Bitless bridles are increasing in popularity. But, for some disciplines, it is not ‘legal’ to ride in a bitless bridle. One example is Dressage, because of the term “on the bit” will not be applicable with a bitless bridle. But can you use a bitless bridle as part of your showjumping tack? Can you jump in a bitless bridle?
For Show Jumping, it is allowed to jump in a bitless bridle. There are many types of bitless bridles that have different uses or actions. It is also about preference and the type of horse you are riding. Horses that react to pressure from the reins onto the bit with pulling down, head shaking, running away, or avoiding any form of pressure might be a cue for you, as the rider, to try a bitless bridle.
Every bitless bridle has a specific purpose. Some apply nose pressure, some apply poll pressure, and others only work on the sides of the face. This is one thing to consider when you want to jump in a bitless bridle, as well as how your horse reacts to these bridles.
Some may argue that bitless bridles are more humane and gentler on the horse, but once again, it depends on the horse, rider, and type of bridle. So read on while we dig deeper into everything now.
Rules in Show Jumping
The only rule on bits and bitless bridles in the FEI Show Jumping rules are as follows:”
Article 257, Section 1.4 – There are no restrictions on bits in show jumping, but a bit may be forbidden from the competition if it is found to be harmful or cause pain to the horse – under veterinary advice. The reins – it can be one or two pairs – need to be attached directly to the bit or to the bridle itself (bitless bridles). Gags (bits) and Hackamores (most popular bitless bridles) are allowed.
Types of Bitless bridles
Let’s take a look at the different types of bitless bridles.
Hackamore (rope or mechanical)
- This is the most popular bitless bridle used in Show Jumping.
- These bridles use pressure on the nose and jaw to control the horse. A Mechanical hackamore has long metal shanks that aid in increasing the pressure on the nose, and these shanks are connected to the reins. The mechanical hackamore also has a strap that runs under the jaw of the horse, which also increases the pressure and causes a clamping action around the nose and the jaw of the horse.
- The nose strap can be made from rope, leather, or rubber covered metal chain.
- The curb strap (under the jaw) can either be a chain or leather.
- The hackamore nose piece should sit at the end of the nose bones but not too low as to apply pressure on the cartilage. The curb chain should be loose enough for two flat fingers to fit between the chin of the horse and the chain.
- This is considered one of the milder bitless bridles because it just adds more pressure than a halter and lead rope.
- It mainly looks like a normal bridle with a noseband that has rings on each side, where the reins will attach. This is mostly made out of leather, but stiff rope can also be used to increase the aid of the bridle.
- The side pull applies most of the pressure on the sides of the horse’s face, to guide the horses head in the direction you want him to move.
- The nose piece sits where a normal bridle’s noseband will be – two fingers width from the facial crest.
- The cross under is a newer type of model that is adapted from the side pull bridles. The cross-under is more effective and improves control because of increased lateral pressure.
- The straps that are connected to the reins will, from the nose, cross over each other under the jaw of the horse and go over the poll. This causes a ‘hugging’ action onto the horse’s head.
- The strap that goes under the chin should have space for one flat finger between the strap and the jaw. The noseband basically sits at the same place where a drop noseband would be – 4-5cm above the corners of the mouth.
- The popularity of these bridles has increased significantly.
- The bosal is mostly used in Western Riding disciplines.
- It is made of rawhide and forms a loop around the muzzle of the horse; the lowest part has a large knot called the heel butt (this sits behind the horse’s chin).
- The bosal is held in place by a western headstall that goes over the poll of the horse.
- The reins are stiff long lead ropes (5 – 6m) made of horsehair is tied to the heel butt, this adds weight to the bosal and prompts a better and quicker reaction from the horse.
- The pressure is placed on the side, opposite of the rein pull. This prompts the horse to move away from the pressure. The bosal pivots slightly and applies pressure either on top of the nose or on the sides.
