Sound physiological arguments and users' experience with the bridle indicate that the Bitless Bridle is safer than the bit method of control. Nevertheless, equitation is an inherently risky activity, thus
The Bitless Bridle, Inc., can accept no responsibility for any accidents that might occur.
At Equitana USA, 2000, the Bitless Bridle won the Enterprise Award for "the most innovative new equine tack product". The award covered the period since 1999 but, realistically, the new bridle is the first major innovation in tack since the curb bit was introduced in the fourth century BC.
Since 1998, the author has published a good deal about his research into the disadvantages of bits and the advantages of bitlessness. Six articles in scientific journals and a further 10 in horsemen’s journals have compared and contrasted the bit with the bitless method of communication. In addition, independent authors have published a further 27 articles on the bitless method, in horsemen’s journals around the world.
The present article has three objectives. First, to provide a foundation bibliography on the new bitless method. Secondly, to present additional material in a format that can be understood by both veterinarians and non-veterinarians. Thirdly, to publish a questionnaire that enables riders to compile a behavioral profile of their horse when ridden with and without a bit.
The first part of the questionnaire alerts a rider to 105 problems that the bit may be causing their horse and themselves. The second part documents which of these problems the bit was causing. The questionnaire is based on a series of yes/no answers to the presence or absence of 105 adverse behavioral problems that the author now recognizes as being caused by the bit. In the last five years, all these problems, in many different horses and for many different riders, have been eliminated by removal of the bit (Cook 2003). Riders who banished the bit have discovered that they owned a much better horse than they thought. Elimination of bit-induced problems enhanced the welfare and performance of their horse and made riding simpler, safer and more satisfying.
The article is in three parts, reflecting the three objectives.
Man has underestimated the harmful effect of placing one or more metal rods in a horse’s mouth (Cook 1998a, 1998b, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002a, 2002b, 2002c, and 2003) [The texts of the full references are available at www.bitlessbridle.com. A complete reference list of all the articles that have been published about the new bridle is also available online]. Though all horsemen are familiar with the phrase 'aversion to the bit', if they were asked to compile a list of the problems that make up this syndrome they would probably have difficulty in thinking of more than half a dozen.
Yet the author recognizes 95 problems that affect the horse and at least 10 more that affect the rider. It has only been possible to recognize this number since the recent development of a bitless bridle that differs entirely in concept from the traditional hackamores, bosals and sidepulls. The ease with which a horse can be switched, overnight, from its regular bit to the new bitless bridle has served to highlight many problems that had not previously been recognized as being caused by the bit. Essentially, this has constituted an unprecedented opportunity to conduct a large-scale controlled experiment.
Recently, the author surveyed the written reports he had received from 605 users of the new method (Cook 2003). Since then, the survey work has continued and the questionnaire of this article is based on the updated findings. The comparison of behavior has been that between a painful and invasive method of communication (the bit), and a painless and non-invasive method (the Bitless Bridle) [The bit method is invasive in the sense that it involves inserting one or more a foreign bodies into a body cavity]. As the behavior of their horses when bitted had been familiar to most riders for several years, and as the switch from bitted to bitless communication was literally overnight, the before-and-after behavior patterns were strikingly contrasted. Ten major findings that have emerged from this research are listed below:
Stone Age man, about five thousand years ago, deserves the credit for having first domesticated the horse. Unfortunately, at the same time he made the understandable mistake of inventing the bit. The presence of what appeared to be a convenient gap between the teeth tempted early man to make use of it as a means of getting a handle on the beast. [The proximity of the root of the canine tooth to the bars of the mouth in the male horse and the possible presence of unerupted wolf teeth in both sexes was of course unknown.]
Early bits were probably made of plaited rawhide, wood, bone, and horn, but metal was quickly adopted as the norm. Sadly, the bit method of communication has survived through the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and into the age of stainless steel. The simple bar snaffle has been followed by the jointed snaffle and design has become more ingenious with the curb and chain bit. As one bit has often been considered insufficient, two bits are frequently used, as in the double bridle and other examples. Leverage bits (i.e. curb bits) logarithmically increase in the mouth whatever pressure the rider applies to the reins. The pressure is applied to the jawbone at the bars of the mouth.
The diagram is drawn to scale and the section is viewed as though the reader is standing in front of the horse, looking directly into its mouth. The diagram is based on measurements taken from the skull of a larger than average horse, yet the bars of the mouth are only 29 mm (1 1/8 th inch) apart. For illustrative purposes, the shank of the bit is shown at 90° to the line of the lips. In practice, it should never achieve more than a 45° angle but this discrepancy does not affect the principles of action discussed below.
The curb bit illustrated has a 10 cm (four-inch) mouthpiece, 12.5 mm (half-inch) diameter cannons, a mild port, and a two-to-one ratio between a 5 cm (two inch) cheek bar and a 10 cm (four inch) shank. As curb bits go, this is regarded as a mild curb. The mouth is illustrated in a slightly open position, with the lips just parted. In a double bridle, the bradoon bit would lie on the bars above the curb and between it and the first molar tooth. For the sake of clarity, an air space is shown between the curb bit and the bars of the mouth but in use these would be in contact whenever the tongue is either behind or above the bit. Nevertheless, the bit does allow air into the mouth and so it is appropriate, though regrettable, to show air around the tongue and other places.
The tip of the tongue is shown ‘above the bit.’ This is probably the least painful position for that delicate sense organ. A horse has two other options. The first is to leave it under the bit. As the tongue is wider than the bars, this will be more painful, for the tongue will be trapped between the bit and the sharp edges of bone that constitute the bars. The second is to withdraw the tongue so that its tip comes to lie ‘behind the bit.’ This avoids tongue pain but causes the same bone ache as when the tongue is ‘over the bit.’ In addition, the root of the tongue now elevates the soft palate and this, together with the ingress of air in to the digestive part of the throat, obstructs the respiratory part of the throat.
When the curb is centrally placed in the mouth, the port would prevent the cannons of the bit pressing directly down on the knife-edges of the bars. Instead, the cannons would tend to clamp and compress the jaw in a side-to-middle direction. In so doing they would pinch the terminal branches of the mandibular nerve as it exits the jaw at the mental foramen). At any time when the curb is not symmetrically placed in the mouth, one cannon would act like a seesaw on one knife-edge bar.
A snaffle or a curb bit is a pressuring device that generates pain or the threat of pain by the application of metal on bone. The bone is thinly covered with gum but has no other ‘cushion.’ At the level of bit pressure the bone is roughly circular in cross-section with a pie-section missing that produces two sharp edges at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock, the bars of the mouth. In a large horse, such as the one depicted here, the diameter of the section is 45 mm; the same diameter as a standard hen’s egg when cut in half. The bone is also as fragile as the simile suggests and should be treated with the same respect.
As the bit applies pressure to the top edge of the lower jaw (the bars of the mouth) and the curb chain applies pressure to the bottom edge, the bone and soft tissues are being clamped between two pieces of steel. The bars of the mouth are two knife-edges of bone, covered with only a thin layer of gum and the mucosa of the mouth.
What we call ‘gum’ consists of a layer of fibrous tissue, about 2 mm thick, that is firmly attached to both the underlying bone and the transparently thin mucous membrane of the mouth. It is, in reality, modified periosteum (‘skin of the bone’). Therefore, any damage to gum is damage to bone. [As bone relies on its periosteum for its nutrition, damage to the gum (periostitis) can result in sections of the bone dying and forming what are known as sequestra. These pieces of dead bone, some as long as 3.0 cm, now have to be sloughed away from the surrounding tissue or be surgically removed.]
