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  • Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.

How Do You Stop a Horse in a Bitless Bridle?

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

This has to be the number one question that people ask me, and it’s a good one. Horses are famous for being able to run fast, very fast, and when we sit on them we want to know we can stop them. Many people who ride horses are afraid and the number one fear they have is that their horse will take off and they won’t be able to stop them. In response to this fear an industry based on control through pain has arisen. The number of torture devices on the market is incredible. In peoples’ minds they feel that they must use these devices to be safe and be able to stop their horse. Many times I’ve heard people say that bitless bridles may be ok for other peoples’ very quiet horses but their horse is much too strong/powerful/wild/difficult to control etc. So let’s take a look at what actually happens for the horse.

When pain is created for the horse via bits, whips, spurs or other painful training aids, otherwise known as negative reinforcement tools, the stress hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol triggers the flight response necessary for the horse to prepare its body to run from predators. It also hinders learning and memory recall. So what this means is that the very tools that are used to actually ‘control’ the savage beast are in fact the things causing it to be a savage beast in the first place. They stimulate the horse into flight mode and ensure the mind is not calm and capable of learning. This creates a flighty ‘stupid’ horse which is then a justification for using these pain creating tools, and so it goes, around and around in a circle.

Now let’s see what happens when positive reinforcement techniques such as praise and rewards are used in training. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter. The brain has several dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine plays a major role in the ability to learn and creates a calm and relaxed mind. This results in a horse who is not wanting to run away anywhere, in fact they’re super keen to be with you. They’re not in a state of stress, so your training sinks in and they learn the necessary skills of life easily and quickly. Self-confidence grows and they can step into new places and situations without it triggering a flight response. They have confidence and trust in their human as there is no pain and stress within the relationship. They understand what is happening which removes the fear and confusion.

And now you don’t need a bit, or spurs, or whips, in fact you never did. Your horse likes being with you and doing things together. Without a constant background level of stress and cortisol they are easy to stop. They can now be trained to stop off the seat, the voice or a soft rein contact, your choice. Stopping issues become a thing of the past and you wonder how you ever thought it was safe to ride with a bit in a horses’ mouth.

That is the point I am at now. I could not sit on a horse with a bit in its mouth and apply pressure to it. To me that is the craziest most dangerous thing you could do. Why would anyone want to sit on a 500kg flight animal and cause it stress and pain while you’re up there? There is nothing safe in that and it is definitely not humane. I hope this answers the question for everyone who’s ever asked it. Please feel free to contact me if you would like more information on riding bitless.

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