- The bosal will lie at the end of the facial bones and at the beginning of the nasal cartilage.
Switching from a bit to bitless
The decision is entirely up to the owner and rider as to why you would want to switch to a bitless bridle. It can be softer on the horse and cause less discomfort than a metal bit in their mouths. However, the rider needs to understand the training, fit, and pressure points of the bitless bridle before deciding to switch.
Some horses just do not get on well with bits, and this can be due to numerous reasons:
- Thin gum lining on the bars – this would cause discomfort on the gums from the bit. Because the bit lies on top of the gums and adds pressure to the gums, a thin gum lining would mean that the bit adds pressure onto the jawbone.
- History – the horse might have had a bad experience with trainers that were hard-handed or had a too harsh bit in the horse’s mouth.
- Thick tongue – the thickness of the tongue is an important aspect to consider when fitting a bit. A very thick and fleshy tongue will mean that there is little space in the horse’s mouth, and the bit will be pushed up against the palate of the horse.
- Dental work – the horse might have teeth problems, and it can be painful to have a bit in their mouths. This goes paired with the length of their lips. If the horse has a longer muzzle, the bit can be pulled onto the molars, and this can be painful. A short muzzle means that the bit lies closer to the wolf tooth.
- Head conformation – severe parrot or bulldog mouth head conformation can make a bit fitting more difficult.
- Anxiety – the horse can experience anxiety, stress, and even the flight-fight reaction when they have a bit in their mouths, especially bits that are too hard/harsh.
Note: Parrot mouth (Brachygnathism) is the uneven alignment of the upper and lower teeth in animals. (source: Wikipedia)
When a horse reacts with anxiety, “bad behavior” or defiance, going bitless, even for a short period, can change the cycle and remove the discomfort of the bit for your horse.
Consider your horse and their reaction to pressure. If you have a sensitive horse that listens to light pressure, a loose-fitting rope style bridle will work better. The cross-under or leverage type bridles adds a considerable amount of pressure on specific areas of the horse’s face.
The history of your horse should also be considered. If you have a greener horse that just came off the track, immediately switching to a loose, soft bitless bridle would not be the best choice.
Do’s and Don’ts with bitless bridles
Here are some dos and don’ts when it comes to bitless bridles:
- Listen to your horse, start with the most basic bitless you can have on him/her – a halter – if you know your horse is going to get too strong, then you know you would need a bridle that adds more pressure.
- Make sure that your horse understands and listens to basic voice commands. This will make it easier for your horse to learn the new pressures and aids of the bridle.
- Ensure that your horse is professionally trained to react to seat and leg aids, as this will make you as the rider feel safer in the saddle.
- Make sure you know how to properly fit a bitless bridle because an ill-fitting bitless bridle can cause more harm to the horse than the bit.
- Start on the ground with your horse, and ask the horse to yield to the rein pressure on each side first.
- Do not expect your horse to know what the pressure of the bitless bridle means immediately. The horse needs to re-learn the aids and learn – from pressure and release – what the correct response is
- Do not get anxious and hold a strong contact continuously, the horse will not get relief of pressure and will also get anxious, continue riding as normal but also allowing your horse to adjust to the new tack.
- Do not assume that bitless is harmless to your horse. When going bitless, make sure that you don’t use excessive force or yank on the reins as the facial nerves are sensitive and the bridle can cause damage to the face
- When it is the first time trying out and using a bitless bridle, make sure your coach or trainer is there to help you.
- Overall, be a kind and empathetic rider, whether you use a bit or bitless bridle
I hope to have cleared up any questions you may have had regarding using a bitless bridle, specifically if you plan on using it for show jumping. Just remember that every bitless bridle has a specific purpose, and you should consider using the appropriate ones for a particular purpose you want to use them for. Also, be aware of how your horse reacts to these bridles.
Other posts in this series to check out:
Can You Show Jump in a Hackamore?
Why Do Showjumpers Use Draw Reins?