The bars are not flat as often described and neither are they ever sufficiently padded with soft tissue to justify the description of being ‘rounded and fleshy’. At the bars, the bone of the jaw is not cushioned or in any way protected from the bit. It is as exposed to injury as the human shin. The tip of the tongue may or may not provide some cushioning. Because a horse frequently and deliberately retracts its tongue behind the bit (and in so doing obstructs its own breathing), the tongue cannot be looked upon as a protection for the bone. [ Place a pencil in your mouth and note how you immediately retract your tongue and use its tip to incessantly ‘play’ with the pencil. Now discover how difficult it is to drink or eat. Try not to slobber.]
When the bit presses on the bars, the pounds per square inch pressure (psi) being concentrated on their knife-edges must be immense. Not surprisingly, this pressure frequently damages the bone and results in the growth of painful bone spurs [The actual pressure has yet to be measured but let us take a hypothetical example. Suppose that a rider applies 5 lbs. of pressure to the curb rein, a figure that is not uncommon according to work done by Dr. Hilary Clayton at Michigan University. Let us assume that the curb bit has a shank of a length that multiplies this pressure by three. Accordingly, 15 lbs. of pressure will be distributed over a surface area of about 1/5th of a square inch of bone. This would translate to a pressure of 75 psi. Imagine what the psi might be if a horse spooks and a rider momentarily snatches at the reins to regain balance. The rider’s full weight and momentum banging against the bars of the mouth must generate a tremendous force.]
The abnormal jaw also has a bone spur on its left side, though it is less easy to see. All bone spurs are located, as these are, on the bars immediately above the hole (the mental foramen) on the side of the jaw from which the mandibular nerve emerges. The bars of the mouth on the abnormal jaw were 32 mm (1 1/4 inch) apart at the level of the bone spur. The mouthpiece of a bit would pivot like a seesaw on the knife-edges to produce these lesions.
The author’s survey of 65 jawbones from horses five years old or older in three museum collections (Cook 2002a) has shown that bone spurs were present in 49 (75%). As some of the 65 horses were feral horses and had been bit-free all their lives (the feral horses had no bone spurs) the real incidence of the problem in the bitted horses was actually greater than 75%. No bone spurs were found in a survey of 35 zebra skulls. Readers can readily imagine how excruciatingly painful it must be for a horse with bone spurs on the bars of its mouth to be ‘controlled’ by a steel bit. No wonder that they toss their heads, open their mouths and ‘evade the bit’ in endless different ways.
Sadly, instead of treating a problem by removing its cause, which is the only valid approach to treatment, the standard approach to these evasions is to employ a variety of supplementary devices aimed at suppressing the symptoms. These devices are designed to prevent a horse from doing those things that it would never think of doing if it did not have a bit in its mouth in the first instance. Hence the use of ingenious straps to try and close the mouth, such as dropped nosebands, flash and grackle nosebands. Similarly, in the hope of limiting if not preventing head tossing, standing and running martingales are employed. To discourage evasion of the bit by tongue movement, racehorses have their tongues tied to their lower jaws with either rigid or elastic straps. Predictably, none of these measures are effective cures for the problem. They are not even very effective in suppressing the symptoms.
Further indictment of the bit method of communication will be found in Parts II and III of this article. For the present, it suffices to note that the antiquity of a method is no assurance of its true fitness of purpose. The bit method’s primary fault is that, except in the hands of a master horseman with an unshakably independent seat, the bit causes pain (Cook 2003). ‘Good hands’ depends on having little or no pressure on the bit. As the horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of its anatomy, even the slightest pressure causes intense pain (Fig 4). [The guiding principle for good saddle fit is that no pressure should be applied to bony prominences such as the withers and spine. The saddle should not even touch these areas. Instead, pressure should be well and evenly distributed over the fleshy part of the back, i.e. the muscles. Sadly, until the last six years, the same guiding principles have not been applied to the bridle. The principle behind all bits, hackamores, bosals and sidepulls directly contravenes this ‘no pain’ guideline. Pressure is deliberately placed on bone and is, therefore, painful. The Bitless Bridle, on the other hand, follows the guiding principles for saddles and indeed saddlery in general, that it should be incapable of causing pain. The new bridle can only apply a rather trivial pressure and what pressure is applied is distributed around the whole of the head, much of it on fleshy areas such as the cheeks and poll.]
Fig 4- This is what a horse looks like if one apportions scale and color to represent the relative sensitivity to touch of its various parts. The red areas represent those areas that are most generously supplied with sensory nerves. In such a representation the muzzle and mouth become the largest parts because these are the most ‘touchy/feely’ areas. The horse depends on its muzzle to feel its way around the world.
The horse exhibits this pain through the four F’s of fright, flight, fight and facial neuralgia (the headshaking syndrome). Apart from these being the underlying cause of accidents to horse and rider, the bit also interferes with both breathing and striding (Cook 1999a, 1999b, 2000). Shortage of breath is a cause of premature fatigue and, once again, fatigue is a potent source of accidents. Fatigue causes falls and falls can be fatal to man and horse. Finally, fatigue is a common cause of poor performance.
The three indispensable requirements are that it should be:
The bit method of communication is unacceptable on all three criteria. It might be considered humane in the hands of a master horseman who has learned to avoid its use. But even master horsemen are not born with good hands and so horses will undergo years of pain before a budding master achieves years of discretion. In the hands of an average horseman, a bit is a painful method. In the hands of a novice, a bit method is clearly cruel.
A fourth preference for any form of communication is not an absolute requirement but it adds to the merit of the method. This is the applicability of the method for all types, temperaments, ages and uses of the horse, together with all types, temperaments, ages and skills of the rider. Though the bit method has long been used for all disciplines and on all types of horse, it has to be said that the bit lends itself far too easily to abuse, both intentionally and unintentionally. It cannot, therefore, be recommended for universal application. [The problems caused by the bit and the principles of communication discussed in this article are based on six year’s experience of the whole-head-hug (Bitless Bridle) option for riding. The author believes that the same problems and principles apply also to driving but he does not as yet have the same feedback from this discipline. He is currently gathering test-driving evidence and will report on these findings in due course.]
Quite apart from the evidence now accumulated that the bit causes pain, the effectiveness of the bit method from the rider’s point of view can be shown to be questionable, simply by noting the multiplicity of bit designs that are on the market. The situation is rather similar to the situation in medicine. Whenever there is a multiplicity of treatments for any one disease or problem it is generally true to say that none of them is entirely satisfactory. Unsurprisingly, the bit method is ineffective in preventing the many bit-induced instances of bolting, bucking and rearing. When it is recognized that all three of these problems are commonly caused by the bit, it becomes apparent that it is illogical to expect such problems to be cured by continuing to use the same method and simply changing the design of the bit.
In 1979, the author published a four-part article on headshaking in the horse. This was the first major contribution to the literature on a problem that had long been a source of distress and frustration to owners and veterinarians alike, not to mention the horse. In this first series of articles, the author described the history and clinical signs of the syndrome and recommended a protocol for the investigation and clinical examination of affected horses. But, in spite of having spilt so much ink, he made it clear that he did not know the cause of the problem and, therefore, could offer no cure. Thirteen years later he published some further ideas on this problem, though still without claiming victory on the vital question of cause and cure (Cook 1992). By this time, many other workers had been researching the problem but none had been able to recommend a really effective cure.
Over the last six years, however, the author’s continuing research has provided convincing evidence to support the hypothesis that the most common cause of this problem is facial neuralgia caused by the bit (Cook 1999b, 1999c, 2000, 2002a, and 2003). As the syndrome has been such a recalcitrant problem in the past, it is good to be able to report that here, at last, is a treatment that is both logical and successful. The convincing results provide further compelling evidence that the bit is not only an inefficient method of communication but also one that is physiologically contra-indicated.
