Where would you and your horse be without a bitless bridle – or any bridle, for that matter? Our guess is, a long way from where you’re supposed to be!
A common misconception about horse riding is the belief that the bit stops a horse. We’re here to say that , bit or no bit, if a horse wants to go, it’s going to go!
But, jokes aside – as equestrians, we all want to make sure our four-legged friends are well looked after and comfortable, and choosing the best bitless bridle for your horse can help.
With so many options on the market, how do you even decide? First off: don’t put the cart before the horse; we’re here to shed some light on the situation so you can make an informed decision.
Join us as we gallop through this great guide of five of the most common types of bitless bridles around, so you can start your bitless journey today!
Watch our video explaining the Hackamore
5 Commonly Used Bitless Bridles
Many equestrians consider switching to bitless bridles when their horse displays negative riding behaviour, or has mouth or dental issues. Bitless bridles can be a comfortable alternative to the traditional bridle.
Let’s take a look at the various bitless options:
1. Cross-under (or crossover)
- Best for: Horses with mouth sensitivities
If your horse tends to resist riding altogether (seen in the form of neck reining or head shaking), or if you just can’t find the best fit, a cross-under bitless bridle may do the trick! The cross-under bitless bridle, also known as Dr Cook’s bridle, is one of the most common and widely used. They are regarded as the “kindest” bitless bridles around.
Similar to side pull bridles – which we’ll get to in a minute – these consist of two straps that cross under the horse’s jaw, applying even pressure to the whole head, as opposed to just the nose.
This type of bitless bridle gives riders more targeted control and motivates horses to respond to gentle rein cues. For example, if you tug on the right rein, it applies pressure on the left-hand side of the horse’s face, steering it to the right.
It’s perfect to use for horses shying away from a traditional bitted bridle (pardon the pun), and is often used in disciplines like dressage and trail riding.
- Best for: Trail and leisure riding
The side-pull bitless bridle is another great option used by many equestrians. They are a popular choice in the UK and look quite similar to regular bridles, but without the bit part (the metal piece that goes inside a horse’s mouth).
A side-pull basically works like a halter (without any leverage action), but the pressure is distributed across the horse’s nose area; allowing for more direct and natural communication. This bitless bridle is suitable for both beginner and experienced riders.
Side pulls are commonly used in Western riding and for recreation. They’re also fast becoming popular in the dressage arena!
- Best for: Horses who do not like bits, one bit!
Similar to a side pull, the Scawbrig bitless bridle applies even nose and chin pressure. The softly padded noseband sits comfortably across the bridge of the nose and is attached to two rings that connect under the chin. The reins attach to the chin piece and work like a dream when slight tension is applied to the reins.
Like other bitless bridle types, the Scawbrig allows riders to communicate with their horses without being too forceful. It is a popular bitless bridle choice in disciplines such as trail riding, recreational riding or lower-level competitive activities.
- Best for: Sensitive horses with mouth or dental issues
The hackamore bitless bridle actually falls into the category of traditional bridles.
Now, this may seem confusing, but stay with us as we explain. While technically all hackamores are bitless bridles, not all bitless bridles fall under the same hackamore umbrella!
A hackamore bridle is a headstall that is secured around the horse’s head. The noseband and chin strap are attached to rings on the bridge of the horse’s noseband, and gentle pressure is applied to their nose, chin groove, and poll (the area behind the ears). It allows for different levels of control and applies pressure to the nose area without the mechanical leverage of a shank (the metal side- or cheekpiece).
Like any new (bitless) bridle, start by slowly introducing your horse to the hackamore. Begin with lighter rein pressure and adjust as you and your horse get used to the feel.
We’ll quickly touch on three variations of the Hackamore bitless bridle:
- Mechanical hackamore: This specific hackamore is one of the leverage bridles types which exerts pressure on the horse’s nose and chin. It usually includes a metal shank placed underneath the horse’s chin, with a curb chain or strap that cranks extra leverage. The reins are attached to the shank. When riders place tension on the reins, the pressure is distributed evenly across the horse’s muzzle and face.The mechanical hackamore is a stronger bridle and can potentially cause harm if the rider tends to be quite heavy-handed! Do note that mechanical hackamores are to be used by skilled and professionally trained riders to prevent injury to our beloved four-legged fellas.
