Why a Bitless Bridle

Denice Zengo

A Whole Bit Better Without One

Are you open to explore a safer, more effective way to ride? Do you want better communication with your horse?

Would you be interested in riding and training your horse with gentle persuasion as opposed to control? Would you like a more responsive and willing horse? Do you want your horse to be comfortable and pain free?

And what if it were really simple? No new training, no extensive learning. All that is required is an open mind and a willingness to explore an old idea in a new way.

Take a few moments to let go of the familiar, let go of how you’ve been trained and ask yourself how your horse really feels about having a bit in his mouth.

A horse’s mouth is incredibly sensitive, just like yours. It is pretty much impossible not to inflict some degree of pain while using a bit. Even if you are an experienced rider.

And it certainly can’t be comfortable.

You Want The Best For Your Horse

We all want the best for our horses. You probably spend more money on your horse, than on yourself. You might balk at the price of a good multi vitamin for yourself, but think nothing of spending twice that on your horse.

Why? Because you love your horse and want the best from him.

If you started to understand how uncomfortable and painful a bit can be in your horse’s mouth, would you find another way to ride?

I bet you would.

You want to have a deep connection and bond with your horse. A true partnership is based on trust. Trust creates willingness. When you ride your horse in a bitless bridle you have removed an instrument of discomfort. This allows your horse to be more relaxed, increasing his ability to listen and respond to your cues.

Sometimes we just need to unlearn what we have been conditioned to believe is the right way to do things. This isn’t always easy. We come up against our own resistance, we question ourselves and often defer to the “experts”. Even though many “experts” are just following old habits and beliefs that need to be reexamined.

The Illusion Of Control

What if my horse takes off on me?

You do not have more control over your horse when a bit is in his mouth. Reins and a bit are not brakes.

I am sure you have heard countless stories of horses taking off with a helpless rider yanking as hard as possible on the bit to slow, stop or turn the horse. Maybe this happened to you. If your horse really wants to take off with you, he can. The more you pull on the reins and cause pain in your horses mouth, the faster your horse will try to run away from the pain. He is in survival mode and horses have survived through the ages by running.

Can your horse take off with a bitless bridle? Of course. However, without the pain of the bit, a horse is more likely to settle down from a spook after a few strides. You will not have reinforced the flight mode. Once your horse knows all is well, he will return to his usual relaxed state of mind.

More Than A Bit Of Damage

Perhaps the most extensive research done on the effects of the bit in a horses mouth is by Dr Robert Cook.

Dr. Robert Cook, FRCVS.,PhD is veterinarian who questioned the use of a bit in the horses mouth. He wondered, “What does a bit actually do for a horse?” After many years and much research, he claims that there is no scientific justification at all, instead he found “…all sorts of scientific justification for removing it.”

According to his research, Dr. Cook has documented over 100 problems the bit causes for the horse. You can read more about his research on his website. www.bitlessbridle.com

In a letter to Debbie Stanitski, President of Equestrian Medical Safety Association, Dr. Cook writes, “Bits hurt horses and frighten them. With a bit in their mouth, many a horse is apprehensive, nervous, “highly strung”, on tenterhooks, thinking about present pain or fearful of pain to come. As the saying goes, ‘to a frightened man, everything rustles.’ The same applies to the horse. Such horses are often mistakenly assumed to be ‘difficult’, ‘bad characters’ and even ‘dangerous to ride,’ when the real fault lies in their equipment. Riders who have switched to a bitless bridle are often delighted to discover that the ‘character’ of their horses change dramatically for the better. Negative traits that they thought were ‘hard-wired’ into their horses genetics were found to be due to nurture not nature. People who may have worried that they had ‘too much horse’ or a horse they ‘could not handle,’ find – in fact- they have a much better horse than they ever imagined. Their horse calms down, becomes compliant, is able to learn and performs better.”

SOME ISSUES OF CONCERN CAUSED BY THE BIT:

  • Bone spurs on the bars of the mouth
  • Dental damage
  • Neck and back pain from bracing against the bit
  • Water logging of the lungs / death in extreme cases
  • Lacerations and pinching of the tongue
  • TMJ issues
  • Damage to the parotid gland (a salivary gland) from hematoma to necrosis (dead tissue) (linked to colic)
  • Soft palate displacement which obstructs the nasopharynx (breathing apparatus)
  • Inability to swallow – how many times have you heard that your horse is happy when you see a wet foamy mouth. This is a sad fallacy. Increased saliva is caused by the horse’s inability to swallow – which can lead to pulmonary hemorrhage (bleeding of the lungs)
  • Injuries to the tongue
  • Sores on the side of the mouth
  • Scar tissue
  • Sore bars
  • Safety issues to riders from spooked horse running from pain
  • Shortened stride

And quite simply…..it’s uncomfortable and it hurts.

Based on his research and love and concern for the horse, Dr. Cook designed a bitless bridle. This bridle is an effective means of communicating with your horse without pain or discomfort.

How To Transition To Bitless

I am not a trainer. I am just another horsewoman who wants the best for her horses. I have made my mistakes but continue to learn from them.

I look back on my earlier years of riding and I apologize to my horses. I ask for forgiveness. I never did anything intentionally cruel but I know I caused them pain and discomfort.

