A bitless bridle works on a different concept to the bitted bridle. The traditional bitless bridles, i.e. the hackamores, bosals and sidepulls, work primarily through pressure on the nose and throughout the head. There is a misconception that using a bitless bridle is more “humane” and causes less pain when riding, but is this true?
Bitless bridles can have some of the same fitting issues as bitted bridles, such as poll and nose pressure. Sidepulls and similar can close a horse’s mouth and cause tension through the jaw and neck. Nosebands are a huge subject and should never be used to close a horse’s mouth, as this causes pressure on the TMJ.
There are, however, reasons why horses need to be ridden without a bit. Some injuries in the mouth can affect how a horse reacts when bitted, even when old injuries heal some horses can display ‘bridle shyness’. Unusual conformation of the mouth or teeth can make it difficult to find an appropriate bit that a horse will accept. Melanomas can cause issues too.
Ivan Kelly, dressage trainer and rider, has experience riding in both bitted and bitless bridles: “For me, training a horse ‘bitless’ came with the assumption it would feel kinder for the horse… I’m more inclined to say it has just felt ‘different’. The pressure points may not be in the mouth, but it can just as easily be overridden and cause harm or equally be inefficient. Ridden in badly, a bitless bridle can, at best, be unproductive and, at worst, be too harsh.
“Therefore, the responsibility is for the rider to educate themselves on how and why they are training the horse before selecting a bridle. There is so much more harness in the mouth and it should be treated with great respect, but bitless then should not be a dulled down version of education. On examination, it may be less mouth pressure, but it’s often less specific and less subtle communication, which in turn can be unhelpful to the horse. I would be cautious to use it in horses with a less educated neck and a weak connection – I more often meet horses with a body or neck problem than a mouth problem. I’d suggest educating yourself and your horse, learning to critically analyse your training and not move to swopping in and out from bits to ‘bitless’, with the idea one is automatically better than the other.”
Some arguments against bits, such as, ‘bits are painful/ harmful to the horse’ cannot apply to every horse. If bits are selected, fitted and used correctly, they can be a tool of refinement, which means they should take something that is working well and make it better.
Arguments against bitless, such as, ‘you can’t achieve real contact and collection without a bit’, again cannot apply to every horse. Horses can collect themselves; flatwork is about enhancing movement, which is natural to a horse.
There is clear support for both bitless and bitted, but neither is inherently more gentle or harsh than the other – it is totally dependent on the horse and the rider, whose hands are holding the reins. So, whatever your choice, you should consider what suits you and your horse best.