Professional trainer Shelby Dennis weighs in on the pros and cons of bitless riding and how you can get started.
For riders who have predominantly used bits in the past (which is most people), the thought of switching to a bitless bridle may seem daunting. There are so many different options to choose from, plus you have to retrain many of your cues so the horse knows how to respond without a bit.
Could the transition possibly be worth all the trouble? That’s what we’ll discuss in this article.
Switching to bitless riding may be worthwhile depending on your horse’s preferences, your riding level, and if you have competitive goals. But, you must make the transition intentionally and responsibly by selecting the proper type of bridle and adjusting the way you cue the horse now that there’s no bit in the equation.
Given the general lack of knowledge (and stigmas) around riding bitless, I’m sharing some of my favourite options for bitless bridles, as well as advice about how to introduce your horse to bitless riding.
If you’re interested in going bitless, this guide will help ensure your transition is a smooth one.
Pros and Cons of Riding Bitless
I’m someone who rides both bitted and bitless because both pieces of equipment serve a purpose and can add to a horse’s overall knowledge–in the right hands.
Riding both bitted and bitless can also create more versatility in your riding and help you cater to each horse’s individual preferences and discipline.
Some bitless options are significantly less harsh than even the softest of bits, making them preferable when teaching horses and/or riders what riding is all about. These tools have the ability to “dull” cues that would otherwise be harsher when used with a bit.
On the other hand, some bitless options are equally, if not more, harsh than typical bits–especially if misused.
That’s why it’s so important for people to be able to differentiate between softer and harsher bitless options and understand exactly what influences severity in a bitless bridle.
People often disregard sensitivity of the horse’s face in comparison to that of the mouth, wrongly assuming that bitless alternatives could never be misused or cause pain. This could not be further from the truth.
The face of a horse has many nerves that run just under the skin. The hard palates of the skull, particularly the nasal bones, are also susceptible to damage.
For bitless options that predominantly use chin pressure, as an example, it is imperative that riders take into account the sensitivity of the mandibular nerve running under the jaw. It’s located exactly where curb options create pressure.
Bottom line: no matter what type of equipment you opt to use on your horse, is can be misused or cause pain.
Always ride ethically and with the softest hands possible. Educate yourself about how your equipment works so you can adjust the way you ride. Whether you ride with a bit or without, these are golden rules of horsemanship.
How to Choose a Bitless Bridle
Let’s discuss some of the most popular bitless options, including my favourite (and least favourite) options. Remember, there are varying degrees of bitless options suited to different types of horses.
We’ll begin with those that are best for more sensitive horses (i.e. those that do not need more “severe” options to be rideable).
Basic Side Pull
The basic side pull is a style of bitless bridle that is made and sold by a number of different companies. It is a similar concept to attaching reins to a halter and riding that way.
A side pull is essentially a noseband headstall with reins attached to the sides of the noseband, all pressure is created from the action of the reins pulling on the sides of the noseband.
There is no curb strap nor is there a tightening effect on the noseband when the reins are pulled.
A side pull is preferable to riding in a halter due to the fact that it’s fitted and does not move around to the same degree as a halter. This prevents rubbing and conflicting cues.
A side pull is a great option for sensitive horses who may be reactive to nose pressure or especially to pressure under the chin. You can get these bridles in rope halter or leather options.
Side Pull Hackamore
For side pull hackamores, the two brands I recommend are Orbitless (higher end) and ProRider (economical option). These types of hackamores use a leather chin strap and have no shanks.
With this style, the chin strap does not go into action in anywhere near the same way as the traditional mechanical hackamore (read more about that below). That’s why these can be a good choice for horses who are sensitive even to chin pressure.
The lack of shanks also means that the action of your reins is not amplified.
The effect of these bitless options would be similar to that of a halter, however, they are more fitted and the noseband is padded.
Be aware that they can move around a fair bit on a traditional bridle, so it’s imperative to get a bitless bridle/hackamore strap for your bridle (these stop the bridle cheek pieces from sliding into the eye) or to purchase a bridle that is specifically made to use with a hackamore.
A basic rope halter serves as a good means to start introducing bitless riding without putting out much money–or any if you already own one.
Rope halters allow for more refined cues as far as halters go, due to the placement of the knots.
These can be converted for bitless riding by attaching reins to just behind the two side knots on either side of the nasal bone or to the loop underneath the chin.
Rope halters are knotted in a manner to target certain facial nerves and provide more refined cues, the thin nature of the rope also localizes pressure along the nose.
While these are not necessarily a harsh bitless option, they do apply more pressure across the nose than wider bitless nosebands.
The flower hackamore is a style of hack that is also offered by several different brands. It serves as a step up from something like the Orbitless style of hackamore in terms of severity.
While this certainly is not “harsh,” per se, the shank allows the rider the option of increasing the severity.
The flower shanks have many different settings, allowing the rider to use the full length of the flower shank or place a rein elsewhere if they want the action to be less severe.
Similar to the other hackamore previously discussed, this one features a leather chin strap that does not fit as tightly to the chin as a curb chain. The padded leather and fit also makes this less harsh than a hack with a curb chain.
This hack can also move around without a proper hackamore bridle or hack strap, so watch out for that.
