The cross-under bitless bridle was developed by Dr Robert Cook FRVCS PhD, Professor of Surgery Emeritus at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, approximately 15 years ago. It differs from other forms of bitless riding in that it gives as much control as a bitted bridle and is an easy transition for both horse and rider.
When riding in a bitless bridle the rein aids are the same as with a bitted bridle. It’s a good idea to forget that you’re in a bitless and just ride normally! The cross-under bitless bridle gives excellent responses for both steering and braking. This is a major factor when compared to other methods of riding bitless. The traditional side-pull bitless bridle gives good steering but bad brakes, the hackamore gives great brakes but poor steering and a rope halter gives good steering but poor brakes.
Dr Cook conducted much research and wrote many scientific papers regarding the use of bits in horses. He inspected the skulls of deceased horses and found that approx. 75% had bone spurs on the mandible from bit damage. When bone is traumatized it re-models, often overgrowing and producing bone spurs. When a bit is then placed in the mouth the pain is even greater. The thickness of the gum over the bone of the mandible is around 2mm with sensitive mucous membrane over that (not skin). It’s no wonder that the bit damages this bone so easily. In a survey of 440 horses (switched from bits to bitless overnight) he found the bit to be responsible for at least 50 problems in horses. 58% of horses had negative behavioural responses, 26% interference with locomotion and 16% interference with respiration. The four most frequently cited effects of the bit are to instill fear, make the horse fight back, trigger a flight response and cause facial neuralgia (head shaking).
The cross-under bitless bridle works via pressure/release. When pressure is placed on 1 rein the horse feels pressure on the opposite side of the head, the poll and the nose, a ‘head-hug’. This is pain free and impossible for the horse to ignore as it involves the whole head, unlike the bit where all the pressure is applied in the oral cavity. With a bitted bridle the horse can clamp the bit with their teeth or raise/overbend the head (to try and escape the pain of the bit) resulting in a loss of control by the rider. This cannot happen with the bitless bridle. When stopping, pressure on both reins results in pressure behind the chin, on both sides of the head, at the poll and the nose. Because of this it’s important to just ride normally. Some riders think they have less control with the bitless and use stronger than normal aids, which is unnecessary. As always we aim to use the smallest possible aid to gain the largest possible response. As the bitless bridle works via pressure/release it’s important to release the aid once the horse has responded (as you would with a bit).
I have heard some people express concern about the strength of the cross-under bitless, wondering if it’s too strong. Imagine if you are using a side-pull bitless bridle, halter or a bit – if you put six grams of pressure on the reins then all six grams will be felt by the horse in one location, the nose or mouth. With a Dr Cooks bitless bridle you still apply the same pressure to the reins, six grams, but now the horse feels it in four or six places around the head. This means that in each pressure spot the actual pressure is quite small. Also the pressure is being applied by a soft wide strap. not a rope or piece of metal. But the response from the horse is fantastic, which makes this the most humane bridle ever created.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful things you will find after using this bitless bridle is a total lack of fear at bridling time. Many horses lift their heads, clamp the teeth, back away etc. when they see the bit, but once they realise you no longer put a bit in their mouths they are happy to be bridled and will often lower and turn their heads in towards you for bridling. Your relationship with your horse will slowly evolve into one of trust and respect as they come to realise you are no longer going to cause them pain every time you ride them. They become eager to exercise and a joyful partner with you. They become ‘HAPPY HORSES’.
The following video gives an overall explanation of how the bitless bridle works. It was made for the local RDA (Riding for the Disabled) and gives good basic info. As an extra treat the horse was accidentally filmed rearing and it shows how easily the horse is controlled and calmly ridden on.