This video is a webinar by Dr Cook answering many frequently asked questions sent in to him by people wanting to know more. If you are interested in bitless riding I can’t recommend more highly that you set some time aside to watch this, it’s brilliant.
Absolutely yes is the answer to this question. Starting (breaking) a young horse with a bitless is the best start you can give it. Traditionally in many cultures this has been the normal way to start young horses and in parts of America (especially in Western riding) this is still done. By training your young horse to give to pressure and listen to you the rider without the complication of pain, you are starting your youngster out with a clean undamaged mind. Some people choose to start their horse in a bitless bridle then move on to a bitted bridle at the age of 4 to 5 years old. And others stay in the bitless forever.
Young horses have newly erupting teeth and putting a bit into a mouth that’s already feeling discomfort from erupting teeth can cause behavioural issues. In this circumstance the rider doesn’t know where these issues have come from because they can’t see inside the mouth. This may result in them becoming strong with their horse and disciplining it when in fact the horse has pain. This can then result in a horse that distrusts humans and being ridden, and
can start them off on a lifetime of being a ‘difficult horse’.
When riding a ‘greenbroke’ horse they are often more reactive to situations in the environment than a more seasoned mount. In order to stay safe the rider may need to make fast and strong corrections with the reins to bring the situation back under control. When there is a bit in the mouth this results in sudden and severe pain in the mouth and the young horse then reacts to that, so the rider has to make a severe correction, to which the horse reacts, and on and on it goes. The result is a horse that is mentally stressed and difficult to control and they can’t calm down.
Now contrast this to when riding in a bitless. There is an environmental situation which scares your green horse, you make a sudden and strong correction to save your own life, and then you just ride on as if nothing’s happened. Your horse has not felt pain so does not react to that or become upset or hot, it’s all over and forgotten in seconds. This is a much better situation for both you and your horse, and a lot safer.
Training your young horse in a bitless bridle is the kindest and most effective way to start a horse. Building up a relationship of trust with your youngster through non-painful training will set them up for a lifetime of trusting humans and being happy to work.
Is the Cross-Under Bitless Bridle too Strong?
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.
The current competition rules in Australia are set by Equestrian Australia (EA) (www.equestrian.org.au). The rules vary according to the sport, see below.
EA National Eventing Rules 2013 Cross-Country Test & Jumping Test; Gags or ‘bitless bridles’ are allowed as are unrestricted running martingales or Irish martingales. Reins must be attached to the bit(s) or directly to the bridle. Dressage Test; Permitted bridles are a double bridle with cavesson or snaffle bridle.
EA National Jumping Rules 2012 There are no restrictions on bits. Reins must be attached to the bit(s) or directly to the bridle. Gags and hackamores are allowed.
2013 Equestrian Australia Dressage Rulebook Permitted bridles are a double bridle with cavesson or snaffle bridle.
Hors Concours For some horse sports you are not able to use a bitless bridle, e.g. dressage will require a bit. However, you can ride ‘hor concours’ with a bitless bridle at some competitions (enquire with the organisers of the event). Riding hor concours at a horse competition means you are not competing. You will still pay an entry fee, receive a number and be judged by the judge. However you will not be considered for placings. At a dressage competition, you will receive a score card and mark from the judge, but not be eligible to win any rosettes or awards.
EA Show Horse Rules Snaffle bridle or double bridle are permitted.
EA National Vaulting Rules 2013 Bridle with smooth snaffle bit, with no more than 2 joints. Two side reins. Lunge rein must be attached to the inner ring of the bit or at the lunge cavesson.
Reining 2013 Bridles are western-styled, without a noseband or caveson. There are very strict rules about what types of bits and bosals are legal.
Yes you can. A bitted horse is not necessarily in control. Most of those horses out there bolting, bucking, rearing, pig-rooting, shying etc., are all wearing bits! The bit by it’s very nature causes pain, that is the basis of it’s operation. Even the gentlest of hands are still manipulating and putting pressure on a mucous membrane inside someones mouth. This pain causes a reaction. In the horse this is seen as flight, fight or freeze. Basically it makes no sense to cause a 500 or 600kg flight animal pain when you’re sitting on it’s back!
The bitless bridle places the rein pressure around the entire head (head hug) rather than in just one area (inside the mouth). All horses as part of their basic education are familiar with pressure/release and when this is applied around the entire head it is quite a strong aid to the horse. I often have to remind people to ride normally as it’s easy to use stronger aids when first introduced to the bitless, thinking you have less control. This is not the case. I’m going to tell a little story to demonstrate my point.
After a few months riding a thoroughbred at my place of work in the bitless, I had an interesting discovery one day. I was out on a trail with an experienced male rider on another thoroughbred. We were cantering up a hill when they decided to ‘race’ and both horses bolted. As we reached the top of the hill neck and neck I regained control of my horse (a female, in a bitless) while the man continued to gallop down the other side unable to stop his horse (a male, with a bit). It had a happy ending as his horse eventually stopped and no-one was hurt. However, ever since then I have had absolutely no worries about whether a horse can be controlled in a bitless bridle.
When I release the rein it doesn’t seem to ‘release’ instantly through the O-ring, is this a problem?
When you first put the bridle on the cross-under straps appear slack. Once you take up the reins for the first time the straps will fit snug against the horse and remain there. The cross-under straps don’t ‘fall’ back out after using the reins, but if you stick your finger under one and pull on a rein, then release it, you’ll feel how the pressure releases. I’ve done this at various points around the bridle, it’s quite fun and gives you a good idea of where the horse feels the pressure, so you get an insight into their experience.
The light contact is no more than what remains after the pressure is taken off with the bit (where 2 or 3 wrinkles at the corner of the mouth is considered ‘correct’ so obviously the horse still feels pressure). If there was no release you would expect a horse to circle indefinitely once an initial request to turn had been signalled, and horses do not do this. As with steering, so with stopping … the ‘brakes’ do not get stuck in the stop position. The ideal is to ‘brake’ with your body and breathing rather than with your hands but even when hands are used, the brakes do not get jammed. All horses respond to pressure/release training in the bitless so the release is big enough for the horse. Also don’t forget we’re talking about a soft, wide strap here, not a piece of hard metal.
The noseband should be on bone, if it is too low it will be on the soft, fleshy part of the nose. But if the noseband is too high you may lose some control. It can take a bit of fine tuning to find the right spot. A compromise needs to be found between not having it too low and on the soft fleshy part but having it low enough so you have adequate control. If you play around with it a bit your horse will let you know where it’s comfortable AND effective.
Sometimes a horse will toss the head if you have the noseband very tight. With bitted bridles the nosebands are sometimes done up very tightly. If you do this with a bitless and there’s a constant pressure, then when you release rein pressure the horse can’t feel the release and they don’t know where the comfort zone is. It can be your horses way of communicating with you, as they can’t use words. So try loosening off on the noseband a bit and see what your horse says.