Your new Dr Cooks Cross-Under Bitless Bridle has arrived in the mail, congratulations! You’ll probably find your friends think you’re crazy for going bitless, but don’t worry, someone has to lead us all forward toward a kinder world and thank you for being one of those people. You’ll probably find that if you just smile and go about your business they’ll start being inquisitive and asking questions and when they see your results might even go bitless too!
STEP 1: FITTING THE BRIDLE
The first thing you’re likely to find is that your bitless bridle seems like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, but you’ll soon get used to it. Attach your reins to the rings at the ends of the cross-under straps. The only part of the bridle that you undo is the noseband. At first people automatically go to undo the throatlatch (especially when removing the bridle) but resist this impulse as it can be a puzzle when you’re not used to it if you accidentally take the bridle apart. Just wiggle the cross-under straps so they’re a little loose then hold the bridle up to the horses head, slipping their nose in in front of the cross-under straps and below the noseband. Pop it behind the ears and make sure the side straps are back away from the eyes.
Showing how the straps cross behind the jaw.
Adjust the height of the noseband using the 2 cheek straps. You want the noseband to sit around 2 cm above the mouth. The noseband shouldn’t be too low or it will put pressure on the cartilage at the end of the nose instead of the bone. However, if the noseband is too high the level of your control may be reduced. Ultimately it depends on the horse. I find every horse is slightly different in the position they like the bridle to sit. When starting a new horse in a bitless I make minor changes in positioning for the first few rides and then suddenly, bingo, I know I’ve got it in the right spot for that horse.
Next you need to do up the noseband buckle. As this bridle communicates with the horse via pressure/release, the noseband needs to NOT be applying pressure of its own accord. This means we do it up slightly looser than nosebands are traditionally done up on bitted bridles. With a bitted bridle the noseband is being used to hold the jaw and mouth shut (as the horse opens the mouth to try and evade the pain of the bit), whereas in the bitless bridle the noseband is used for communication.
Adjusting the bridle
If the noseband is extremely loose the bridle will ride up the horses head when pressure is applied the reins and the cheek pieces will buckle out. So we’re looking for that happy medium, where it's loose enough to not be applying pressure, but tight enough that the cheek pieces don't pop. Again don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time, just be willing to play around and adjust it as you go along and develop a feel for your new bridle. If your horse tosses their head, they're telling you the noseband is too tight.
At this stage you may want to investigate the bridle to become familiar with where the horse will feel pressure. You can apply pressure to 1 rein and try putting a finger behind the jaw, at the opposite side of the head on the cheek, at the poll and under the noseband to feel the relative pressures that are applied to each section of the horses head. This is a fun exercise and helps you understand the mechanisms at work with the cross-under bitless bridle. The design ensures that applied pressure is distributed as much as possible over the horses whole head, rather than in 1 or 2 places, making it very humane and effective.
Now we’re ready to introduce your horse to the feel of the bridle. This is a new piece of equipment and when introducing new equipment to a horse it’s always best to do some training in it first (just like your horse was trained when it was first taught about the bit). A progressive approach of training your horse from the ground, then from the saddle in a confined area and then free open riding in a large area will make the transition a happy experience for you both.
The position of the noseband in relation to the mouth.
Fitting a Dr Cooks Cross-Under Bitless Bridle
STEP 2: GROUNDWORK
These exercises may take hours, days or weeks to complete, depending on you, your horse and whatever previous training has been done. It’s not a race and it really doesn’t matter how long it takes as long as you both enjoy the process and are seeing improvements in response each time you train. Remember not to go on and on with one exercise, change what you’re doing whenever there’s an improvement and always finish on a good note before the horse or you are tired and having trouble concentrating.
Head Yield - Standing beside the horse and with the reins over the head and resting on the neck, take up a small contact and apply a squeezing pressure to one rein asking the horse to flex the head and neck. As soon as the horse shows signs of giving, relax your pressure then ask again for a little more. If you can time your release to be exactly on the first give, your horse will start giving more and more. If you’ve done this type of work in a halter you will find it easy but it’s still worth doing it to let your horse accustom to the new sensations of the bridle on their head. When you feel your horse has relaxed and given to the pressure, change sides and repeat.
Once you've mastered yielding the head toward you and it is soft and flowing with a lovely bent neck, then it's time to yield away. This is harder as the horse is not coming in for 'cuddles'. Hold the offside rein under then over the horses neck and repeat the exercise asking the horse to yield away from you.
