Bitless Bridles

This Horse Journal article describes the results of a field trial where we used two different bitless bridles on six different horses.
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This Horse Journal article describes the results of a field trial where we used two different bitless bridles on six different horses.

Riders and trainers are constantly searching for the perfect bit or perfect gadget, for the item that their horse will trust so much that he’ll forever go softly, quietly and perfectly. Hence the Rambo Micklem Multibridle and the Bitless Bridle by Dr. Robert Cook.

The Micklem Multibridle, invented by respected British trainer and author William Micklem, is almost a revolutionary design, with a semi-rigid noseband that wraps around the bit like a dropped noseband, and a strap that fits snugly around the horse’s cheekbones, instead of loosely, like a throatlatch. It can be used with a bit, without a bit, as a longeing cavesson and as a halter.

The Micklem Multibridle is marketed as being ”designed from the inside out to fit the shape of the horse’s skull. The most comfortable, flexible and effective bridle ever invented.” The user’s manual adds, ”In particular, it avoids any pressure on the facial nerves, the projecting cheek bones or the upper jaw molar teeth. Therefore, it prevents the damage and discomfort that is frequently caused, both to facial nerves and the sensitive tissues lining the cheeks inside the mouth, by tight-fitting cavesson and flash nosebands, or many bit-free bridles.”

The Bitless Bridle isn’t a hackamore, which uses pressure on the nose and the poll. It has a low noseband (adjusted just above the mouth) and uses two loops that cross under the throat (and are attached to the reins) ”to embrace the whole of the head.”

Cook claims that his Bitless Bridle ”is compatible with the physiological needs of the horse at exercise. First and foremost, it does not injure or frighten the horse, but neither does it interfere, as does the bit, with the horse’s ability to breathe and stride freely.”

Both bridles cost about the same as a high-end conventional leather bridle: The Rambo Micklem Multibridle costs $199 (www.horseware.com, 800-887-6688), and the Bitless Bridle’s English leather headstall (without reins) costs $189 (www.bitlessbridle.com, 866-235-0938). The nylon headstall costs only $69.

The Rambo Micklem Combination Bridle and the Bitless Bridle are each suitable for use with English or Western tack. But we had to slice several stitches in the browband of the Micklem Multibridle so that the loops would fit over the crownpiece and improve its appearance as an English bridle.

Mixed Results.We tried these two bridles on six different horses of varying training and temperaments. On two horses, they didn’t have the promised effect at all. In fact, both seemed to intensely dislike both bridles. On two others, we noticed no change in their attitude or way of going. One experienced horse, competing at intermediate level in eventing, went well in the Micklem bridle on the flat, although it would be a stretch to say his performance was markedly improved. The sixth horse went happily in the Bitless Bridle, although we noticed no difference in the Micklem Multibridle when used with a bit. He was barely controllable in the Micklem bridle without a bit.

We were especially interested in trying the Micklem bridle on Sysco, a Thoroughbred gelding competing at training level in eventing. He’s a horse with a sensitive mouth and an opinionated way of going, a horse who also likes to scratch his itchy nose and would prefer not to wear a flash noseband but would go around with an open mouth if allowed. He also puts his tongue over the bit if he thinks the rein contact is too much, especially in the early stages of a training session.

Unfortunately, this horse was one of the two whose performance didn’t improve with the Micklem bridle. He worked hard to get his tongue over the bit and succeeded repeatedly. In fact, he sometimes seemed preoccupied with accomplishing this task, perhaps because the bit clips were designed to hold the bit higher in the horse’s mouth.

We thought Sysco would like these clips holding the bit off his bars, but he didn’t. So we tried the Micklem bridle without the clips (so that the bit is held in place just like a conventional bridle), and he objected slightly less.

While working in the Micklem Multibridle, he vacillated between being unwilling to accept any bit contact and feeling like 1,000 pounds in the hand. He’s easily distracted from his work, and the bridle only distracted him further.