In the past, many different diseases have been proposed as the hypothetical cause of the seven or more clinical signs that have been thought to define the headshaking syndrome. Sadly, none of these varied explanations have been supported by a convincing resolution of the syndrome following therapy for any one of the proposed diseases.
The syndrome is named after its most prominent and disturbing sign; the persistent, violent, and spasmodic, vertical tossing of the head at exercise. Other characteristic signs include but are not limited to muzzle rubbing, sneezing, snorting, and a general hypersensitivity and shyness when handled around the mouth, face and ears. High ambient temperatures exacerbate these signs and so also does bright sunlight. For this reason, headshaking horses are often described as being photophobic.
These apparently disconnected signs can now be economically explained on the grounds that, collectively, they are all signs of facial neuralgia. So instead of having to propose a multiplicity of causes, none of which is entirely convincing, this is a unifying hypothesis that explains all the symptoms of the syndrome under one cause. Happily, the hypothesis withstands the crucial test in that removal of the proposed cause brings about either a complete resolution or at least a convincing regression of the signs.
Facial neuralgia is the medical name for a disease that, in human medicine, is also known as tic douloureux and trigeminal neuralgia. It is an acutely painful disease in man, hence the word ‘neuralgia,’ which simply means pain along the course of a nerve. The trigeminal nerve is the main sensory nerve to the face and the largest of all the cranial nerves. In man it is predisposed to a severe neuralgia that is notoriously difficult to cure, as its cause is not well understood.
As the name of the nerve suggests, the trigeminal has three branches. One branch supplies sensation to the bone of the lower jaw, its teeth and to the related soft tissues of the tongue, chin, lips and gums. It also innervates the salivary glands and skin of the ear. It takes its name from the lower jaw or mandible and is known as the mandibular branch. Similarly, the second branch supplies the bone, teeth, hard palate, soft palate, nasal mucous membranes, lips and gums of the upper jaw or maxilla. Accordingly, it is known as the maxillary branch. The third branch supplies sensation to the eye, eyelids, tear glands, skin of the forehead and the nearby nasal mucosa. Unsurprisingly, it is known as the ophthalmic branch.
The author’s hypothesis proposes that the bit triggers both acute and chronic pain along the course of the trigeminal nerve, i.e. trigeminal neuralgia. The pain may be transmitted directly to the brain or be initiated indirectly, by a process of feedback that results in what is known as referred pain. In this process, pain signals from any tributary of the trigeminal nerve in direct contact with the bit may spread to any other tributary of the same nerve, resulting in pain in areas of the face that have no direct contact with the bit.
Fig 1 Shows the distribution of the three main branches of the sensory nerve to the face, the trigeminal nerve. All the reader has to do to imagine the potential distribution of facial pain is to start from any one of the areas that the bit contacts and to follow the red pathway from there to the termination of the nerve in any other facial area. Some horses will have pain or hypersensitivity in the region of the muzzle, whereas other horses may experience this around the eyes, ears or forelock.
Direct stimulation of the brain by the acute pain in the mouth is thought to account for the violent head tossing. The more chronic pain probably initiates a dull bone ache rather similar to a bad toothache and accounts for a general tenseness of the jaw, neck, spine and limbs. This would explain the stilted gait and short stride that so many bitted horses exhibit; features that disappear when the bit is removed. When we have toothache we walk gingerly and do not feel like running. The horse may feel the same but when obliged to exercise experiences intermittent muscle spasms in the neck that produce the head tossing.
Pain signals will be sent directly to the brain from any portion of the gums, lips, hard palate, tongue, and teeth that the bit may press upon. In the male horse, as can be seen in Figure 1, the roots of the canine teeth lie close to the bars. Pain from the canines when the horse is ‘on the bit’ probably accounts for the higher incidence of headshaking in geldings than mares and the tendency for headshaking to be a familiar problem among horses trained for dressage. A few horses of both sexes will have wolf teeth in the lower jaw (as depicted), though they are more common in the upper jaw. Those in the lower jaw will often go unreported because, being vestigial, they may never erupt. They lie under the gum just in front of the first cheek teeth.
The indirect stimulation may take the form of hypersensitivity, tingling, ‘pins and needles’ or actual pain. Such sensations in the mandibular branch would explain the resentment that many horses exhibit to being handled around the ears. Referred pain from the bars may also travel down the branch of the mandibular nerve that supplies sensation to the tongue. This could result in the tongue itself being hypersensitive and be yet one more reason why so many bitted horses are ‘mouthy.’ The same mechanism can be invoked to suggest that trigeminal neuralgia may indeed initiate pain in any of the teeth.
Referred pain in the maxillary branch would explain the sneezing, snorting and muzzle rubbing of the headshaking syndrome. Indirect stimulation by referred signals down the ophthalmic branch explains the sensitivity to bright light, the rapid blinking spasms, and the shyness to handling around the forelock. Stimulation of the lacrimal glands could also account for the nasal discharge and be a further explanation for sneezing.
The clinical signs of the headshaking syndrome represent a pathological exaggeration of a normal response. A healthy horse will respond to a fly landing on its face with a toss of its head. A horse with trigeminal neuralgia behaves as though it is plagued with a swarm of particularly vicious biting flies that refuse to go away. Imagine this, coupled with raging toothache in both jaws, and the reader will have some idea of a horse’s pain. Tic douloureux is one of the fiercest pains known to man.
Depending on the duration and severity of the neuralgia, removal of the bit brings about a regression of the signs or their complete disappearance. Affected horses may show a more or less immediate improvement or a progressive improvement over a period of several weeks or months. Presumably, many of these horses will be shown, in due course, to have had bone spurs on the bars of their mouth but this correlation has not yet been made.
Most headshaking horses exhibit many more adverse behavioral signs than the seven or so that have traditionally been associated with this syndrome. The author concludes that the headshaking syndrome is simply a subset of the much larger syndrome, aversion to the bit. In other words, facial neuralgia explains the seven or so traditional signs of headshaking but affected horses will almost certainly be exhibiting many other signs associated with the other three F’s of fright, flight, and fight.
Some respiratory diseases that the author has shown to be caused by the bit include dorsal displacement of the soft palate (Cook 1999a, 2002a), epiglottal entrapment (Cook 1999b), and pulmonary bleeding (Cook 1999a). He now recognizes that the bit is also a common cause of abnormal respiratory noise at exercise and responsible for ‘thickness of wind’ in many horses (Cook 2003). It should routinely be considered as a differential diagnosis for any horse that makes a roaring noise. Laryngeal stridor (‘roaring’) is no longer a sign that we can automatically assume to be diagnostic of recurrent laryngeal neuropathy (laryngeal hemiplegia). Deformity of the windpipe and further obstruction of the airway is a common defect and occurs much more frequently than has generally been supposed. The author is of the opinion that this is a long-term effect of airway obstruction caused by the bit. Finally, this same effect may be a factor in the cause of small airway disease.
The tip of the tongue is like the tip of an iceberg … there is a lot more tongue behind the tip. The tongue is a long and bulky organ. In an adult horse it measures about 35 cm (14 inches). A reminder of the tongue’s length can be gained from the fact that its root is suspended from the same bony scaffolding that supports the larynx (voice box). Any thing that causes the tip of the tongue to move, such as the bit, is likely to cause the root to move and, therefore, the soft palate. The tongue is a powerful muscular organ but also a highly tuned sense organ. By taste and touch it selects food and by its motor power it plays a critical part in the mastication and swallowing of food. The tongue has predominantly digestive functions. It is active during feeding but should be at rest during exercise. As in all mammals, the horse has evolved to eat or exercise. It cannot carry out both activities simultaneously. And yet by placing a bit in its mouth this is precisely what man expects it to do.
