I'd like to start this post off with the disclaimer that I do NOT look down on anyone who chooses to use bits; but I do however challenge them in their horsemanship. A bit is a final refinement tool, not a control device. If you cannot ride your horse around a ring at the walk, trot and canter on the buckle; you don't need more leverage, you need to go back to the basics!
A bit is a tool used to refine a horse's movement and to further your communication with them. If you can't communicate with them on the ground, and in a casual riding environment in the saddle.. You are not ready to have a bit.
That said, I'd like to share why I am on a completely bitless journey with all of my horses and my students. It all started with my first horse, Johnny. As if he hasn't taught me enough!
It's funny, everytime I start a new student with a difficult horse; we end up going down the same road I went down when I first was shown how to go bitless...
When I first bought Johnny he was coming off of time in the pasture, but he had a good amount on training on him. I rode him in a simple single jointed snaffle and things were pretty ok. He had his moments, but overall wasn't a very difficult ride. But as we progressed into more refinement in our training, things got more and more difficult. He wasn't disobedient, he was terrified. Everytime I asked for contact or collection, he would jolt forward and throw his head up in the air. Take off, freak out, scare me to death... And I always got a similar answer as to why he was like this; "He's a thoroughbred", "he's too hot", "he's being disobedient" etc etc... But I knew this wasn't the case with him. I could do so much with him on the ground, and he was connected to me. We had a very good relationship even through rough times; he had no reason to suddenly become sullen under saddle.
Under the advice of different trainers and coaches, I tried a selection of different bits. A single jointed copper roller (which ended up being THE WORST for him, almost landed me in the stands one night), different combos of single and double jointed snaffles, happy mouths, rubber, copper, sweet iron... I tried a very soft french link, and a second level Myler comfort snaffle. But the result under saddle was always the same. Hollow backed terror.
At some point during this battle through bits, I reunited with my NH coach and she took me down a new road. She pushed me to try bitless. I had just moved Johnny to her farm after finishing school and I was mentoring with her. I was riding horses every day in bitless bridles.. but with Johnny I was absolutely terrified at the idea. How would I control him when he decided to take off? What would I do to stop him when he decided to jump out of the sand ring?
But she just laughed at me, and pushed me into a lesson. And the result was the same result that I get every time I push one of my students to try bitless with their horses...
Absolute shock and astonishment. But how? How can they be so soft? Is he rounding?! Sitting back and relaxing even? We did a full lesson walk, trot and canter in the most relaxed frame of mind (and body) I had ever experienced from him. No terror. No panic.. no pain.
And I've never looked back. Ever.
It's funny to me now because I think of how scared I was to try something new. Something that I did not totally understand at the time, and had only really experienced from afar. And because of it's stigma, had deemed myth. But here I am, with a facility full of bitless horses. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Johnny showed me that bad hands had ruined his mouth, and no matter how soft a bit or working hands could be; they would not shake his past. This is why I choose bitless. Not only because I believe all of that refinement is totally possible without a piece of metal in their mouth, but also because it allows room for bad hands to create torture in a horse's life.
And yes, I hear it all the time. But a bit is just a tool, and a bitless bridle in the wrong hands can be bad too. And it's true. It most definitely can be. But there is no way you can tell me that a jointed piece of metal (nevermind two) is softer than a padded piece of leather. Test it! Put a bit on your wrist (the boniest part) and tap it around, pull on it, push on it, bend it up and down and pinch your skin with it. Now get a padded leather noseband and do the same. Point made? Point made.
With that said, there are a million different types of bitless bridles. And there are a million perspectives on each one. And to this I say, as with all things, to each their own. This is just my opinion. My experience and my perspective. It's right for me. And that's all I can say about it! But from my experience in trying new bridles over the past couple of years, here is what I do with my horses.
I start all horses in a rope noseband sidepull. This is a very simple bridle, with easy questions and easy answers to find. It is soft with no contact, but can be very strong if needed for emergency stops. It also lends the hand of pushing horses up off their forehand if they tend to lean on your hands. It is the very basics of pressure; it makes the right answer easy to find, and the wrong answer uncomfortable. There is no bridle I feel safer in. I have no doubt in my mind that I could stop just about any horse (with foundation ground training) under saddle in this bridle. It is my go to, and also the bridle that every student begins in. This bridle teaches you basic steering with minimal touch on your horse's face; and forces you to use your body as your main aid. You cannot lean on your hands, you cannot rely on steering for everything. It encourages a loose, casual rein; which encourages relaxation in your horse.
Step two is into a simple leather noseband sidepull. Basically the same as the rope, but allows the horse to lean into the noseband a bit more with comfort. And thus lays the foundation to search for contact. This is a bridle you move up to when you have proven you can go walk, trot and canter with your horse with a loose rein and good connection; in any environment.
Step three is into a padded noseband hackamore. Only those looking for "contact" and "collection" need to move up to this step. It is one I am just reaching myself, and with only two rides on Johnny in one.. I am inlove! Johnny had started looking for contact when we were in work last year, but I didn't know what options I really had. I have found every bitless I try online from different countries.. And the one I have chosen for this step is the Zilco flower hackmore. It's padded, and fits nicely. And it allows you to configure your "contact" to best suit your horse. It's almost like an elevator bit where you can choose what level of leverage you want/need. So far I haven't felt any real difference in my mechanics with this bridle in comparison to riding with a bit. The contact weight is the same, the hand aids are the same... but my horse is seemingly happier and no more taking off!
Our next aim is to get our bitless show team out into the area and showing what we can do! With hopes of being allowed to ride in higher level events which require a bit to show. I have some girls dying to try eventing but whom aren't allowed to show because we need a bit for dressage...
Here's a great article about that whole ordeal!
To Bit or Not To Bit - Dressage Naturally
And here's a quick video of Johnny and I in our first ride in the Zilco flower hack. Don't mind how out of shape we are, we're working on it!