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All About Bitless Bridles

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

Photo by Darrell Dodds
A well-fitted bosal rests lightly on the horse's face with the heel knot balanced below the lower jaw.
Photo by Darrell Dodds

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.

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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.

Posted in Bit Gallery, English Tack, Western Tack | Leave a comment

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