In the exercising horse at liberty, the lips are closed; there is no air in the mouth; the immobile tongue occupies the entire space within the cavity of the mouth and the digestive part of the throat under the soft palate; and salivation is in abeyance. In the exercising horse when ridden with a bit in its mouth, the seal of the lips is broken; the jaw may be frankly open; air enters the mouth and digestive part of the throat; the tongue is constantly on the move; and salivation is stimulated.
The above responses triggered by the bit are digestive system responses. All these responses are diametrically opposed to the respiratory system responses required for exercise. Because of these, a bit interferes with the horse’s ability to breathe properly at exercise. Since a running horse takes one stride for every breath, if it cannot breathe properly it cannot stride properly. As these two functions are impaired, together with other cardiovascular functions crucial to exercise, a bit prevents a horse from performing to its full potential. The details of how the bit causes confusion in the horse’s throat have been explained and illustrated in previous articles (Cook 1999b, 1999c, 2000, 2002a). A summary follows here. A cascade of respiratory events occurs in which respiratory obstruction progresses from mild to severe and even fatal. In any one bitted horse, the degree of asphyxiation will vary according to the nature of the exercise.
Any method of communication that has so many harmful side effects must surely be classified as contraindicated and unacceptable. But solely because the bit method is painful it should also be regarded as inhumane. Aside from the humanitarian issue, the bit method is contrary to the best interests of a rider aiming at developing a harmonious partnership with her horse and achieving optimum performance. An athlete in pain cannot and will not perform well. Pain reduces both the ability and the desire to perform and is a potent source of accidents to rider and horse.
There is no right way of doing the wrong thing. In the author’s opinion, the bit method of communication is faulty, inhumane, and dangerous. He looks forward to the day when use of the bit will be discontinued and these instruments become objects of curiosity in museum collections.
First, much of the evidence that now indicts the bit has only surfaced in the last five years. Secondly, the reason why the bit method has survived so long is that, until five years ago, there was no universally suitable alternative. The situation is rather similar to what happens in the field of surgery. A traditional surgical technique will continue to be used until such time as a better technique is introduced.
Thirdly, as with all advances, one can expect a considerable time lag between the first news of the advance and its general adoption. A high degree of skepticism about any new knowledge is healthy for the protection of the public and the integrity of science.
As mankind has, for five thousand years, been accustomed to the idea that it is both acceptable and necessary to use a bit to control a horse, it will take time and courage for such a mind set to change. Nevertheless, the good news is that horsemen and horsewomen nowadays are nothing like as conservative in their thinking as tradition might suggest. Many are very open to new ideas and thousands of riders have already switched from bits to bitless. An indication of the degree to which this open-mindedness is rewarded can be gained by reading the users comments on this website and on www.bitlessbridle.com. The natural horsemanship movement is gathering increasing momentum and this good for the welfare of both horse and rider (Cook 2001a, 2002b).
The hackamores, bosals, and sidepulls have as long a history as the bit. But none of them has ever achieved the same universal acceptance, probably because they all have practical limitations:
All three types are potentially painful and open to abuse. Aside from any limitations currently imposed by competition regulations, these traditional forms of bitless communication are not universally suitable for every horse, discipline or rider.
In contrast to these traditional forms of bitless communication and to all the bitted methods, the new Bitless Bridle has the merit of being painless, of providing effective communication for all purposes, and being compatible with the physiological requirements of the exercising horse.
Furthermore, it is incapable of being abused and, with the exception of competition regulations that presently disallow its use, it is applicable to all disciplines. For a general comparison of the merits of each of the methods, see.
The snaffle bit method can be described as one that provides communication primarily with the mouth (lips, tongue, gums and jawbone). Because the mouth is a body cavity, and an extremely sensitive one, an appropriate name for the method would be the oral cavity rod method. Supplementary action is also possible. Depending on the horse’s head position and the angle at which the reins are held, the snaffle will also pull upwards like a lip retractor on the corner of the mouth. If used in conjunction with an auxiliary aid (such as a drop, flash or grackle noseband) there will also be pressure across the bridge of the nose, especially so if the horse is still trying to open its mouth. Jointed snaffles and, to a lesser extent, French link snaffles have a nutcracker action on the side of the bars as well as the top. Three-ring snaffles exert poll pressure, depending on their adjustment.
A double bridle is made up of a small snaffle known as a bradoon, which communicates with the mouth as above and a curb bit, which has a leverage action and also applies pressure on the chin and poll. The port of the curb is designed to relieve pressure on the tongue and to actually encourage bar pressure. For the purposes of description it could be referred to as the jawbone vise (vice) method, as – except in the hands of a master - it squeezes the jawbone between two pieces of steel, the mouthpiece of the curb and the curb chain. Because the curb bit is placed lower in the horse’s mouth than the snaffle, the pressure is applied to the bars at the level of the body of the mandible rather than its branches. A snaffle bit is more likely to apply pressure to the bars of the mouth over the branches of the mandible, especially if it is placed ‘high’ in the mouth.
The Western curb is a leverage bit that is used without any accompanying snaffle. It has a long shank and a spade extension of the mouthpiece designed to apply pressure to the hard palate. It is normally introduced after the horse has been fully trained to respond to a bosal, the curb bit being regarded as the finishing touch for a horse that is already well schooled. When used by a master it is not used, in that the rein is slack at all times. The rein is only used for neck reining, as the curb bit is not suitable for steering. If used by any other than a master it is a painful device because of the huge leverage advantages it offers the rider, coupled with the severe pain that can be inflicted on the hard palate (oral cavity rod plus jawbone vise plus roof of mouth prod). A spade bit is sometimes used in the hope preventing a horse from getting its tongue over the bit.
The mechanical hackamores communicate primarily by pressure across the bridge of the nose and the chin, with some secondary pressure across the poll. For descriptive purposes it could be called the muzzle vise (vice) method, as it squeezes the whole of the muzzle between a firm noseband and a chain in the chin groove.
The English hackamores and the sidepulls rely primarily on nose pressure only. They could be called the bridge-of-nose hoop method.
The Bitless Bridle, however, communicates by an almost trivial degree of pressure. This pressure, such as it is, is distributed around the whole of the head, i.e. across the bridge of the nose, under the chin, along the side of the cheek, and over the poll (Fig 2).
Fig 2 Showing the crossover feature
and function of the Bitless Bridle
Fig 2 The diagram on the right is a worm’s eye view of the head, illustrating how traction on the right rein (yellow arrow) results in the distribution of pressure to the left side of the head. The red arrows indicate only some of the areas that are squeezed, for pressure is also applied to the poll, the bridge of the nose and under the jaw.
Its action can best be described as a benevolent headlock or a whole-head-hug. The bridle distributes mild pressure over a large area of relatively insensitive tissue, whereas the oral cavity rod method focuses a high pressure on extremely sensitive tissue.
Furthermore, with the whole-head-hug method whatever pressure is applied at the level of the rider’s hands is dampened before it gets applied to the tissues of the head. Contrast this with the leverage bit method (jawbone vise method) in which whatever pressure is applied to the reins is not only focused on a small area of sensitive tissue in the mouth but is actually magnified three or four times.
The crossover feature of the whole-head-hug method means that, even when a horse spooks and a rider instinctively hangs onto the reins to regain balance, the amount of pressure is never capable of causing pain. This means that whatever caused the horse to spook in the first instance is not automatically followed by a sudden pain. The result is that the horse recovers from the spook more readily and does not have a further incentive to bolt. Furthermore, the next time it sees the same monster, it will not associate it with a sudden pain in its mouth and the spook will be less likely to escalate.