- S-Hackamore: What sets these bitless bridles apart is their unique cheek shape that makes them gentler than their mechanical counterparts. Think of these bitless bridles as comfy cushions for your horse’s nose!The clever design of the S-Hackamore allows our equine pals to munch on grass or drink water while in tack, and these bridles often favoured for endurance and trail rides.
- Flower hackamore: This bitless bridle is distinguished by its flower-shaped rings found on the cheek parts of the noseband. These provide excellent versatility when it comes to rein placements. Often preferred over other hackamore types, they allow riders to fine-tune cues by applying varying degrees of pressure to the horse’s face and nose.The flower hackamore offers perfect positioning, as the “flower” sits higher on the cheekbone when compared to a traditional bitless bridle. They are often used in Western riding activities, such as rodeos or ranch work.
- Best for: Western riding or for training young horses
Now; these bitless bridles really get us thinking about old Westerns! Bosals, with their distinctive braided rawhide noseband, are deeply rooted in ranch traditions. This bridle is typically paired with mecate reins, which are long reins made of horsehair or rope.
These bitless bridles work by encouraging flexion (more movement) when the reins are pulled, and applying pressure to the nose and jaw area. However, they do require more skills to use – the rider’s weight distribution, for example, makes them more complex that other bitless types.
They are mainly used in Western disciplines such as reining, breaking in colts, and other styles of Western or trail riding.
- Perfect for horses with mouth sensitivity, tongue or dental problems.
- A terrific alternative for horses that have had bad experiences with a bitted bridle.
- Removing the bit can alleviate pain or discomfort for the horse.
- Improves communication between horse and rider.
- A bitless bridle can reduce stress and anxiety.
- Horses may find it easier to relax their jaw and neck, preventing strained muscles.
- A bit can affect the horse’s breathing and make it tired very quickly. By removing the bit, horses are able to breathe more freely, resulting in less fatigue and a happier, safer ride.
Understanding Bitless Bridles
A bitless bridle does pretty much the same thing as a traditional bridle, allowing the rider to use varying degrees of pressure on points on the horse’s face, nose, chin, and poll.
By removing the metal bit, which can cause stress or discomfort to your horse; bitless bridles encourage a more natural and gentle style of communication. This is a great alternative to using a bit, and can build a better relationship between horse and rider by nurturing mutual trust and a closer connection.
Purpose of bitless bridles
- To achieve gentler pressure across the horse’s jaw, nose, chin and face in comparison with bitted bridles.
- To create a more natural relationship between horse and rider.
- To keep horses comfortable. Some horses shake their heads, salivate (drool) or rein their necks when they’re trying to tell us something is wrong or uncomfortable. These behavioural traits are often associated with bitted bridles.
Things to consider before moving onto bitless bridles
- Find the type of bitless bridle that is best suited to your horse. This might be a case of trial and error.
- Proper fitting, adjustments and groundwork training are very important to ensure your horse responds to the new piece of equipment and is comfortable using it.
- Start by using a rope halter bridle during groundwork training. Bitless bridles can be rather expensive, so starting off with a cheaper option may be more cost-effective.
- When introducing bitless riding to your horse, do so in a safe and enclosed area. Using long reining or in-hand work may be helpful.
- Mix up training techniques of in-hand work by flexing to the left and right. This allows your horse to get a proper feel of the bitless bridle and learn to cooperate accordingly.
What is a rope halter?
These types of bitless bridles are an invaluable groundwork training tool, but should not be used for riding activities such as trail riding or jumping. A rope halter bridle is made of rope or nylon and has strategically placed knots. These knots help to apply pressure to the horse’s head, face and nose, allowing them to get the feel for training and respond to riders’ cues.
Note: Rope halters should not be used to tie up horses or be used for riding bitless. They are training equipment and are usually not needed on an already trained horse.
What is the curb chain?
A curb chain or curb strap is a flat chain or strap that fits under the horse’s chin groove and is positioned between the purchase arms (the upper part of the horse’s cheek that runs from the mouthpiece to headstall rings) of the bit shank.
Is the mechanical hackamore painful for horses?
While many consider hackamores gentler or less painful for horses, this is not always the case. A mechanical hackamore has shanks that are usually quite big – over 20cm long – and run along sensitive nerve endings on the horse’s face. It could potentially cause pain and discomfort if the rider is rough or heavy-handed.