When I first started my website I wrote an article titled “On rider safety: why bit-less is safer?” Now, this article is at the top of google search engines and has helped many riders and horses to make the transition to bit-less riding. Todays article is going to be an updated version of my previous one.
Before getting started I want to make clear that when I speak about bit-less bridles in this article, I am referring to properly fitted bridles (placed high on the nasal bone with the noseband loose enough to allow the horse to chew potential food rewards) comfortable pieces of equipment such as padded side-pulls. Not a thin rope head-collar or a mechanical hackamore that can arguably be more uncomfortable for the horse than a bit without a noseband.
How do bits and bit-less bridles work?
A bit is a metal piece (at the exception of the leather bit) that goes inside the horses mouth and is used to control the horse’s movements. There are many types of bits and depending on the design. They work by inflicting some discomfort/pain to different parts of the mouth.
For example the jointed snaffle puts pressure onto the bars, the teeth, the tongue and the palate. The pressure applied by the joint of the bit on the palate is one of the reason why a horse opens their mouth when riders apply pressure on the reins; the joint digs into the palate, the horse open their mouth to relieve himself. Many riders use a flash noseband to prevent the horse from relieving himself by keeping his mouth shut.
Curb type bits work slightly differently; they squeeze down the tongue and the leverage puts pressure on the trigeminal nerve (that runs along the horse lower jaw). Hackamores work quite similarly, while they do not put pressure within the inside of the mouth, they put pressure on the nose and also on the trigeminal nerve. The shanks of curb bits and hackamores vary; the bigger the shank the more discomfort/pain the horse experiences from a small draw of the reins.
A side-pull (a type of bit-less bridle) works by exercising pressure on the nose. A properly fitted side-pull only apply pressure on the supported part of the nasal bone.
If the same rider were to use all these devices on the same horse, using the same amount of pressure each time, the side-pull (bit-less option) would most likely provide the least amount of discomfort to the horse. (Providing that the horse has no health issue that would make nose pressure unusually painful for him).
Note: For the purpose to provide an article that is accessible to most riders, I assumed that the reader's horses are trained and ridden primarily using negative reinforcement and some positive punishment as it is instructed by the BHS (British Horse Society) and natural horsemanship trainers. Definition for negative reinforcement and positive punishment can be found HERE
But surely the more discomfort I can inflict the more control I have, right?
For most riders the question is, if my horse spooks and I have to stop him to prevent an accident from occurring wouldn’t I be more likely to be successful with a bitted bridle than with a bit-less bridle?
1. Fear causes the release of beta-endorphins, which numb and reduce emotional and physical pain. Beta-endorphins are one of the reasons we often see riders pulling with all their strength on curb bits and yet have little to no success at stopping their scared horses.
2. The other reason is saliency: relying on discomfort/pain to control a horse means that you have to be scarier than whatever scared the horse in the first place. This is also true with non-scary things. For example, if a horse dives for the grass, to move him you will have to be more salient to him than the grass.*
(*note: Horses are all individuals with different pain level tolerance, history, training history etc. Some horses may find a small squeeze of the leg a lot more salient than grass while other may find grass to be more salient than a kick.)
3. Ok, I get it, it is difficult to stop a scared horse, but this still doesn’t explain why bit-less may be safer. Let me tell you about trigger stacking, Trigger
stacking occurs when multiple stressors or stressful events occur at the same time. The stress level of the animal rises as stressors are added: When the horse goes over threshold he
will attempt to escape.*
(*note: Again horses are individuals with different fears and threshold level)
Here is a simple example: In this scenario the horse is fearful of dogs, the rider adds a stressor to the equation when he pulls on the horse mouth and causes the horse to go over threshold. The same thing can happen when people try to “kick on” a threatened horse instead of working on reducing the animal stress.
A bit-less bridle can of course be perceived as a stressor but a study looking at behavioural and cardiac responses of horses undergoing training in bitted and bit-less bridles found that horses were more relaxed (lower heart rate) when long reined bit-less than bitted. (Jessica S. Quick et al, 2009) This suggests that bitted bridles are more stressful to horses than bitless bridles.
Additionally a bit can be a genuine safety hazard if it provokes facial neuralgia (headshaking), dyspnoea (breathing problem) or behavioural
problems. For example, if a horse actively avoids having the bridle put on, one must understand that the pain is significant enough for the horse to actively avoid it. Contacting your
veterinarian for a check up and considering a more comfortable option for your horse (bit-less bridle) is the right thing to do to reduce stress.
As a horse trainer, I always feel safer riding a horse that is easily threatened with a bit-less bridle (as long as he has learned to respond to it) than with a bit. This is because I want to
limit the stressors to reduce the chance of the horse going over threshold and react. Of course this is only an extra layer of security and does not dispense the rider from recognising signs of
stress and learning to lower stress.
4.Unfortunately, most bits are used in combination with a noseband. A recent study conducted by Australian researchers combining double bridle and crank noseband found out that the heart rate and eye temperature of the tested horses increased as a result. (Both are physiological signs of stress) The tighter the noseband, the higher the heart rate and eye temperature. Horses displayed post inhibitory responses which include; yawing, chewing and licking suggesting that the horses felt deprived of these behaviours when equipped with the double bridle and crank noseband. (Kate Fenner, 2016)
These results suggest that crank nosebands are stressors and as such can play a role in trigger stacking and the horse going over threshold.
To conclude, a bit-less bridle can be a safer option because it is associated with lower level of stress in horses. However the real key to safe riding is
TRAINING; Training of the horse and also training of yourself. Take the time to desensitise your horse, teach him clear cues, learn about learning theory, signs of stress in horses, how
to decrease stress etc. On this website there are many free resources to get you started training yourself and your horse.
Here is a list of article you may be interested in:
Resources cited in this article:
Echo - 18 years old - Quarter Horse.
Previously ridden in a curb + hackamore
Photo by Vikki Fear
Stunner - 12 years - Welsh.
Previously ridden in a jointed eggbutt snaffle
Photo by Kylie Toms
Quattro - 7 year old - Andalusian
Previously ridden in a snaffle
Photo by Louise Case
15 year old - OTTB.
Previously ridden in a double bridle
Photo by Mirjam Kuster
Laddy - 10 years old - traditional cob
Previously ridden in unknown
Photo by Louise Reynolds
Jackson -11 year old - quarter horse cross
Never ridden with a bit
Photo by Ivy Schexnayder