(Distribution of pressure)
|Stopping||Steering||Suitability for all uses||Potential for causing pain|
|Bits||Snaffle||Oral cavity rod + corner of lips retractor||2||2||(3)||3|
|Snaffle + auxiliary noseband (eg Drop, Flash or Grackle)||Oral cavity rod + corner of lips retractor + muzzle and jawbone vise [vice]||2||2||(3)||3|
|Double Bridle (Curb and bradoon)||Oral cavity rod + corner of lips retractor + jawbone vise [vice] + poll pressure||2||2||(2)||3|
|Western curb with long shank, curb strap & spade or spoon||Oral cavity rod + jawbone vise [vice] and poll pressure + roof of mouth prod (unless used with feather-light hands)||1||0||1||3|
|Gag bits||Oral cavity rod + longitudinal axis vise [vice] (corner of lips to poll)||3||2||1||3|
|Bitless||Mechanical Hackamore||Muzzle vise [vice]||2||1||1||3|
|Western Hackamore or la jaquima (bosal, latigo, fiador, & mecate)||Muzzle vise [vice]||2||1||1||2|
|Sidepull||Bridge of nose hoop||2||2||1||2|
|English or jumping hackamore||Bridge of nose hoop||2||1||1||2|
Table I: A comparative classification of the modes of action of the main methods of communication, together with a subjective grading of each method’s efficiency on a scale from zero to three. The potential for inflicting pain is also graded on the same scale. A figure in parenthesis indicates that although the bit is widely used there are good reasons why it should not be
Naturally, it is unlikely that any one horse will exhibit all 95 problems. The equestrian discipline for which the horse is used will have a bearing on the likelihood of certain problems occurring. For example, dressage horses that are required to perform with a high degree of poll flexion (often and mistakenly brought about by rein pressure rather than by true collection) are most likely to develop the headshaking syndrome. Thoroughbred racehorses, all of which are required to work at their maximum athletic performance, are most likely to develop pulmonary bleeding. Standardbred racehorses that are required to race with two bits in their mouth (a snaffle bit and an overcheck bit) are most likely to develop dorsal displacement of the soft palate. All three of these problems can and do occur in other disciplines but their prevalence is less.
Using the questionnaire, a sample of 12 bitted horses was recognized as exhibiting from 11 to 36 problems, with an average of 23 problems per horse. But after using the whole-head-hug method for periods ranging from four days to six months (average 42 days), the degree to which these problems were solved ranged from 38% to 94% (average 67%). The top scoring horse was an 11-year-old Arab gelding trained for dressage. This horse had 33 problems, of which 31 (94%) were solved after six weeks. When more than two thirds of a horse’s problems can be eliminated in 42 days, simply by removing one or more steel rods from its oral cavity, it serves to emphasize the merit of the whole-head-hug method of communication.
From prehistoric times until quite recent years, the bit has been thought of as a method of control. But the bit has never worked like a steering wheel or a brake on a car. Use of the word ‘control’ has led to a serious misunderstanding in the history of equitation. A bit is not and never has been a mechanical device for controlling a horse at exercise. At best it is a signaling device for communication. It should not and cannot be used to ‘control’ in the sense of ‘command.’ It should and can only be used to signal a request. The more polite (ie painless) the request, the more likely it is that the horse will comply. Unfortunately, because all bits are foreign bodies inserted into a highly sensitive body cavity and used to apply highly focused pressure on bone, they are - by their very nature - painful. The only way that a bit can never cause pain is for it never to be used.
So if it is not to be used, why do we put it there? Such a non-use standard may be achievable by a few master horsemen riding with a slack rein and a Western curb but even with them the bit still remains an intrusive foreign body that has no business to be in the mouth of an exercising horse. Even though it may not cause pain in the hands of a master it still interferes in other ways with the physiology of exercise (Cook 1999b). A grazing horse is fastidious about what it puts in its mouth. Left to its own devices it would certainly reject any item that faintly resembled a bit. The author concludes that, as a method of communication, the bit is fundamentally flawed. Pain in the mouth causes horses to run (ie bolt) or protest by head tossing, bucking, rearing and many other evasive actions (Table I). Any method of communication that can only be used humanely by an experienced horseman after many years of practice, and that can only be used humanely on an intermittent basis by the average horseman, and that cannot be used at all humanely by a novice, is not a method that can be recommended.
A method that cannot be used without inflicting pain, other than by a small minority of riders is, by definition, not suitable for general adoption.
If one quietly ignores the above there are other problems. Before learning the intricacies of ‘correctly’ fitting and using a bit, an owner has to face the minefield of ‘finding’ the right bit in the first instance. To discover the right ‘key to a horse’s mouth’ riders are expected to have an intimate knowledge of the anatomy of their horse’s mouth. Books on bitting warn that a rider should be able to judge such niceties as the width of their horse’s mouth, the depth of the tongue groove, the fleshiness of the tongue, the concavity of the hard palate, the conformation of the jaw and the status of the dentition. Even supposing a rider had mastered the technique of actually opening a horse’s mouth to make such appraisals, these are matters that remain a mystery to most equestrians.
If one avoids the thorny question as to whether it is possible to select and fit a bit ‘correctly’, one has only to read any book on bitting to be alerted to the degree of knowledge and skill that is required for the ‘correct’ employment and maintenance of such a device. The ‘tongue-over- the-bit’ problem is only one of many problems that a rider is expected to solve. As few horsemen possess the qualifications for what used to be called the ‘making of a mouth,’ the bit method of communication cannot be recommended for the universal application that it has for so long enjoyed.
The average rider can no more be expected to exercise the necessary discretion and skill for using one or more bits than a child can be expected to play safely with an open razor.
The correct selection and use of a hackamore or a bosal also has many pitfalls. Once again, experience and skill is required, together with a period of training of both horse and rider.
In happy contrast, one does not have to be either an anatomist or a master horseman to select and use the whole-head-hug. Subtle variations in the conformation of the mouth and jaw are not of any consequence and even the normal eruption of permanent dentition is no longer a matter of concern. It is still wise to attend to sharp enamel edges on the molar teeth but wolf teeth, for example, no longer have to be removed and there is no need to create ‘bit seats.’ Unlike when using a bit or a hackamore, a rider cannot hurt a horse with a whole-head-hug. The method can be used for all horses, in all disciplines, and by all riders, even novices. Horses that are not in pain are far less nervous. Being calm they are also in the right frame of mind to learn, so schooling proceeds faster and with fewer setbacks. A rider does not have to overcome, avoid or treat so many bit-induced problems or survive so many pain-triggered hazards. It is so easy for a rider to make mistakes using a bit.
The whole-head-hug method protects riders from making mistakes because, unlike the bit method, it is virtually impossible to make mistakes. As long as the bridle is fitted correctly (an easy task) there is really no way in which the whole-head-hug method can be used incorrectly and certainly no way in which the method can be abused. As a result, riders discover that they are better horseman than they previously supposed and that they have a better horse than they thought. Training advances more rapidly and a harmonious partnership is fostered between man and horse.
In choosing a method of communication, a rider has the option of hurting or hugging. The bit signals painfully with metal on bone and jeopardizes the safety and welfare of horse and rider. The hug signals painlessly with strap on head and enhances safety and welfare. To the horse it feels like a halter but to the rider it feels like a bridle. The author’s recommendation can be summed up by reversing a familiar phrase … spare the rod and save the horse.
Cook, W.R. (1992): Headshaking in horses: An afterword. Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian, 14:1369-1376
Cook, W.R. (1998a): “Use of the bit in horses.” Veterinary Record. 142, 16.
