think as Anna Blake says, it’s important to ask your horse what he likes!



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?

LG bridle to the rescue

Sheldon with the LG Bridle
Sheldon gave me the best ride so far in the LG Bridle. You can see that it’s adjusted so that there is very mild curb action. Enough for him to pay attention but not enough to make him feel trapped.

Over the past few days I’ve continued to swap around bits and bitless bridles with Sheldon to see if I could encourage him to relax. The Micklem bridle without the bit seemed like a good bet but after a small spook and (short) run episode I wondered if perhaps it didn’t offer quite enough control.

The next time I rode him I tried using the Micklem with the reins attached as a sidepull AND with a bit in his mouth using two sets of reins. It sounds confusing but I figured that I could ride him using the sidepull and save the bit for when I really needed it. Unfortunately, the experience confirmed with me that he’s not ready for a bit. Even when it was just hanging in his mouth with no rein pressure at all he started to shut down and refuse to move forward.

So I dug out my trusty LG bridle, which had been Kroni’s bitless bridle of choice. It offers a bit more oomph than a straight side pull but not as much as a hackamore. It also keeps the direct rein aids rather than the indirect approach of the Dr. Cook’s bridle. Depending on where you attach the reins to the LG “Wheel” you can achieve some mild curb action. You can also use it as a straight sidepull. Since I bought the LG they’ve become more difficult to buy in the U.S. but I found that Nickers Saddlery offers something very similar: the Flotation Hackamore works the same way and at just $65 it’s about half the price!

I tried adding a loose ring snaffle to the bitless set up but even just hanging the bit in his mouth with no pressure from the reins, caused Sheldon to start grinding his teeth and chomping on the bit.
I tried adding a loose ring snaffle to the bitless set up but even just hanging the bit in his mouth with no pressure from the reins, caused Sheldon to start grinding his teeth and chomping on the bit.

I am optimistic that this will be a winner. I got some very nice work from Shel with basically no tantrums or melt downs. In fact, once I got him into a nice trot rhythm, he dropped his head, raised his back and started to step underneath himself and push! He’s better tracking right where he could hold it longer but I also got some nice trots to the left. I asked him to move into a canter but that seemed to make him anxious so I let him stay in his comfort zone.

It’s funny which solutions work for different horses. Freedom has never been a fan of the LG bridle or the Dr. Cook’s. It’s not that they bother him; he simply ignores them. Periodically I take him out for a ride bitless to see if the situation has changed. In fact I tried using the Dr. Cook’s today on a hack. Each time I do that, I realize it’s a terrible idea! But with Sheldon, removing the bit is making a huge difference and I hope that it will help me get him to use his body more effectively and start to build some topline.

A nice demonstration of bitless riding

Although I have nothing against bitless riding (I rode my last horse bitless), I rarely see good examples of it on YouTube. Here’s a video of Uta Gräf riding the Holsteiner stallion Le Noir bitless schooling some Grand Prix movements. Very nice riding, indeed!

Of course it could be argued that she is an exceptional rider, so the type of bridle she uses is secondary, but I still think it’s nice to see a rider give their horse a break from the double bridle.