California Riding Magazine • June, 2010

Ask Charles Wilhelm
What is Bitless Riding? - Part 2

Question: I have heard some discussion on riding without a bit or what I have heard called “bitless riding.” What is bitless riding and what are your thoughts on it?

Answer - Part II: As I said last month, for me, riding bitless is neither right nor wrong. It depends on the horse and the type of riding you do. Each type of equipment has advantages. A bit has more communication value as commands can be more specific. It is important to remember that it is not what you put on the horse’s face, it is what you do with that piece of equipment.

I personally think a horse’s nose is more sensitive to pressure on the outside than a snaffle bit is in the mouth. I designed a bitless apparatus to start colts because I can pull on it and it does not have the bite of a hackamore. It is designed so that I can get a hold of the horse’s nose without it overreacting. I can then do the ground work needed to teach a horse to give to pressure. The apparatus is not a harsh piece of equipment. The advantage of using a traditional halter is that it is not as harsh as a cowboy or string halter. A cowboy halter is not a harsh piece of equipment if used properly. It is made of one-eighth inch string and does have more bite than a leather or web halter but it does not have the bite of a hackamore that is nine sixteenths or five eighths. Some horses will overreact to even that much pressure. I have started many colts with a cowboy halter and have ridden with just the halter the first three or four times as colts are sometimes frightened by something abrasive or something in the mouth.

As I work horses, I like to change from a snaffle to a hackamore as it gets me out of the horse’s mouth for a while. I can pull on the face without having to pull on the inside of the horse’s mouth. It gives me an opportunity to get some work done where a snaffle bit would be too harsh. I am talking about taking hold of the nose. Here again, we must be careful because the outside of the mouth and the jaw can be very sensitive as there is no padding at those spots. Another thing I like about a hackamore is that if I have a horse, like an Arab that can move his parts in six different directions at once, a hackamore can align the horse’s body from nose to tail. This is because of the shape of a hackamore. A hackamore is designed so that a horse learns to stay in the middle of the hackamore. I like using a hackamore even with a horse who is normally ridden with a bridle because it gets the horse off the forehand. Some horses learn to lean on the bit but a hackamore teaches the horse to stay off the pressure both laterally and vertically. As a trainer, the hackamore is an excellent tool for me.

Most people are happy if they can walk, trot and canter their horses. Not everyone is an overachiever and expecting more of the horse. If you, for example, are going into reining, you need more control as the horse needs specific cues. A snaffle permits a more specific cue. I also use leverage bits and other types of bits for different jobs. The type of equipment to use also depends on the personality of the horse. If your horse is not listening and is laying down on the bit, a more severe bit may be needed. You may go to a twisted wire mouthpiece for a few rides and when the horse is listening, go back to a smooth mouth piece. Once the horse learns to respect the bit we need to release the pressure and use a regular bit.

Some bits are designed with a single purpose that can help in training but there is no magic bit. An elevator bit, for example, helps to keep a horse’s shoulders from dropping. A bit with a twisted wire mouthpiece, a leverage bit or a bit with a high port may be needed with a horse that is pushy. Even if the horse learns to yield and be soft, a pushy horse may always need that type of bit. Knowing your horse and using the right equipment is important but you need to watch out for the “bigger bit” syndrome. People often rely on a bigger, heavier bit to get a desired response. When the desired response goes away because the horse has learned to deal with the bit, the rider may then get a bigger bit with a higher port or maybe add a chain chin strap. It is the rider who needs to change. If the rider does not know how to use the equipment properly or does not understand the concept of pressure and release, the performance will not get any better. The horse will continue to lean on the bit and remain dull or pushy. The change must be in the rider’s hands, teaching the horse how to yield to the pressure.

Bigger Bit Syndrome

As your horsemanship abilities expand, you will recognize that there is more involved than the type of equipment and you will find that it is more what you do with the equipment. Safety is always of primary concern. Just because you put a big, heavy, severe bit in a horse’s mouth, does not mean it is going to be a safe horse. The horse must know how to yield to the piece of equipment. When I get a horse in at the barn to re-school, I lunge the horse and do some in-hand work first to determine where the horse’s head is. I want to know what I am getting on before I mount. The horse will tell me what I am dealing with before I get into the saddle. If the horse is not listening to my hands, I am not going to get on until I get the horse to respond to me on the ground. When you get on any horse, there is always a certain amount of risk. Even the most calm horse may act up when taken out of a closed environment, like an arena, and into the open. The horse is out of his comfort zone and he will act a little different. When I start a colt in the round pen and I can’t get the colt to go forward, I take the colt to the big arena because the space creates movement. No matter if you are starting a colt, re-schooling a horse or riding your own horse, you have to know that the horse will accept and yield to your hands. Then, eventually, the horse will yield to your seat and legs.

Current articles about the benefits of going bitless are interesting but we must use what works for the horse. It depends on educating the horse and the owner but it does not happen overnight. The more you ride, the more you get in touch with the feel of the horse. Any horse can be taught to yield to any type of equipment. It doesn’t matter what piece of equipment you put in the mouth or over the nose, it is what you do with that piece of equipment that is important.

God Bless,

Charles Wilhelm
Remember, It’s Never, Ever the Horse’s Fault