Cook, W.R. (1998b): “Use of the bit in horses.” Veterinary Record. 142, 24
Cook, W.R. (1999a): "Asphyxia as the cause of bleeding and the bit as the cause of soft palate displacement." Guest Commentary. Thoroughbred Times, November 27, pp 18-19
Cook, W.R. (1999b): “Pathophysiology of Bit Control in the Horse.” Journal Equine Veterinary Science 19: 196-204
Cook, W.R. (1999c): The ear, the nose, and the lie in the throat. In "Guardians of the Horse: Past, Present and Future." Ed: Rossdale,P.D., Greet, T.R.C., Harris, P.A., Green, R.E., and Hall, S.. British Equine Veterinary Association and Romney Publications, pp 175-182.
Cook, W.R. (2000): “A solution to respiratory and other problems caused by the bit.” Pferdeheilkunde, 16, 333-351
Cook, W.R. (2001a): “On talking horses: Barefoot and bit-free.” Natural Horse Magazine 3, 19
Cook W.R and Peters R. (2001b): “Who Needs Bits?” Natural Horse 3, 44-47
Cook, W.R. (2002a): “Bit-induced asphyxia in the horse: Elevation and dorsal displacement of the soft palate at exercise.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 22, 7-14
Cook W.R. (2002b): “On ‘Mouth Irons’, ‘Hoof Cramps’, and the Dawn of the Metal-free Horse.” Natural Horse, 4, Issue 4
Cook W.R. (2002c): “No bit is best.” Thoroughbred Times, October 19, 2002, p 18
Cook, W.R. (2003): “Bit-Induced Pain; a cause of fear, flight, fight and facial neuralgia in the horse.” Pferdeheilkunde, 19, 1-8
The author is most grateful to the riders who provided the feedback on which the questionnaire is based. He is indebted also to the curators of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC, the Field Museum, Chicago, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University for granting him access to their collection of equidae skulls. Figure 2 was drawn with the help of anatomical specimens provided by Dr. M. Kumar, Tufts University and tomograms provided by Dr. Ross Tucker, Washington State University.
Kinder Control: No more metal in the mouth. Man has been controlling the horse by applying pressure in one of the most sensitive parts of the horse's body. 'Natural Horse-Man-Ship', is now more readily available to everyone with the introduction of the crossover (crossunder) Bitless Bridle. The horse is happier, performance improved and the partnership with man more willing.
Safety & Security: Better "brakes". At no time can the rider be denied control. Your horse cannot "get-the-bit-between-its-teeth". With this crossover (cross-under) Bitless Bridle, a rider cannot inflict pain.
Painfree Poll Pressure, not Poll Flexion: The Bitless Bridle controls by non-painful pressure on the poll, cheek and nose by a double loop system. It allows for a more natural position of the head and neck. Control is no longer dependent on painful mouth pressure, poll flexion and partial asphyxia. The Bitless Bridle pushes, whereas the bit pulls.
More Oxygen & More Energy: Because your horse is not so flexed at the poll, which obstructs the airway at the throat, and because it is not retracting its tongue behind the bit, which causes the soft palate to rise and further obstruct the airway, it obtains more oxygen and, therefore, has more energy. Because it no longer "fights the bit" it wastes less energy and has more for performance.
Freedom of the Neck: The new bridle permits that freedom of the neck so essential for any athlete. The neck of a horse that leans on the bit tends to be tight and rigid. Stiffness of gait follows and the power, grace and rhythm of a horse's natural movement is forfeited.
Increased Concentration: The bit constitutes an impediment to performance. It initiates digestive system responses (salivation, chewing, tongue and palate movement) which are counterproductive. Eliminating the bit, allows the horse's nervous system to concentrate on breathing and galloping, rather than trying to respond simultaneously to signals that are diametrically opposed to exercise. Neither human nor horse should be asked to eat AND exercise.
Improved Performance: The Bitless Bridle improves a horse's balance. It lightens the forehand, lengthens the stride, strengthens impulsion and increases speed. Improved performance can be anticipated in all types of activity from dressage to racing.
Reduced Risk of Breakdowns: A horse that is less heavy on the forehand puts less strain on the bones, joints, tendons and ligaments of the forelegs.
No More Evasion of the Bit: Banishing the bit is the obvious cure for the common and all too familiar problems that are known to be caused by the bit. It may also alleviate a number of problems that are not currently associated with the bit; e.g., headshaking, flipping the palate; epiglottal entrapment and bleeding from the lungs.
No Need for Tongue-ties: These additional encumbrances are now rendered obsolete, as asphxiating tongue and soft palate movement is no longer initiated.
Do you have a head-shaking horse? A bit can trigger facial neuralgia and this, in turn, can be the cause of headshaking. (Read more about headshaking, including so-called 'seasonal headshaking', 'allergic' and 'light-sensitive' horses - The Bit as the cause of the Headshaking Syndrome
Does your horse swallow its tongue? This is caused by the horse retracting its tongue away from the bit.
Dorsal Displacement of the Soft Palate (DDSP)? Also known as 'flipping the palate', and 'choking-up' - this results from the above and from horse's attempts to eat and excercise simultaneously.
Does your horse make a noise? Retraction of the tongue lifts the soft palate, narrows the airway, and causes the horse to 'roar'.
Is your horse heavy on the forehand? The bit unbalances your horse and reduces impulsion.
Are you a riding instructor who doesn't want to risk a novice to damaging the mouth of your fully-trained horse?
The Bitless Bridle is the answer.
The Bitless Bridle™ (BB) transmits the hand aids painlessly, eliminating the fear and nervousness caused by the bit that precipitates so many accidents. Without a bit there is no impediment to breathing, so the horse tires less rapidly and accidents caused by fatigue are less likely. Because a horse strides in time with its breathing, locomotion is more rhythmic and graceful. It is also more efficient because the BB doesn’t interfere with the energy-saving ‘headbob.’ As bits are a common cause of painful bone spurs on the bars of the mouth and headshaking (facial neuralgia), the BB avoids both of these serious complications. The BB is the only bridle that cannot hurt a horse. All bits and all other bitless designs (mechanical hackamores, bosals, sidepulls and rope halters) depend for their action on actual pain or the threat of pain. Snaffles in the wrong hands can be instruments of torture. Mechanical hackamores in the wrong hands can fracture a horse’s nasal bone or lower jaw.
The BB provides better steering than a bit or hackamore, and more reliable brakes than a bit or sidepull. Being painless it doesn’t precipitate the hundred or more behavioural problems in the horse that are bit-induced. Freedom from fear favours calmness. A calm horse spooks less readily and recovers more rapidly. No longer distracted by pain, a horse is able to pay attention and learn. It becomes more obedient, compliant and manageable. Injuries to the rider arising from a horse rearing, bucking, bolting or having a panic attack are less likely.
The longer stride of the BB horse translates into greater speed. Obviously, this is of special relevance to the racehorse but other horses also walk and trot faster. The more energy-efficient stride translates into greater stamina, confidence and willingness to work. Absence of pain means that the horse’s neck is not tense. Consequently, the spine and legs are relaxed. Stiff and choppy gaits are avoided. Elimination of bit-induced head shaking* means that a horse can perform better in dressage, show jumping and many other disciplines. Removing the bit from a sensitive body cavity eliminates a major physiological confusion in the throat of the horse. A bit triggers the digestive mode, whereas what is needed is the respiratory mode. Problems such as a gaping mouth, protruding tongue, excessive salivation and repeated swallowing are eliminated when the foreign body is removed. The BB is wonderful for starting young horses.
The key to success with a bitted bridle is ‘good hands.’ The term describes the minimal use of hands and, therefore, the minimal amount of pain for the horse. Less is more. The less a rider depends on hand aids, the more her performance and that of her horse improves. The ultimate of ‘good hands’ is no bit at all. By definition, therefore, the BB guarantees ‘good hands’ and focuses the rider’s attention on communicating by seat and legs, balance and breathing. It makes for better riders. It also enables both experienced and novice riders to appear more capable, as they are not having to constantly correct a resistant horse. Instead they ride a compliant horse, and enjoy the harmony and partnership that defines good horsemanship.