Cross Under Bitless Bridle
This bridle has two straps that cross under the chin and apply pressure over the nose and chin when the reins are pulled.
The downfall is that pressure is not easily released when the rider relaxes the pull on the reins, so the horse does not get the same level of reward as it would with other options.
Because of the nature of this bridle, more pressure is placed along the nose and chin than with previously discussed bitless options.
As far as bitless options go, this is one of my least favourites given the design flaw (my opinion) that results in the release not being immediately felt by the horse.
The mechanical hackamore is one of the more popular bitless options.
The shank on most of these, like the example pictured, is not overly long. But, it still does amplify the action of pulling on the reins.
The curb chain is a thinner chain curb and applies pressure underneath the chin with each pull.
Pressure is also applied over the nose, and the noseband of most mechanical hackamores are padded with leather or sheepskin to give the horse more comfort. The wider, padded noseband distributes pressure better than a thinner nose band would.
These can be a fine bitless option for some horses. However, wide use of this option can make beginners unaware of the fact that, as a far as bitless options go, this is a harsher one. Oftentimes, when people think bitless, they assume “soft and painless.”
It’s important for people to realize the degree of severity when selecting a bitless option so they can adjust their cues accordingly.
Long Shank Rope Hackamore
I’m including the Long Shank Rope Hackamore to demonstrate how bitless options can be as harsh–if not harsher–than a lot of bitted equipment.
This hack features a very long shank with a curb chain and thin rope noseband. The thinness of the noseband localizes pressure along the nose and rope also results in more abrasion against the skin than a flat leather noseband.
The longer shanks amplify the pressure more so than a short shank would.
This is quite a harsh bitless option and is something that should only ever be considered for use by very educated hands. Personally, this is not something I use in my barn.
The bosal is a traditional bitless option in western disciplines. These were especially popular in junior horse classes in the western pleasure disciplines of the Arabian circuit when I was young.
Many riders use bosals on trails and for pleasure riding, along with at shows.
The bosal is made of rawhide and puts pressure along the nose and chin. Unlike many other western riding options, the bosal is made to be ridden using two hands.
The reins of the bosal are knotted underneath the chin and are a part of the bosal nosepiece. Due to the lack of shanks, the bosal does not apply pressure to the cheeks of the horse and instead focuses pressure on the nose and chin.
Bitless Bridle Fitting
With all of the discussed bitless options, it is imperative that they are appropriately fitted.
Low-fitting hackamores, side pulls, and cross under bridles end up on top of delicate nasal bones that are more susceptible to damage than the broader, stronger parts of the nose.
Because of this, it is important to follow size charts to ensure that you have correctly fitted the equipment in order to avoid damage to the soft tissues or hard palates of the horse’s face.
Whenever you are selecting new pieces of equipment, especially if you are a “horse rookie,” always consult your trainer and ask for help when introducing new equipment to your horse.
It is also important to keep in mind that any piece of equipment can be misused and can cause pain to your horse.
Bitless is not necessarily kinder than bits. You need to use what feels right for you AND your horse.
Keeping this in mind will help you to be a more empathetic rider, more cautious with the equipment you use, and more knowledgeable about the way in which you use it.
The best thing you can do to be kind to your horse whether you ride with or without a bit? Develop soft hands and an independent seat!
(Here’s a fun video of me galloping one of the racehorses I ride bitless so you can watch my seat and hands.)[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ex4WzGcKUZA]
Bitless Bridles & Competition
The legality of using bitless options will be dependent on the discipline you’re showing in, along with what level of competition you ride.
In disciplines like dressage or hunters, riding bitless is either illegal or frowned upon. (Judges at schooling shows may make exceptions to the rules and allow you to show bitless.)
In the show jumping world, bitless options are legal everywhere.
If you are solely looking to show in the jumper ring, you likely have nothing to worry about.
Some western disciplines do not allow bitless options at all, other than for “junior horses” (i.e. horses under 5 in most breed circuits).
Be sure you know what the rules are in your respective discipline if you want to compete prior to making the switch to bitless.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the best way to transition from bit to bitless?
I would personally start teaching the cues of a bitless bridle from the ground, as they are reliant on facial cues rather than oral ones.
Some bits, like full cheeks or D rings, make the switch easier due to the help of the cheek pieces’ action on the face, thereby bridging a bitless cue.
Q: What is the best bitless bridle overall?
Personally, I’m partial to a side pull or a short shank hackamore with a leather chin strap in lieu of a chain one.
These are more versatile for the sensitive horse, along with the normal to strong horse.
Q: What is the best bitless bridle for jumping?
A lot of jumpers opt for different types of hackamores. My personal choice would once again be a short shank hack with a leather curb strap or a chain one with a gel coating over top.
Shelby & Milo
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- Plain English Please: Types of English Horse Bits
- 16 Common Types of Horse Bits (A Helpful Illustrated Guide)
- The Best Bits for Quarter Horses
- Herm Sprenger Turnado Bit Review: I’ve Never Ridden Better
- 15 Best Equestrian Vloggers on YouTube
- 10 Best Stirrups for Jumping Clear & Staying Safe
- Horse Riding for Older Adults: Why It’s Never Too Late
- Shelby and Milo’s Equestrian Gift Guide
P.P.S. You can find each of the bitless options I recommend on the Horse Rookie Amazon Watch List!