Frequently Asked Questions
WEBINAR WITH DR COOK
In this video Dr Cook answers many frequently asked questions sent to him by people wanting to know more. If you are interested in bitless riding I can’t recommend more highly that you set some time aside to watch this.
Can I Start my Young Horse in a Bitless Bridle?
Yes. Starting (breaking) a young horse with a bitless is the best beginning you can give them. Traditionally in many cultures this is the normal way to start young horses and in parts of America (especially Western riding) this is still done. By training your young horse to give to pressure and listen to you the rider without the complication of pain, you are starting your youngster out with a clean undamaged mind. Some people choose to start their horse in a bitless bridle then move on to a bitted bridle at the age of 4 or 5 years old. Others stay in the bitless for life.
Young horses have newly erupting teeth and putting a bit into a mouth that’s already feeling discomfort from erupting teeth can cause behavioral issues. In this circumstance the rider doesn’t know where these issues have come from because they can’t see inside the mouth. This may result in them becoming strong with their horse and disciplining it when in fact the horse has pain. This can then result in a horse that distrusts humans and being ridden, and can start them off on a lifetime of being a ‘difficult horse’.
When riding a ‘greenbroke’ horse they are often more reactive to situations in the environment than a more seasoned mount. In order to stay safe the rider may need to make fast and strong corrections with the reins to bring the situation back under control. When there is a bit in the mouth this results in sudden and severe pain in the mouth and the young horse then reacts to that, so the rider has to make a severe correction, to which the horse reacts, and on and on it goes. The result is a horse that is mentally stressed and difficult to control and they can’t calm down.
Now contrast this to when riding in a bitless. There is an environmental situation which scares your green horse, you make a sudden and strong correction to rescue the situation, and then you just ride on as if nothing’s happened. Your horse has not felt pain so does not react to that or become upset or hot, it’s all over and forgotten in seconds. This is a much better situation for both you and your horse, and a lot safer.
Training your young horse in a bitless bridle is the kindest and most effective way to start a horse. Building up a relationship of trust with your youngster through non-painful training will set them up for a lifetime of trusting humans and being happy to work.
Is the Cross-Under Bitless Bridle too Strong?
I've heard people express concern about the strength of the cross-under bitless, wondering if it’s too strong. Imagine if you are using a side-pull bitless bridle, halter or a bit – if you put six grams of pressure on the reins then all six grams will be felt by the horse in one single location, the nose or mouth. With a cross-under bitless bridle you still apply the same pressure to the reins, six grams, but now the horse feels it in four or six places around the head. This means that in each pressure spot the actual pressure is quite small. Also the pressure is being applied by a soft wide strap, not a rope or piece of metal. The response from the horse is easy and clear, which makes this a very humane bridle.
Can I Compete in a Bitless Bridle?
The current competition rules in Australia are set by Equestrian Australia (EA) (www.equestrian.org.au). The rules vary according to the sport and are updated regularly.
EA National Eventing Rules - Cross-Country Test & Jumping Test; Gags or ‘bitless bridles’ are allowed as are unrestricted running martingales or Irish martingales. Reins must be attached to the bit(s) or directly to the bridle. Dressage Test; Permitted bridles are a double bridle with cavesson or snaffle bridle.
EA National Jumping Rules - There are no restrictions on bits. Reins must be attached to the bit(s) or directly to the bridle. Gags and hackamores are allowed.
Equestrian Australia Dressage Rulebook - Permitted bridles are a double bridle with cavesson or snaffle bridle.
Hors Concours - For some horse sports you are not able to use a bitless bridle, e.g. dressage will require a bit. However, you can ride ‘hor concours’ with a bitless bridle at some competitions (enquire with the organisers of the event). Riding hor concours at a horse competition means you are not competing. You will still pay an entry fee, receive a number and be judged by the judge. However you will not be considered for placings. At a dressage competition, you will receive a score card and mark from the judge, but not be eligible to win any rosettes or awards.