Bits hurt horses. They cause the four Fs of fear, flight, fight and freeze. In the wild, all four responses favour survival but only the last response 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. With the BB, the training of ‘green’ horses proceeds more rapidly.
The bit – incorrectly thought of by most horsemen as necessary for control – commonly causes loss of control. For example, bit-induced pain triggers bolting. Also, by placing the bit between its teeth or under its tongue, a horse totally deprives the rider of control. Bit-induced problems such as bolting, rearing, bucking, and rushing or refusing jumps, are causes of serious injury to the rider or even sudden death. Bit-induced fear can be the cause of a horse becoming aggressive (biting & kicking) in the stable. A bitted horse may become dangerous at the moment of mounting. During exercise, hair-trigger responses to the bit or over-reaction to bit aids are to be avoided in an animal as powerful as a horse. The BB provides for painless communication.
A bit-free horse is a pain-free horse is a happy horse. Such horses become easy to catch in the paddock and enjoy work in the same way that a dog enjoys being taken for a walk. Instead of being difficult to bridle, horses drop their heads willingly into the BB. Under saddle, they don’t fidget and jig, but pay attention, and become better scholars. Without a bit, training advances more rapidly, because a host of bit-induced problems have not been generated and the horse’s trust in the rider has not been breached. Horses do not become resistant, argumentative, and inclined to terminate the ride by heading for the stable. Thanks to the BB, many a horse is exonerated from being wrongly accused of what the rider had assumed to be permanent and incurable character flaws. When bridles annoy, neither man nor horse can enjoy.
Without recognizing the real source of their difficulties, riders of bitted horses often lose confidence in their ability to ride. Because of so many seemingly incurable problems, riders become frustrated with their lack of progress and even frightened of riding. Many consider selling their horse, or giving up riding altogether. The BB enables the better nature of the horse to be expressed; a harmony develops between horse and rider, and the rationale of riding returns … to give pleasure. The BB makes horse riding simpler, safer and more satisfying.
When first introduced to the Bitless Bridle, it sometimes revives a horse’s spirits with a feeling of “free at last”. Such a display of exuberance will eventually pass, but be prepared for the possibility even though it occurs in less than 1% of horses. Begin in a covered school or a small paddock rather than an open area. Consider preliminary lunging or a short workout in the horse’s normal tack. These and other strategies familiar to horse people can be used to reduce the small risk of boisterous behaviour.
The aids are the same as with the bit method of control. From the rider’s perspective there is very little difference in the way you communicate with your horse, though you will probably eventually discover that you can ride with a lighter, more subtle hand.
Most horses (and riders) take to the bridle on the very first day. They do not require weeks of adjustment. A few riders have reported that, at first, the horse feels a little heavier in the hand than with a bit but this impression passes. In effect, the horse becomes lighter on the forehand and most riders sense that the horse becomes more collected. If a rider wishes to introduce a horse in stages to the feel of the Bitless Bridle, the horse could first be longed in the bridle before being mounted. Most riders do not feel it necessary to do this but it is, nevertheless, of interest that a horse can be lunged in the bridle and this facility has, in any case, some advantages for training purposes.
Riders should strive for light contact and an independent seat. The reins should not normally be used as a safety harness and the means whereby riders retain their seat or restore their balance. Nevertheless, if it should become necessary, the reins can be used in this way without hurting the horse. The Bitless Bridle provides ‘brakes’ that are better than a bit. Unlike the bit method of control which the horse can disable by placing the bit between its teeth, at no time can the rider be left without any brakes at all.
Horses bolt because of fear or pain. By removing the bit, the rider has eliminated one of the most common sources of fear and pain. Pain in regions other than the mouth can still be responsible for bolting. For example, pain in the back or feet (from saddle or shoes) should be considered. It is not recommended that riders attempt to stop a runaway horse by simply hauling on both reins at the same time. If equitation ever comes to a trial of strength, the horse is going to win. If, when using the Bitless Bridle, a horse should ever show signs of bolting, the rider can regain control by steering the horse into a circle. If this is not possible because of the surroundings then the rider can “saw” the reins to bring the horse back into control. Unlike the situation when using a bit, this rapid alternate traction on left and right rein (also referred to as “rattling” or “shaking” the reins) can be practiced without hurting the horse. Apply this aid vigorously and with authority, to get your horse’s attention. Remember also to sit back, deep in the saddle. Finally, all horses should be trained to respond to a verbal “WHOA!”
The action of this bridle differs fundamentally from all other bitless bridles (the hackamores, bosals, and sidepulls). By means of a simple but subtle system of two loops, one over the poll and one over the nose, the bridle embraces the whole of the head. It can be thought of as providing the rider with a benevolent headlock on the horse (See illustration below). Unlike the bit method of control, the Bitless Bridle is compatible with the physiological needs of the horse at exercise. First and foremost, it does not injure or frighten the horse, but neither does it interfere, as does the bit, with the horse’s ability to breathe and stride freely.
The diagram above is a view of the underside of the horse's head, seen from below.
Tension on one rein (white arrow) applys pressure inoffensively but persuasively on the opposite half of the head (black arrows). Where the head goes, the horse follows. Horses respond better to being pushed than pulled. They also prefer to receive the aids distributed painlessly over a large area of the head than painfully and focally in the mouth, an exquisitely sensitive region.
A squeeze on both reins hugs the whole of the head and triggers a ‘submit’ response. This applies more effective brakes than that provided by a bit. The Bitless Bridle™ provides communication by applying painless pressure across the poll, behind the ears (a region of particular responsiveness), down the side of the face, under the chin and across the nose
You can lead your horse by taking the reins over the horse’s head and using the reins themselves as a lead shank. Use a scissors snap to unite the two O-rings of the cross-under straps to make the halter even more secure. Alternatively, remove the reins from the Bitless Bridle, bring the two O-rings at the end of the cross-under straps together and hook your lead to both of the rings.
TYING (Reins removed):
IMPORTANT: Do not tie your horse using the cross-under straps.
Take the right cross-under strap, bring it under your horse’s chin and use a scissor snap (or something similar) to connect the O-ring on the right cross-under strap to the O-ring on the left side of the noseband.
Do the same with the left cross-under strap, hooking it to the O-ring on the right side of the noseband.
To tie your horse you can either snap your lead to one of the O-rings on the noseband, or fasten a third scissor snap to the loosened chinstrap then attach your lead to the other end of that scissor snap. Don’t forget to fasten your lead with a quick-release knot or, better still, by using a pressure-release device.
TYING (Reins attached):
IMPORTANT: Do not tie your horse using the cross-under straps.
Hook your lead rope to one of the O-rings on the noseband (not the cross-under strap) – OR – hook your lead rope to the loosened chinstrap using a scissor snap.
You may want to experiment with other ways to tie. If the snap on your lead rope is big enough, you may just want to hook it directly to the loosened chinstrap (being careful not to pinch!)
It’s always best to tie your horse using some type of ‘quick release” snap so you can easily and quickly free your horse if necessary.
LONGEING (Reins removed):
Convert into a halter using the “reins removed” instructions above, then attach your longe line as you normally would to the O-ring on the noseband.
LONGEING (Reins attached):
Fit the bridle as you normally would for riding. Attach the reins to the saddle or surcingle with bungee cords to simulate gentle hand pressure, then clip the longe line to the O-ring on the noseband.
