Take 5 Things- How can you go bitless?

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

Welcome to this weeks edition of Take 5 Things. This week we have an insight into how you can start to ride your horse bitless, from bitless rider and trainer Holly Coetzee. Holly competes in Show Jumping, Eventing and Dressage on a variety of horses, including up to 1.35m internationally on her horse Connor McCloud, and she does all of it without using a bit.

Holly and her horse Connor McCloud winning their class at the Al Shiraa Horse Show 2020 Photo: Nour AlMasri

While there are many horses that are content with having a bit in their mouth, there are also many horses that show signs of stress and discomfort from a bit. These signs include throwing their head, opening their mouth and excessive chewing of the bit. In these cases it might be wise to consider a bitless bridle...scary? Not really, most horses respond very well to being ridden without a bit. Horses can be ridden and competed bitless in most disciplines, including Show Jumping and Cross Country, although the rules do vary depending on which country you live in; however a bit is always compulsory when competing in affiliated dressage. Bitless bridles are often considered softer than a traditional bit, however they work by applying pressure to the sensitive areas of the horses face where there are many nerves present, so as with any piece of tack or equipment, care must always be taken to be gentle and clear with your horse when using it and applying pressure from the reins.

There are 3 main types of bitless bridle:

1. Hackamore: This is one of the more well known and traditional bitless bridle available, of which there are 2 types; a traditional bostal, made from rawhide in an oval shape which goes over the horses nose and has a knot under the chin in which the reins or mecate are attached, this type is mainly used in western riding. Then there is the more common ‘mechanical hackamore’ which uses leverage and has a nose strap and chin strap connected in the middle by a lever or shank, (the strength of the bridle is determined by the length of the shank with a longer shank applying more pressure). The hackmore works by applying pressure to the nose and chin, which then travels up the cheek piece to the poll area when the reins are used.

2. Side pull: This is a type of bitless bridle where the reins are connected directly to the nose band, meaning pressure is put only in the front of the horses nose when the reins are used. This type of bridle in its simplest form can be achieved by simply attaching reins to the sides of a halter or head collar.

3. The Cross-under: This bridle has 2 straps that attach to the headpiece of the bridle and cross behind the jaw to the opposite side and then thread through rings either side of the noseband before connecting to the reins. When pressure is applied to the reins, a small amount of pressure is applied evenly around the whole head. The horse feels the pressure behind the jaw, at the sides of the head, on the poll and the nose when the reins are used. (This is the preferred type used by Holly).

Holly competing in a 1.35m class in a bitless bridle at Al Ain Equestrian Shooting and Golf Club Photo: Nour AlMasri

About Holly

Holly is an experienced horse rider and trainer, having started riding at age 5 and competing in Working Hunter and Mounted Games on ponies before focusing on Show Jumping, in which she currently competes up to 1.35m internationally in the UAE. She has completed a  BSc Hons degree in Equestrian Sports Science from Hartpury College in the UK as well as achieving qualifications up to Stage 3 and PTT from the British Horse Society. Holly received training from famous riders while studying in the UK including Olympic Eventer Karen Dixon. Holly is based at Al Ruwayyah Stables in Dubai which is a Natural Horse Care Private livery yard owned by Sultan Al Qemzi and run by Jaime Lemmer. At Al Ruwayyah almost all the horses are competed in a range of disciplines bitless and barefoot. Holly has also taken her bitless riding a step further and has trained her horses to jump without the need for any bridle at all.

Here we have Holly's tips for riding bitless:

1. Control does not come from the bit. Riders need to understand that control does not come from the bit alone. ‘Control’ and communication with your horse comes from a combination of seat, legs, voice, rider energy and lastly, rein pressure. If a horse feels the need to run away from a threat (fight or flight theory), then regardless of what bit or bridle you are using, the horse will generally try to run. However, the best way to prevent a horse from running is to ensure that you are riding with confidence and calmness at all times so that when your horse does feel anxious, he trusts you to guide the both of you to safety without fleeing the danger at speed. Making sure you are always looking up and around you and always having a ‘plan’ for where you are going also helps to instill confidence in your horse’s ability to trust you as his leader. The following points will hopefully help you achieve this more subtle form of communication and control.

2. Use your voice. I talk to my horses a lot, not only to reassure them when they feel anxious but also as another way to help control speed. A very low voice tone with a slow sound will soothe and encourage your horse to slow down (I use a very long and low “woooaaahhhh”), while a higher pitched and quick sound (like a click from your tongue or a “hup!”) will encourage them to speed up.

3. Learn to use your seat. The riders seat is an important aid, it should be used to slow down your horse instead of relying on the reins. Without a bit as the first point of contact, the horse will be more aware of your body’s signals to him. I use my knees to ‘close’ against the saddle and signal to my horse to steady. Use your weight to push down in the saddle, (rather than back in the saddle), in addition to your voice, knees and strong upper body to slow down.

4. A strong upper body and core. A riders balance and strength are important when riding bitless, the rider need a strong upper body and core in addition to a steady lower leg as keeping energy coming from the horse’s hind end will stop your horse falling onto the forehand. Remind yourself to sit ‘tall’ in the saddle with shoulders back. I use the image of a piece of string attached to the top of my riding helmet and someone is pulling the string upwards.

5. Use half halts. A half halt is the give and release of pressure on the reins which should be used to steady the horse instead of pulling consistently on the reins. Close your fingers on the reins and apply a little pressure in addition to using your body aids. As soon as your horse responds to your request to steady, relax your fingers and seat and praise with your voice. You may need to do this multiple times in a row if your horse is rushing. The key here is to soften and praise immediately when your horse responds so he understands what you are asking for rather than getting in to a ‘tug of war’ with your horse.

Holly at home in Al Ruwayyah Stable jumping without a bit or even a bridle. Photo: Tara Hamilton Photography

Riding bitless requires a rider to be more subtle yet effective in their aids, using their seat and voice rather than relying on their hands and the rein. I hope this has inspired you to have a go at bitless riding.

Holly Coetzee

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