For six weeks of our test, we alternated between working Sysco in the Micklem Multibridle and a crescent noseband, in both cases using a double-jointed plastic loose-ring snaffle. He was less fussy and more accepting of the bit when ridden in the crescent noseband. He did, however, longe happily in the Micklem bridle, using a chambon. As promised in the user’s manual, the Micklem Multibridle worked very well as a longeing cavesson.

Shawn, a gelding competing at intermediate level, demonstrated an important element in making the Micklem Multibridle work: understanding fitting the bridle to the horse. We tried this bridle on him early in our test, when we thought that the four plastic clips provided were to be used to attach the bit to the four D-rings on the noseband. (The bridle arrived with those clips attached to the D-rings.)

Consequently, we couldn’t get the bridle to fit Shawn, a 15.3-hand Thoroughbred with a relatively fine head, properly because the upper (jaw) strap was too low on his head and, thus, too big to be drawn snugly around his jaw. He found the bridle uncomfortable, which he demonstrated by either putting his tongue over the bit or by sticking it out to the side, evasions he doesn’t normally display.

Then we re-read the manual and learned that there were leather straps enclosed to attach the bit to the upper D-ring, allowing further adjustment to the height of the bit. Consequently, the bridle fit him nicely, and he worked well in it.

Brakes: Yes; Fine Control: No.We also tried Sysco in the Bitless Bridle, and it was largely useless on him. He wouldn’t bend his neck or head, especially to the right, so lateral work was impossible. We never achieved a round frame, and he frequently showed his objection by tossing his head up and down. We jumped him in the Bitless Bridle and had no control problems.

Alba, a Quarter Horse mare, also didn’t care for either bridle, and we decided her objection was to the nosebands. We’ve tried a flash noseband on her, which caused her to flip her head without stopping and snap her jaws open and closed in an attempt to dislodge the noseband. She did the same thing with these bridles, especially with the Micklem (to the point of distraction).

We tried jumping Alba in the Bitless Bridle, and she continued to toss her head. Plus, we couldn’t restrain her from rushing her fences. The Bitless Bridle offered no mild brakes, just full out or full stop.

Our attempt to jump Alba in the Bitless Bridle showcased what we consider to be the bridle’s downfall???that a rider doesn’t have fine-tuned communication. Since there is no bit, we found we had a limited ability to communicate with the horses through our hands or reins. We couldn’t play with their mouths or soften their jaws with our fingers; instead, with most horses (especially, in our observation, green horses), we had to pull hard on the reins to achieve any effect.

The one green-horse exception was a horse who’d had tie-back surgery four months earlier. He responded well to the Bitless Bridle???we could achieve a forward and round frame, could bend him reasonably well, and could do shoulder-fore. We observed that he foamed considerably in his mouth, although he wasn’t chewing. His expression looked like he was holding saliva in his cheeks and not wanting to swallow.

But riding him bitless in the Micklem bridle was a disaster. It felt like riding in a halter as he careened around the ring. We had no fine control; it was either full out or full stop. We tried the Micklem Multibridle bitless on Sysco and Alba. The brakes were better, and neither objected to it as much as with the Bitless Bridle, but they didn’t bend or come into a round frame.

A former two-star event horse who has competed successfully at second-level dressage, went no differently in the Micklem bridle than normal and went nicely in the Bitless Bridle. He was light and round, able to do shoulder-in and half-pass. He did not foam at the mouth, although he, too, carried an expression of holding on to his saliva.

Bottom Line.Both the Rambo Micklem Combination Bridle and the Bitless Bridle seem like sound concepts, and we eagerly tried them.

However, we found these bridles disappointing as a training aid, and we believe that their use skirts the issue of teaching the horse to accept the bit and your rein aids. This disappointment casts doubt for us on their value.

Still, no two horses reacted exactly the same in our trial, so they might be worth a try on a difficult horse. Ten years ago, we used an earlier version of the Bitless Bridle on a bit-sensitive horse for jumping, and we found that he was calmer and used his back better over the fences. It might be kind of like finding the best bit for your horse. But at almost $200, it’s an expensive experiment.

Article by John Strassburger, Horse Journal Performance Editor.