HOW TO MEASURE BRIDLE SIZES
Measure 1 ½” to 2” up from the corner of the horse’s mouth. From that point, measure the circumference of the horses nose. From that same point (1 ½” – 2” up from the corner of the horses mouth). Run your tape measure up the side of the face, around the poll (behind the ears) to the same point on the other side of the face.
* If you find it too cumbersome to run your tape all the way around the head, measure to the very top of the poll (to the point right between the ears) and double that measurement)*
Use these two measurements to determine what size headstall your horse needs.
ENGLISH LEATHER BRIDLE AND ENGLISH PADDED LEATHER BRIDLE
PONY 29” – 37” (73.7cm – 94cm) 18” – 20” (45.7cm – 50.8cm)
COB 33” – 43” (83.8cm – 109.2cm) 19” – 22” (48.3cm – 55.9cm)
FULL 37” – 46” (94cm – 116.8cm) 21” – 23” (53.3cm – 58.4cm)
X FULL 42” – 50 ” (106.7cm – 127cm) 22” – 25” (55.9cm – 63.5cm)
WESTERN LEATHER BRIDLE
35” – 46” (88.9cm – 116.8cm) 20” – 24” (50.8cm – 61cm)
SMALL 29” – 39” (73.7cm – 99.1cm) 16” – 21” (40.6cm – 53.3cm)
MEDUIM 35” – 45” (88.9cm – 114.3cm) 19 ” – 23 ” (48.3cm – 58.4cm)
LARGE 38” – 48” 96.5cm – 121.9cm) 20” – 25 ” (45.7cm – 63.5cm)
SMALL 29” – 39” (73.7cm – 99.1cm) 18” – 22” (45.7cm – 55.9cm)
MEDIUM 35 ” – 45” (88.9cm – 114.3cm) 19 ” – 24” (48.3cm – 61cm)
LARGE 38” – 48” (96.5cm – 121.9cm) 22” – 26” (55.9cm – 66cm)
DRAFT 44” – 55” (111.8cm – 139.7cm) 23 ” – 28 ” (48.3cm – 71.1cm)
We receive occasional reports from riders that the bridle does not seeem to be effective on their particular horse. Issues include problems with steering, problems with stopping and headshaking or other indications of discomfort. These issues can be caused by the following:
1. The chinstrap may be too loose. Tighten the chin strap so that only one flat finger can be comfortably inserted between the underside of the jaw and the chin strap. The chin strap should be sufficiently snug so that the headstall does not slide when rein traction is applied. If this happens, leverage will be lost and skin abrasion could develop. One sign of the noseband being too loose is that the cheek straps of the headstall (item A at left) bow-out prominently when traction is applied to the reins. Some slight bowing is normal, but if the bowing extends out two inches or more from the face, an adjustment to the chinstrap is needed.
2. The noseband may not be low enough. The correct placement of the noseband is lower than most other bridles. Placing the noseband too high will result in some loss of communication, which can cause problems with steering and stopping. We recommend placing the noseband 1.5 to 2 inches above the corner of the mouth.
3. The noseband may be too low. Occasionally a horse will show discomfort when the noseband is placed at the recommended position of 1.5 to 2 inches above the corners of the mouth. If this occurs, first try using less rein pressure. Secondly, try moving the noseband up a little. Your level of communication is reduced as the noseband is raised, but this may be just what the horse needs. It is important to make sure that the noseband is supported by bone and not placed so low that it is supported by the soft fleshy part of the nose. If placed too low, the noseband will obstruct the nostrils and could cause head shaking or even rearing.
Teeth with sharp edges: The cross-under straps of the Bitless Bridle put pressure along the horse’s cheek, which may press against the sharp edges of teeth. This problem can be solved by having the teeth floated.
Other pain or discomfort: With the pain of the bit removed, your horse may become more aware of other painful problems such as a poorly fitted saddle or shoeing/hoof trim problems. Try riding or longeing your horse bareback to determine if your saddle is a source of trouble. You may want to consider switching to a barefoot trim for your horse to eliminate metal from your horse’s feet as well as the mouth.
Habitual behavior: Your horse may be accustomed to using any one of a number of bit-aversion techniques to override your ability to communicate your commands. The Bitless Bridle’s communication cannot be evaded, and some horses may become frustrated and throw a bit of a temper tantrum when they realize they no longer control the show. Patience and groundwork will eventually teach your horse to accept your cues.
There are numerous other less common reasons why your horse may not respond correctly to the Bitless Bridle. If you have problems with your horse in the Bitless Bridle, please contact our customer service department at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will work with you to try to find a solution.
The Bitless Bridle™ comes fully assembled, but if you disassemble it for cleaning or conditioning, follow the steps below to ensure proper reassembly:
1. With the cross-under straps removed, put the bridle on your horse and buckle the chinstrap.
2. Make sure the O-rings on the noseband are pushed down and lying flat against the chinstrap.
3. Take the buckle end of the cross-under strap (not the end with the O-ring) and feed it from the outside through the O-ring on the noseband, under the chin, up the opposite side of the face to the crown piece and fasten. (See photo below)
4. Repeat the process on the other side with the second cross-under strap.
5. Attach your reins (or lines, if you are a driver) to the O-rings on the ends of the cross-under straps.
Leather: The leather bridle must be kept in good condition, with regular cleaning and conditioning. Pay special attention to the cross-under straps, particularly where they pass through the O-rings. It is important to keep the leather supple and well fed to avoid the leather cracking at this region of high friction and wear. As with any leather tack, any components showing signs of cracking should be replaced.
Nylon: If neglected, nylon webbing absorbs dirt and becomes stiff, abrasive, and unsightly. This can be avoided by regular washing. A great convenience is that nylon bridles can be put in a washing machine.
Beta: Beta bridles are the simplest to maintain. To remove mud, drop them in a bucket of water. To remove grease, add a little detergent to the water.
Step 1: Unbuckle the chinstrap (item D below), leaving all other buckles fastened, and spreadopen the noseband. Slip the bridle over the horse’s ears much like a normal bridle, making sure the cross-under straps go under the jaw and the noseband is over the nose. Loosely buckle the chinstrap, it will be tightened correctly later.
Step 2: Adjust the left and right cavesson buckles (item A below) so that the lower edge of the noseband sits approximately 1.5 to 2 inches above the corner of the mouth.
Step 3: Adjust the left and right cross-under strap buckles (item B below) such that there are at least 3 inches of cross-under strap between the ring on the noseband and the attachment ring for the reins (item C below).
Step 4: Tighten the chinstrap buckle (item D below) until you can just get one flat finger under the chinstrap. Make sure you have not trapped either of the cross-under straps under the chinstrap.
Step 5: Attach your reins to the O-rings on the ends of the cross-under straps. Check that the browband sits comfortably and is not pinching the base of the ears.
Note: Once the bridle is properly adjusted, the chinstrap is the only buckle you need to release to bridle or unbridle your horse.
Crystals Equine Service is the first distributor in the WORLD that supplies bit bypasses. Provided the rules of your competition/pony club etc... does not state that the reins must be directly attached to the bit - why not use a bypass. These specially made bypass straps hold the bit in your horses mouth, but they can be as active or inactive as you would like. They are currently used in parts of Europe in the pacing scene. See the store for your bypasses, they are synthetic and black only at this stage.
If you and your horse love this bridle, please help us to promote the cause of a more harmonious relationship between horse and rider. Your positive comments to other riders would be sincerely appreciated.
Dr. Cook’s research concerning the effects of bitted and bitless riding is on-going. You can participate by requesting a questionnaire from our office. Returning the questionnaire to Dr. Cook will help his research and may enable him to offer further advice. The questionnaire may also be used as a diagnostic tool, prior to adopting the bridle, as a means of recognizing the nature and source of unacceptable behavior.
We also welcome your feedback, both positive and negative, since we use this information to improve our product and literature.