Like many of us, I started riding with a bit. When I heard about Dr. Cook’s bitless bridle, it made sense to me and I made an immediate switch. It was an easy and natural transition for all us.

My horses had all been trained with a bit and ridden that way for many years. In spite of this, I didn’t have to do any retraining.

Valiant is a magnificent 17.3 Hanoverian who had been trained in dressage. Val was a lot of horse. I was definitely over mounted but full of determination. Friends at the barn told me Val was crazy and I should stay away from him. But I had fallen in love and bought him anyway.

The first week, I let Val settle into his new home and get to know me. On our first ride together we went out on the trails in a bitless bridle. Val was still a lot of horse for me and he spooked at everything. He never took off and always settled back down. I found him to be very responsive with the bitless bridle. Before that, he always had been ridden with a bit.

I know I would not have had the same degree of success had I ridden Val with a bit in his mouth. That might have been where his reputation of being “crazy” came from. I am sure I would have unintentionally pulled on his mouth when he spooked, potentially causing a serious problem for both of us.

It all comes down to relationship and training. Developing a true partnership that is based on mutual trust. You cannot have that if you are using a method of control initiated by discomfort and pain.

A few years later, I started training in eventing and dressage. My trainers would not work with me if I rode bitless. Against my better judgement and intuition, I convinced myself that it was ok to use the bit. Everybody did.

Years later, I regret that decision because in my heart I knew better. I have gone back to riding bitless. My horses are happier and I feel a whole lot better.

Fortuna was a Thoroughbred I rescued from the track. I was apprehensive the first time I rode her. She had only ever been on the track. Would she take off with me? Would I be able to stop her? I have had a race horse take off with me before, it was an amazing ride but not something I would ever like to do again. And yes, she had a bit in her mouth.

I thought it best to ride Fortuna in the round pen for the first time. I also had someone with me for support. I think the bitless bridle was a much better way to get her restarted as it takes away from the previous habits and fears caused by the bit on horses off the track.

The hardest part of making the transition from bit to bitless is your own fears and resistance. What you believe of your horse, how attached you are to what is familiar and the pressure from others.

I promise you, if you ride without a bit your horse will be relieved. He will be more comfortable, more relaxed and more responsive.

When you place the bitless bridle on your horse for the first time, walk him around and make sure you are confident that your horse responds to a gentle pull to the right and left, and halt. Your horse will know what to do. This is more for you.

If you are at all uncomfortable, have someone with you for a confidence boost before you mount your horse for the first time.

Ride in a round pen or other enclosed area where you fears are minimized so you don’t convey those fears to your horse.

That’s really all there is to it. Play in an enclosed area for long as you need to. When you are comfortable…..head for the hills.

Let’s Back Up A Bit

I like to believe that we have come a long way since the Bronze Age.

Controlling a horse by placing a bit in their mouth started many years ago. The bit might have been made of rope, bone, wood and eventually metal – it doesn’t matter. It was all about controlling a horse, bending his will through pain.

Evidence from archeological digs indicates that our ancestors were already using horses and donkeys and that the earliest know metal bit was discovered back in the Middle Bronze Period, some say about 3,000 BC.

Some of the bits were extreme with metal spikes designed to dig into the side of the horse’s mouth. A type of metal bit discovered, had triangular spikes that would put pressure on the lips of the horse or donkey when the reins were pulled in one direction.

Dr. Cook calls the discovery of the use of the bit “….a bronze age mistake.”

The original bits were designed to control a horse through pain. You cannot change the premise of the original intention.

In 100 years from now, we might have the same response to our current bits as we do to the old metal spiked bits.

Yes, we have changed and modified the bit. Let’s go even further than that and remove it completely.

Effortlessly Improve Your Riding

There are many variables that come into play when we ride our horses. We need to make sure our saddle fits properly, the feet are well shod and/or properly trimmed. It’s important that horses are on a healthy diet and an appropriate exercise regime. Many of us get chiropractic treatment and bodywork for our horses. We do all of this to ensure that our horse is up to the task of carrying us on his back. We want to be certain that if our horse is acting up or unwilling that we have done everything we can to make it right.

You can spend years and a lot of money trying to figure out why your horse is stiff, why he bucks, why his stride has shortened, why he shakes his head and grinds his teeth.

It may be as simple as the bit. Not always, but it is certainly worth exploring.

When you let go of your horse’s mouth and completely give him back his head he can find his own balance. You may find he is not as resistant as you thought. You just might have a more willing and grateful partner – allowing you to ride with freedom, harmony and grace.

I know that many of you will be wondering if you can show in a bitless bridle. You can find a lot of answers to your specific questions at www.bitlessbridle.com

We, as horse owners need to be the ones to initiate the change that needs to happen for our horses. It takes numbers. If enough people, insist, request, protest, are adamant (whatever your nature allows) change will happen.

Most importantly, keep your safety and the welfare of your horse at the top of your list when considering anything.

 

About the author

Denice Zengo

Denice Zengo is an artist, writer, yoga instructor and lover of horses. She lives in the Sierra Foothills, caring for her 5 horses and offers yoga workshops for equestrians. Denice is dedicated to honoring the spirit of the horse. Site: www.yogicowgirl.com

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