Another Look At the Bitless Bridle

This Horse Journal article gives Dr. Robert Cook's thoughts on the Bitless Bridle.
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This Horse Journal article gives Dr. Robert Cook's thoughts on the Bitless Bridle.

Dr. Robert Cook, who developed and markets the Bitless Bridle, took exception to our evaluation of his product in our April issue. We also received many letters from supporters of the Bitless Bridle (see page 15). We decided to find out why our experience was so different.

”The welfare aspect deserved more attention. This is an opportunity for people to do something wonderful for the horse after 5,000 years,” Dr. Cook said. ”Reins are a form of communication — but they don’t have to have a bit attached to them. The mouth is such a highly sensitive body cavity that if you could do it without interfering with it, isn’t that a good thing'”

We asked Dr. Cook to respond to our analysis. ”I didn’t design the bridle — it traces back to the beginning of the last century. What I do claim credit for is bringing it to the attention of the public, of explaining why it works and why the bit doesn’t,” he said.

Dr. Cook, what is your major criticism of the Horse Journal report'

Your report focused on what the writer believes to be negative features of the Bitless Bridle. But what is the price of happiness for horse and rider' Nowhere in your report did you mention any positive features of the Bitless Bridle. A brief visit to my website (www.bitlessbridle.com) would have reminded you of the many benefits, yet you mention none.

This is not the place to repeat the compelling evidence in favor of the Bitless Bridle by comparison with all bitted bridles and all the traditional bitless bridles. But it is painless and, therefore, more humane, safer, more ethical — and it just works better.

Please describe why the Bitless Bridle works.

Unlike a bitted bridle, the Bitless Bridle is compatible with the welfare of the horse. First and foremost, it does not hurt and, therefore, does not frighten the horse.It provides the rider with an effective yet painless and non-violent rein aid.

The horse has evolved to be easily frightened. Its very survival depends on its instinct to respond to pain or fear of pain by flight, fight or freeze. Because a bit is painful, it regularly triggers all three responses. Unfortunately, under conditions of domestication, many of these natural responses are potentially fatal to horse and rider — bolting, bucking and rearing.

The horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of its body, richly supplied with touch, pressure and pain receptors. It should not have to accept anything but grass and water.

To expect a horse to accept the painful presence of one or more metal rods in this body cavity is unrealistic. The rein and bit empowers a rider to carry out oral surgery with a blunt instrument on a fully conscious and mobile patient.

Secondly, the bit triggers digestive-system responses, instead of the respiratory and cardiovascular responses required by a horse in motion. A gaping mouth, profuse salivation, and movement of jaw and tongue are incompatible with the physiology of exercise.The turmoil that it causes at the level of the throat prevents a horse from breathing properly. Since breathing is synchronized with striding (one breath, one stride), a horse that can’t breathe freely can’t stride freely.

How does the Bitless Bridle work'

A horse will respond to the pressure of a fly landing on its face; a ”hammer” in its mouth is overkill. The Bitless Bridle enables a rider to communicate with a painless squeeze that encourages compliance and avoids resistance. Unlike the bit, which focuses enormous pressure per square inch on highly sensitive tissues, the Bitless Bridle spreads its gentle signal over less sensitive skin; half the head for steering (a nudge) and the whole of the head for slowing or stopping (a hug).

It achieves this by means of a simple figure-eight design — one loop over the nose and one over the poll. At no point is the pressure intense. Such as it is, the pressure is greatest over the bridge of the nose, with less pressure under the chin and along the cheek, and least pressure at the poll.

Why might you not feel an immediate and positive change in the way the horse responds to your aids'

Some 98 percent of users report a positive improvement on day one, with continuing, steady improvement over the following weeks. The most common reason for initial disappointment — easily remedied — is failure to fit the bridle correctly. The next most common reason is rider error. For example, if a rider, consciously or unconsciously, has been in the habit of using the ”persuasiveness” of a bit to achieve poll flexion and a semblance of collection, they may express disappointment at their failure to achieve a ”frame.”

