All About Bitless Bridles For Your Horse

Bit-free headgear is sometimes the answer for sensitive horses or tough training problems.
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Bit-free headgear is sometimes the answer for sensitive horses or tough training problems.

The original remote-control device was a brilliant notion: Suspend a metal bar in the horse's mouth, and use the rigid mouthpiece, via some reins, to control the horse's speed and direction. Brilliant, yes, but far from flawless.

For the 6,000 years or so that man has been opening mouth and inserting bit, horses have not always responded with compliance. Their objections are understandable, considering that the wrong bits or bits in the wrong mouths or in the wrong hands do inflict pain on a very sensitive part of the anatomy. Bitless bridles, which have equally ancient roots, provide an alternative means of influencing the speed and direction of horses without risking oral pain and the resistances that arise from it.

Bit-free headgear--including bosals, mechanical hackamores and sidepulls--is standard in some disciplines, banned in others. But, rules and fashion aside, this gear is applicable to horses in many training situations and in most uses.

Western trainers often rely on bitless bridles to start young horses, but trainers in English disciplines, who longe and work youngsters in halterlike devices, also are bypassing the mouth while instilling basic directional and speed controls. And for stressed-out, injured or overly sensitive working and performance horses (and their riders), hackamores can provide relief, relaxation and renewal.

The benefits of bitless work accrue, however, only if the headgear is appropriate to the individual and his "problem." For bitless bridles, just like bits, operate on a variety of mechanical principles and run the gamut from nearly benign to potentially cruel. They, too, can end up on the wrong horse and in the wrong hands, and when they do, they're just as hurtful as metal in the mouth.

Principles in Practice

"Hackamore," a corruption of the Spanish word jaquima (meaning "bridle"), has come to be a catchall term for just about anything you put on a horse's face that operates on the muzzle instead of the mouth. The true hackamore, known as the bosal (a Spanish term for "noseband"), is as different from the later-arriving mechanical hackamore as apples are from oranges, but both operate on the same general principle of expecting the horse to seek comfort by moving away from pressure. A third type of bitless bridle, often called the sidepull, acts more like the direct reins on a snaffle bit, which are intended to cause the horse to move toward the tension.

Bosals: A bosal is a tubular loop of braided rawhide or other leather that loosely encircles the muzzle and is closed by the heel butt, a knot projecting behind the jaw. The bosal hangs from a simple headstall, which may have an ear slot or a brow band to hold it in place. Sometimes a rope called a fiador connects the heel butt to the poll to limit seesaw movement in the bosal. Reins formed from the mecate--an 18- to 20-foot rope of braided horsehair that is wrapped around the heel butt--are used individually to activate the bosal and apply indirect aids.

The bosal's principal action is irritation that causes the horse to move away from contact and toward the desired posture, speed or direction. When a well-fitted bosal rests lightly on the horse's face with the heel knot balanced below the lower jaw, the signals are neutral, and the horse is comfortable. As movements of the mecate change the bosal's position, the horse adjusts his head carriage or forward motion to maintain that comfortably neutral relationship.

With the heavy mecate attached behind the chin, lifting of one rein raises the heel butt slightly to one side and causes the bosal to pivot on the headstall. The back of the bosal rubs up against the lower jawbone, and the nosepiece shifts downward to pressure the cartilage above the nostrils, encouraging the horse to seek neutrality and comfort by flexing his poll and turning his head in the direction opposite the signaling rein. Intermittent pressure and release, rather than a continual pull, "bump" the horse's nose and squeeze his cheeks to slow or halt him.

The mecate is intentionally stiff and prickly to accentuate its friction on the neck, making the horse attentive to the slightest rein movement. Not only does this contact signal the horse to reposition his head even as the bosal pivots and the heel butt rises, but it also encourages the horse to neck-rein to escape the irritation.

If the distinction between the comfort zone and the annoyance areas gets blurry, the bosal loses all training effect. Consequently, a perfect fit and careful craftsmanship are essential; otherwise, the braided surface rubs and annoys even when the horse has his head exactly where the rider wants it.

For an average-size horse's head, a bosal 11 to 12 inches long is just the right size to hang straight and true from the headstall. If the bosal is too long for the muzzle, the heel knot drags downward and the nose section rides high on the face. If it is too narrow, the bosal cramps the horse's jaw or rubs his face when it shouldn't. The fit needs to be loose enough to telegraph rein motions clearly to the horse, but not so free that the bosal rocks and swings with every movement.

