Bits and bridles

When I first met Cassie, her owner used a lot of serious hardware on her. A rather severe bit with curb chain, mouth tied shut and a martingale. A bit excessive on a green, newly backed horse in my opinion, and I requested the bit to be replaced by an ordinary snaffle before I rode her.

When I brought her home, I tried her in a Dr. Cook’s Bitless bridle. That’s what I rode Minnie in and she went very well in it. I never had a problem stopping Minnie and Minnie likes to go very fast, but she would come to a halt from a flat-out gallop in a few strides. I fully expected Cassie to take to the bridle without problems, but she didn’t. She hated it.

Having had such a good experience with the Dr. Cooks, I never really thought about how this bridle actually works and how restrictive it can be. The bridle works on the principle of distributing pressure evenly over the whole head. That means pressure on the poll, nose and jaws by means of the cross under straps. I usually ride with a very loose rein and Cassie was fine as long as the reins were dangling in loops, but the moment I took up a contact, she protested. She would bring her head up as high as she could go, with her nose in the air and her heels dug in. Needless to say I would lose all control if she did that until she brought her head down again. Cassie just couldn’t tolerate the feeling of her head being captured. No Dr. Cooks for her.

I prefer bitless, but I have no problems with bits. I think there is a time and place for both, and a lot depends on the horse. When I was young I used to ride dressage. All the young dressage horses in the yard where I rode were ridden with the reins attached to a cavesson noseband until they were ready for more advanced and collected work.  More recently, I did a bit of work-riding on young race horses getting ready for point-to-points. They were all bitted in ordinary snaffles and a bitless bridle would have been out of place there. In fact, in a serious fall you could probably break a horse’s nose with a bitless bridle.

I did some research and settled on the rocking S bit for Cassie. This is a bit designed to lie very still in a horse’s mouth, with a French link to prevent poking in the roof of the mouth. The bit itself is made from sweet iron, which is palatable to most horses, the bitrings are stainless steel. The bit has double rings, the reins are attached to the inner D ring.

The Rocking S bit arrived and I attached it to a racing bridle, which is very light with extra thin straps. Then I tried Cassie in both the bitless bridle and the bit. She made it very clear that she preferred the bit over the Dr. Cooks bridle.

I still had doubts though. Cassie rode very well in it on a loose rein, but she was inclined to come behind the bit on a contact and shake her head a bit. The biggest indicator that all was not well was her behaviour during tacking up. On seeing the bridle, Cassie would turn away from me to stand with her head in a corner of her stable. Judging by the loose droppings she was at least apprehensive, if not stressed. She wouldn’t open her mouth readily. But most of all it was the expression on her face as soon as the bit and bridle were in place. Definitely sour, with her ears back. Cassie is still sensitive about her head, but she has no problems with a head collar and will drop her nose in when I hold it up in front of her. Back to the drawing board.

The choice of a bit or bitless bridle depends on the horse, but also on what you want to do with that horse. If I had aspirations to go back to riding dressage and ambitions to go up to an advanced level, and if I had a horse that was physically and temperamentally suited to do so, I would have no choice but to ride my horse in a bit, because that is what the sport dictates. That is not what I want though and Cassie wouldn’t be suitable. The sense I get from Cassie is that she wants to be free, unrestricted, and she wants to run. I want to do long distance rides with her and for that we don’t need a bit.

So yesterday, I tried her in a home-made bitless bridle. It is basically a cavesson nose band with two rings attached for the reins to clip on. The nose band is made from very soft leather and extra padded.

When Cassie saw me coming with a bridle, she turned away as usual. However, with the noseband open all I really had to do was slip it over her ears and the bridle was on before she knew it. I did the noseband up very loosely to resemble a head collar as closely as possible and stood back. Cassie licked and chewed and was obviously surprised. When I finished tacking her up, she was her normal self, no trace of moodiness.

We rode out with Maire and Ben and had a lovely ride. Cassie was relaxed and responsive and that made me feel happy. Even when she had a fright when a flock of birds flew up out of a hedgerow, she came back to me within a few strides. I will have to do more rides and try it out in different situations to see how it really works. It may not be suitable for schooling and I think the position of the rings might need to be adjusted. Still, it’s a start.


6 thoughts on “Bits and bridles

  1. Such an interesting post. I really found this very informative. Thank you for writing it.

    I just discovered your blog. It will take me some time to catch up, but I will!

  2. Hi Muddy K, welcome to my blog! I always try to listen to my horses and let them have a choice, especially with things that effect them directly, like tack. Sometimes that means it takes time to find what suits them best (and I’m building up a nice collection of gear I don’t use anymore!). I’ll have a look at your blog soon.


  3. Hi Sandra! Nice post! I have been riding for several years in a homemade bitless bridle just like the one you show above! Not many people are intuitive enough to understand the constrictive forces of the typical bitless bridles. I have been meaning to write an article about the physics of it, but just haven’t found the time! I am so glad you have posted this so that people can find it! One way people can also get this sort of bitless bridle is if they can get a hold of a dressage crank caveson because it is jointed on the sides, so they won’t have to add the rings. The jointed-ness of the noseband also allows the top and bottom sides of the noseband to be at different angles allowing it to fit a horse’s head that is not a perfect cylinder! In my bitless, I do mainly dressage and some trail riding and my husband uses the same type bridle for endurance riding. I can send you a picture of mine if you want!

    • Hi Jayme, welcome to my blog and thank you for your kind comment! I know the type of dressage crank you mean, but although they are popular on the continent I’ve never seen one here in Ireland. I was actually toying with the idea of having one made up for me, and now that I have used my home-made bridle more often I think that might be the best way to go. As you say, few horses have heads that are perfectly cylindrical!

      In the meantime, I got Cassie an Enduro rope bridle and that seems to suit her very well, it is extremely light and non restrictive and it will be ideal for long distance rides. It won’t suit my other mare though. Minnie doesn’t have the kind of self confidence Cassie has, and she likes more of a feel, so when I start riding her again I want to ride her in the cavesson. I’d be very interested in a picture of your bridle!

      I enjoyed your website. Good articles! I like to keep my horses as natural as possible and I wish we had some of the products you’re selling over here.

  4. I have had very good results using a Horse Bitless Bridle as well. I found it very easy when I started a mare off in it. She took to neck-reining very easily. However, I have a couple of mules and I’m not sure if it would be enough to control one of them. But, I may have to try as I’ve been told that mules are more sensitive with their nose than their mouth.

    • Hi Kris, thank you for visiting! I have to say I don’t know anything about mules, but I really like riding bitless and I wouldn’t use a bit again. I think the issue of control often makes people hesitate to try a bitless bridle, but I honestly believe the amount of control you have depends on how well trained your horse is, not on wether they have a bit in their mouths or not. Good luck with your mules!

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