Head Drop - Ask your horse to drop the head toward the ground holding both reins in your hand and again using the rhythmical pressure. If this is a new exercise for your horse be happy with a little give and move on. You will find when you do it again the next time the give will be bigger, and on and on. Don’t try and train the whole response in one go, horses learn in increments, improving a little each time you do the exercise.
Rein-Back - Holding both reins again apply the squezzing pressure backwards to ask for a rein-back. If your horse doesn’t respond within a few seconds, back up your rein pressure with thumb pressure to the chest, or a click. Release all pressures as soon as the horse reverses. Be happy with 1 or 2 steps at first, you can always increase the number later. Repeat this a few times and your horse should start reversing just with the rein pressure.
Leading - Now place the reins over the head and lead your horse around, encouraging them to walk with voice commands or clucking. Do some changes of direction, halt and go, halt and reverse and generally just walk around giving directions to your horse. If your horse doesn’t respond you may want to teach verbal commands on the lunge first as it comes in very handy. Alternatively a second person can assist or you can bump the horse on the side where the leg normally asks for forward.
If your horse is too big for you to reach the off-side rein when you’re walking, hold the reins under the horses neck instead of over. For people experienced in long-reining you could now do this. For those not experienced in long-reining I wouldn’t recommend it as unless done correctly it can be difficult and create problems for both you and your horse.
How a Cross-Under Bitless Bridle Works
Flexing the horse mounted
STEP 3: RIDING
It’s usually a good idea to do a few sessions of ground-work in the bitless before riding. This is where your ability to read your horse and know when they’re ready comes in. What you’re looking for is a horse that clearly understands what you’re asking while remaining calm and responsive. It's important for the first few rides to have a longer length of rein. If you immediately collect up a short rein, or suddenly pull back strongly on both rein/s, the horse may become confused by the unfamiliar feeling of the bridle. As with all new pieces of gear, introduce your horse to it slowly and gently, so they have time to accustom to it before it is used strongly.
The first time riding in the bitless I recommend being in a small yard. If you usually do liberty circles or lunge before riding do so, then run through a few of the groundwork yields described above. Mount your horse then just sit there a moment and relax. Run your hand down one rein and ask for the head/neck flexion that you've practiced on the ground, using the same squeezing pressure. Repeat to the other side. If your horse walks off just let them but keep asking for the yield. When your horse stops release the pressure to reward the stop then ask again. Keep repeating until the horse realizes they don't need to walk off when you ask for a head yield. I'll often just use one rein at a time when I first start a horse under saddle, which you can easily do if you're in a small area.
Pick up both reins and ask for a few steps forward with your legs. Ask for a halt and remain there a few seconds. Ask for walk then turn gently in one direction, repeat to the other side. If your horse doesn’t respond at first use an open rein (take the hand out side-ways away from the horse) but make sure you stay centered in the saddle. Continue mixing up go, stop, turn, in the walk. Every now and then just halt and sit (park is a wonderful gear to have in a horse) and allow your horse to digest the new information. On the first ride I would recommend only walking and progressing to trotting then cantering once responses are consistent and soft.
After a few rides in walk, when you are feeling confident, ask for the trot. Trot for a short distance, then walk, then trot, then walk etc. to ensure your brakes are working. Gradually build up to canter and before you know it you’ll be riding a cross-country course in your bitless! After a while most people are riding along and suddenly realise they don't have a bit, they've completely forgetting about it, because their horse is responding so well to the bridle.
If you don’t feel confident to go through the above steps, just pop the bitless bridle on first, then put your bitted bridle on over the top. You’ll then have 2 sets of reins. If you get worried at any time you can pick up the reins to the bitted bridle. This can be a very easy way to transition for people who are a little nervous when making changes. Most horses transition effortlessly but some humans find it a bit more difficult.
Once you make the transition to bitless you’ll never look back. It changes something about riding horses. You feel better knowing you’re no longer causing pain, and your horse definitely feels better. It opens up a line of communication between you and your horse that is priceless. And the best thing of all is that anyone can have this. You don’t have to be a professional trainer or horse whisperer to ride in a bitless bridle and feel this amazing communication with your horse. Anyone who wants it can have it today. Happy Bitless Horsing.