A bosal should be constructed of good-quality, evenly trimmed leather, braided in straight, regular lines that taper gradually from the thickened area over the nose back to the knot, says Gail Hought, a professional hackamore braider from McKinleyville, Calif. The knot itself needs to be large enough to avoid catching between the branches of the lower jaw and heavy enough to fall back into place when rein tension ceases.

Bosals range in diameter from 11/2 inches down to one-quarter inch, with the thicker, more forceful types usually used on green and unresponsive horses and the thinner on well-trained, sensitive horses. The bosal is usually positioned so it hangs just at the end of the facial bones and the start of the nose cartilage. If it hangs higher, it won't contact a particularly sensitive area; if it hangs lower, it may damage the nasal cartilage and restrict air intake.

Mechanical hackamores: Basically brakes used to control forward movement, mechanical hackamores act on the same leverage principle as the curb bit. Except for the missing mouthpiece, they have the same parts--shanks that can be long or short, as well as straight, curved or S-shaped, and a curb chain or strap. On the hackamore, a snugly fitted noseband, often fleece lined, and a chin strap or chain surround the muzzle and produce a nutcracker action when pressure is applied to the shanks by the reins. The leverage of the pivoting shanks also pressures the poll, via the headstall.

Like curb bits, mechanical hackamores are ill-suited for direct reining, leaving all effective directional signals to be sent by seat, legs and neck reining. Some designs include a bar or chain that connects the shank ends, stabilizing the unit for consistent leverage and preventing independent wobbling and swiveling of the shanks. A variant of the mechanical hackamore has double reins, similar to a Pelham bit: One rein attaches as usual at the shank ends, and the other fastens to the nosepiece to provide a leverage-free, direct-rein option.

Ideally, the lightest touch-and-release contact on the reins is all that's needed to slow, collect or halt a horse who is wearing a mechanical hackamore. When the rider lifts the reins, the horse feels the movement along his neck and through the shanks, and, if well-schooled and ridden with consistent skill, often heeds this early message to slow or halt before the nutcracker takes hold of his muzzle. A heavier hand produces an inescapable pressure that can cause the horse to throw his head in discomfort and frustration--or react even more violently.

The noseband of the mechanical hackamore is intended to rest on the facial bones, not the nasal cartilage, with the curb chain or strap fitting comfortably in the chin groove. As with the bosal, incorrect placement on the face either reduces the mechanical hackamore's effectiveness or positions its considerable leverage on the vulnerable nasal cartilage.

Sidepulls: These truly bitless bridles go by a variety of names, including jumping hackamore, cavesson, Lindell and Scrawbrig. They operate directly on the horse's muzzle, with pressure on both reins used for slowing and halting, and a pull on one rein applied to bend the horse or turn him in that direction.

The simplest sidepulls, which produce no leverage and hardly any discomfort, are about as severe as a halter with lead shanks snapped to the side rings. They may, in fact, be more comfortable, since they are more stable on the face and are constructed of padded or smooth rolled leather to prevent rubs or pinching.

Variants with stronger effect incorporate a pain producer--such as a twist of rawhide or latigo, a length of rubber-padded bicycle chain, a strip of padded hard plastic or a loop of metal covered with surgical tubing--under the noseband. Another means of adding "teeth" to the simple sidepull is to have rein pressure tighten the chin component, which puts a pinch on the muzzle like that of a halter with a chain shank under the chin. The sidepull has its best effect when positioned just below the facial bones.

Of all headgear, sidepulls are the most forgiving of bad hands, but because they're so benign, they also invite horses to ignore the bridle, which then causes riders to become increasingly ham-fisted to get their message across. In a perfect world, however, the horse would remain respectful of the smidgen of constraint presented by the sidepull, and sensitive and responsive to the primary aids coming from the rider's seat and legs. The same is true of the perfect worlds for all other forms of bitless bridles.

When to Use a Bitless Bridle

Traditionally, the split between bitless and bitted riding has fallen between disciplines or uses that expect the horse to carry himself with practically no direct influence on his head, and those in which the rider seeks to "shape" the horse's posture and control his movements through an interplay of driving aids (seat and legs) and containing aids (the hands).

