Bitless Bridles in Dressage

Thursday, May 17, 2012



Bitless bridles have been around for a long time in one form or another. Recently there has been a growing interest in bitless bridles for dressage. By an odd coincidence, I was introduced to Samantha Surquin, an equestrian writing her thesis on bitless bridles in the Netherlands. She convinced me to try one of these on my horse. What is it? The bitless bridle eliminates the bit, and substitutes other straps for control. (See sketch) It is much more pleasant for the horse, and as it turns out, for the rider, too. The bitless bridle is not the same as a bosal or hackamore.The most popular bitless bridle in use is Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle. Dr. Cook is a veterinarian in Maryland who experimented with better and painless bridle designs. He eliminated the bit and instead, used straps that passed down each cheek, crossed each other under the jaw, each running through a ring at the side of the noseband, and attaching to the rein on that side.  Slight tension on the rein translates into a gentle cradling of the head in the direction you want it to turn.Dr. Cook claims that horses can have negative reactions to the bit, and that many ailments are caused by bits which, if eliminated, result in a more responsive, healthier, and better dispositioned horse.

It sounded like marketing to me, but Samantha convinced me otherwise. She explained it as follows: “A bit rests on the tongue, the lips, and the bars of the horse’s mouth. The tongue is actually one of the most sensitive parts of the horse, since it holds a lot of nerves. Also, a horse is an obligatory nose-breather, and should, therefore, always move with a closed and sealed mouth. The overflow of saliva is purely physical because the horse is not able to swallow when it is moving.  A bit causes a chewing reflex that makes the horse chew and so create an overflow of saliva.”  The bitless bridle eliminates these problems.

Is it approved for competition? The Netherlands is way ahead of us and has already approved several bitless bridles in competition classes from starting to medium advanced. The bitless bridles permitted in dressage competition in the Netherlands are the sidepull, the chin-crossed bridle, and the jaw-crossed bridle. Here in the USA, both USEF and USDF are aware of, have been petitioned, but have yet to approve its use in recognized competition.  It is probably only a matter of time as more riders see the benefits and the very surprising results. In the USA, bitless bridles are, however, approved for competition in jumping events.
What effect does it have on the horse? For test data, Samantha has tested 26 horses ranking from the lowest to the highest dressage levels.  She has found varying results, depending upon the horse. She said, ”The tests focused on measuring the horse’s comfort level which appeared to be significantly higher in horses ridden with a bitless bridle. The most obvious differences were found in ‘mouth-activity’ (i.e. execratively chewing, opening the mouth, trying to avoid bit-pressure, and execrative tail-movements).”
Now Sam had my interest. I bought Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle from a tack shop and tried it. 

Here is what happened. 
Komoka, my four-year-old gelding, is a typical youngster, messing with the bit, often grabbing the bit and pulling me over to the side as young horses playfully do.  He has been somewhat cantankerous, but never nasty.He has a good heart and usually tries, but sometimes is resistant.The first day there was immediate improvement in relaxation, attention, and willingness to move forward.  Since then, over the past two weeks, he has shown incredible improvement.  He is even more relaxed, has great willingness to move forward and in coming through from behind.Several riders and barn personnel have commented that he looks like a different horse.  His whole disposition has improved remarkably.  That was an unexpected surprise.

We know that horses are distracted from their job by many factors; it is the rider’s challenge to determine how to motivate the horse to work together with you happily.  It makes sense that if the horse is always/often distracted by the bit, getting rid of the bit eliminates the distraction allowing the horse to better concentrate on the job and your input. In training, it’s nice to have this other option to the bit.

It would be wonderful if one could compete using the bitless bridle. USEF and USDF won’t move very fast, but in the meantime, we have this training option. In discussing this with show managers, Derbyshire and Willow Tree have agreed to offer a bitless bridle class in their schooling shows in the summer of 2012.  This could eventually lead to broader approval and happier horses and riders. I hope that Sam’s thesis will accelerate the approval process.  I can’t wait to read it.