My Bitless Journey

My Bitless Journey

I have never really been one for gadgets with horses, I stopped using any form of noseband other than a loosely fitted cavesson about 18 years ago, asking myself ‘Why is the horse opening its mouth?’ and removing the cause, rather than just strapping it shut.

I also stopped using stables for routine management around 20 years ago, only using them for medical reasons or to get ready for riding. I have successfully competed in county level showing, affiliated show jumping and national championship level 2 day eventing with horses that have lived in a field 24/7.  Even the night before a competition!

For riding without a bit, I was relatively slow on the uptake.  As a young kid I would sometimes ride without a saddle and bridle but this was usually just for fun when an adult wasn’t watching! But as an adult I had always used a bit until last year.  Then one day (and I do actually feel a bit stupid for not thinking of this earlier) I asked myself ‘Why exactly do I ride with a bit?’.  And I realised that it was because I always had, that’s what horses’s are ridden in, it’s traditional and that’s what I’d grown up with.  I was working with a new horse called Gemma who was petrified of the bridle being put on and being taken off, I was training her to accept the bit and gently, slowly it was working. Until a light bulb went on and instead of training her to accept something she clearly didn’t like, I thought I should make it even better for her and not use the bit at all.

Then, better late than never, I didn’t look back. Gemma went from a horse who would shy away from even a headcollar to walking up to me in the field and practically putting it on herself. Her once untouchable ears became a source of pleasure for her, she now loves having them rubbed. So now the penny had well and truly dropped for me and I started riding another horse in Gemma’s bitless bridle. And then shortly after this I decided that all those expensive bits that I had made for all the horses were going to be hung on a hook. All that effort I went to designing and manufacturing bits to make the horses more comfortable was thrown out of the window. I had looked at all the bits available with their joints that protruded in the roof of the mouth, the chunky metal and asymmetrical mouthpieces and tried my best to make things better by designing bits that were more comfortable. But I had completely missed the point about not using them at all!  Because horses wear bits, it’s tradition, that’s what I’d always done and bitless bridles are those inappropriate long-shanked hackamores or cross unders that don’t release the pressure quick enough, right?

I was wrong and I am happy to admit it, despite having hardly any behaviours from the horses that they found the bits aversive, a couple of horses who would rub their noses on their forelegs stopped this immediately. And not one horse has been different to ride bitless compared to when they wore a bit, showing that having metal in their mouth was unnecessary after all. There are numerous styles of bitless bridle available, they don’t all create huge pressure on the head and because we generally don’t pull on the reins to steer and stop anyway, the riders can still communicate in exactly the same way as before, just without the risk of causing accidental pain to the horse’s mouth.

Happy Riding!

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Natalie has owned horses for over 30 years and owned East Devon Riding Academy near Sidmouth. She has previously lectured in Equine Science to degree level and produced research for preparing Great Britains' equestrian teams for the Olympics. Natalie provides consultations in all aspects of Equine Science, and has fitted saddles for competitors at Badminton International Horse Trials.