The hackamore-to-curb-bit convention teaches the horse that so long as he maintains the desired head position in relation to the bridle, he won't feel a thing in his face, and that all the significant rider input comes from seat and leg aids and the touch of a rein on the neck. It is a communication system ideal for covering ground with minimal fuss for both rider and mount, and for performing horseback activities, such as ranch work, in which one or both hands need to be free to handle ropes and such.

By extension, bitless work is suitable in other circumstances where the horse needs to gain or regain confidence in carrying his rider in a comfortable, relaxed, ground-covering manner. Both the bosal and the sidepull encourage horses to accept rein aids without anticipating mouth pain and resisting accordingly.

The mechanical hackamore--with its potential for intense leverage on the sensitive muzzle--can take horses to the same place of relaxed compliance by a negative route: When used with absolute consistency and to just the degree necessary, it provides instant and unmistakable negative consequences for undesirable head carriage and speed, and the horse chooses not to go there. After the initial cause-and-effect learning curve, the horse often works in greater comfort and with less constraint in the mechanical hackamore than if his rider were waging a constant but futile battle for control with a gentler bit.

With those basic distinctions in mind, riders who are dealing with horses in the five following circumstances often see excellent returns from bitless work:

Basic training: The standard use of the hackamore, seen today in the reining world's hackamore classes for young horses, is as a transition device from the initial snaffle-bit training of the just-broke horse to the extreme polish and responsiveness required for a finished "bridle horse" in a curb bit. Western trainers often use the bosal as the "starter" bridle that teaches the youngster to give to rein pressure at the poll and neck, without confusing the issue with the still-meaningless and probably objectionable oral sensations caused by a bit.

For English riders who will eventually use direct reining, some variety of sidepull can introduce the concept of moving toward rein tension without involving the mouth. If the young horse has been brought up with a modicum of ground manners, he will be able to transfer his halter training to the action of the bitless bridle and learn the riding basics before bitting becomes an issue.

Mouth abnormality: Horses with mouth injuries or deformed facial structures may be temporarily or permanently incapable of carrying a bit comfortably. Lesions on the lips, cheeks and tongue, bruised bars, bee stings and tooth damage or eruption are among the oral insults that can interfere with bridling and, in particularly reactive horses, instill permanent resistances. Abnormal facial structure, such as parrot mouth or an exceptionally small oral cavity, can make comfortable bit fit next to impossible.

Bitless headgear can be both a kindness to such horses and a mercy to their riders, whose communications will no longer be obscured by the smoke screen of pain. Yet to provide relief, the action of the bitless bridle has to stay clear of the injury or abnormality. Bosal pressure over the corners of the lips can irritate raw tissues inside the mouth, for instance, or the curb strap of a mechanical hackamore can put painful pressure on sensitive roots in the lower jaw of a youngster who's growing permanent cheek teeth.

Performance rehabilitation: Horses who have never really learned to carry and respond to a bit--or who have forgotten the acceptance they once knew--can be reformed with the help of bitless work. Frightened horses with bad experiences related to bits (or to their riders' handling of bits) may forget their bridle resistances when different headgear is used around the place on their faces that they associate with negative sensations.

"Dead-mouthed" or essentially unschooled horses who resist clear, well-executed bridle aids may be convinced to listen when the speed and directional signals shift from mouth to nose. Extremely "forward" or excitable horses who resist the bit may heed the hackamore's action. These difficult horses may respond positively to a change away from bitted bridles.

Relief from bad riding: Hack-string or lesson horses who tote around insecure and rough-handed beginners could benefit from going bitless, provided their headgear is well-padded and exerts minimal leverage. Then there are the long-suffering mounts of riders who consciously or unconsciously believe that their security is assured by a death grip on the reins. Bitless gear helps riders learn early that hands are the least of what controls where and how horses move, and that the seat is the most. But even if the rider never learns that critical lesson, at least his horse is spared some of the pain if he's not carrying a bit in his mouth.

Convenience and consideration: Bitless headgear can be a convenience for endurance or trail riders who require little moment-to-moment control of their horses as they make tracks cross-country, and who would like to allow their horses to eat and drink along the way. Short-shanked, curved or S-shanked mechanical hackamores stay out of a grazer's way better than straight, long-shanked models. A hackamore or bosal, used for trail riding and quiet loose-rein work, may represent a pleasant "vacation" for horses between more demanding routines.

This article originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of EQUUS magazine.