But one of the merits of the Bitless Bridle is that the design does not lend itself to being used (incorrectly) in this way. Bit-induced poll flexion is false collection. True collection comes from months of fitness training for horse and rider. With patience and perseverance, collection just happens.

If a rider isn’t happy with the Bitless Bridle, do you refund their purchase price or work with them'

We’re glad to work with riders who let us know about a problem by phone or email. A problem-solving file is available on our website. Our no-questions, 30-day money-back warranty is invoked by only 2 percent of purchasers.

There are six sizes of riding bridles and five sizes of driving bridles, fitting everything from a Miniature Horse to a Shire.

One of our main points was that the difficult or green horses on which we tried the bridle showed no positive change or improvement, although the more experienced horses went well in it. How or why do you think our results could have been different'

Again, your result is an outlier on the bell curve. With apologies, I have to attribute this to rider error. It might well be that, anxious about being bitless, you were using far too much rein pressure on the green horses. You actually reported having to ”pull hard on the reins to achieve any effect,” i.e. poll flexion.

The consensus of opinion among users is that the Bitless Bridle is especially helpful for schooling young horses. By avoiding bit pain, a green horse is able to focus attention on its lessons, learns a great deal faster, and does not develop bit-induced negative behavior.

What is your evidence of your assertion that ”the bit instills fear, inflicts pain, and triggers over a hundred behavioral problems and causes 40 different diseases”'

In the last 10 years, horse owners around the world have conducted many thousands of ”natural experiments” by switching to a Bitless Bridle. In those few cases in which the ”natural experiment” has been reversed and the rider of a bitless horse has reverted to using a bit, the behavioral problems have returned.

With regard to the ”over a hundred behavioral problems,” the evidence comes from the recorded changes in before-and-after behavior as judged by a behavioral profile questionnaire.If all the bit-induced faults that are noted by a dressage judge were to be added, the total number of problems would exceed 150.

Further evidence comes from the results of my bit vs. bitless experiment at the Certified Horsemanship Association conference last year and the DVD of the experiment that is available for review.Four riding school horses that had never previously been ridden in the Bitless Bridle first completed a four-minute test of basic training in a jointed snaffle bridle. They then immediately repeated the same test, with the same rider, in the Bitless Bridle. An independent judge with 25 years experience scored the performances. The average score when bitted was 37 percent (fairly bad) and, when bitless, 64 percent (satisfactory). In the first four minutes of their horse being bitless, all riders dramatically improved their scores. One rider doubled her score and, very nearly, so did another.

Evidence for the ”40 different diseases” arises from my published research over the last 57 years on diseases of the horse’s head, neck and chest. My bibliography of nearly 100 scientific articles, three books, two videos and 50 or more articles in horseman’s journals is online. The list of bit-induced diseases is also available. The negative behavioral signs that vanish when the bit is removed are symptoms of these diseases.

Evidence of bit-induced bone spurs on the bars of the mouth and bit-induced dental erosion comes from surveys I have carried out in the last 10 years on Equus caballus skulls in the collections of all the major natural history museums on the East Coast.

Another of our main points was that the Bitless Bridle offers no fine communication with the horse’s mouth. Some didn’t bend, and we couldn’t soften them by overbending or use our fingers to soften or play with their jaw. How does one achieve this with the Bitless Bridle'

Fine communication is not exclusive to hand-to-mouth communication and dependent on a bit. It can be achieved more readily and more humanely, safely and satisfyingly, with hand-to-head communication, using the Bitless Bridle. You don’t achieve certain things with a rein aid (bitted or bitless) and shouldn’t try. Riders should not be using a rein aid to ”bend” their horses. A horse is not ”softened” by ”overbending.” Riders don’t have to ”play” in their horse’s mouth with a weapon of horse destruction. Using a bit, a rider cannot avoid contravening a tenet of the FEI that ”the welfare of the horse at all times is paramount.”

Dr. Cook offers many online references about the Bitless Bridle on his website at www.bitlessbridle.com (phone 866-235-0938). Click on the ”articles” link for the full list, but topics include bit-induced fear, problem solving, reducing accidents in equestrian sport, and comments about rollkur.

Article by John Strassburger, our Performance Editor.