EA Show Horse Rules - Snaffle bridle or double bridle are permitted.
EA National Vaulting Rules - Bridle with smooth snaffle bit, with no more than 2 joints. Two side reins. Lunge rein must be attached to the inner ring of the bit or at the lunge cavesson.
Can I control my Horse in a Bitless Bridle? Can I Stop my Horse?
Yes you can. A bitted horse is not necessarily in control. Most of those horses out there bolting, bucking, rearing, pig-rooting, shying etc., are all wearing bits! The bit by it’s very nature causes pain, that is the basis of it’s operation. Even the gentlest of hands are still manipulating and putting pressure on a mucous membrane inside someones mouth. This pain causes a reaction. In the horse this is seen as flight, fight or freeze. Basically it makes no sense to cause a 500 or 600kg flight animal pain when you’re sitting on it’s back!
The bitless bridle places the rein pressure around the entire head (head hug) rather than in just one area (inside the mouth). All horses as part of their basic education are familiar with pressure/release and when this is applied around the entire head it is quite a strong aid to the horse. I often have to remind people to ride normally as it’s easy to use stronger aids when first introduced to the bitless, thinking you have less control. This is not the case. I’m going to tell a little story to demonstrate my point.
After a few months riding a thoroughbred at my place of work in the bitless, I had an interesting discovery one day. I was out on a trail with an experienced male rider on another thoroughbred. We were cantering up a hill when they decided to ‘race’ and both horses bolted. As we reached the top of the hill neck and neck I regained control of my horse (a female, in a bitless) while the man continued to gallop down the other side unable to stop his horse (a male, with a bit). It had a happy ending as his horse eventually stopped and no-one was hurt. However, ever since then I have had absolutely no worries about whether a horse can be controlled in a bitless bridle. Over the years I have experienced many other 'hairy' situations and each has reinforced my trust in the cross-under bitless bridle.
Does the Rein Release Through the O-ring?
When you first put the bridle on the cross-under straps appear slack. When you take up the reins for the first time the straps will fit snug against the horse and remain there (much as a bit fits snug against the corners of a horses mouth, rather than hanging loosely inside it). The cross-under straps don’t ‘fall’ back out after using the reins, but if you stick your finger under one and pull on a rein, then release, you’ll feel how the pressure releases. I’ve done this at various points around the bridle, it’s quite fun and gives you a good idea of where the horse feels the pressure, so you get an insight into their experience.
The light contact is no more than what remains after the pressure is taken off with the bit. If there was no release you would expect a horse to circle indefinitely once an initial request to turn had been signalled, and horses do not do this. As with steering, so with stopping, the ‘brakes’ do not get stuck in the stop position. The ideal is to ‘brake’ with your body and breathing rather than with your hands, but even when hands are used, the brakes do not get jammed. All horses respond to pressure/release training in the bitless so the release is big enough for the horse. Also don’t forget we’re talking about a soft, wide strap here, not a piece of hard metal.
Can the the noseband be too low or too high?
The noseband should be on bone, if it is too low it will be on the soft, fleshy part of the nose. But if the noseband is too high you may lose some control. It can take a bit of fine tuning to find the right spot, but around 4 to 5 cm (2 inches) above the corner of the mouth is a good guide. A compromise needs to be found between not having it too low and on the soft fleshy part but having it low enough so you have adequate control. If you play around with it a bit your horse will let you know where it’s comfortable AND effective.
Why is my horse is tossing the head?
Sometimes a horse will toss the head if you have the noseband too tight. If you do this with a bitless and there’s a constant pressure, then when you release rein pressure the horse can’t feel it and they don’t know where the comfort zone is. It's your horses way of communicating with you, as they can’t use words. So try loosening off on the noseband a bit and see what your horse says.
In a bitted bridle the noseband is used to hold the mouth shut, so is done up firmly. It is not used for this purpose in a bitless, it is used for communication.