Bitless dressage

dressage training without using the bit

The process of learning and developing subtle communication with horses Irena led to the decision to start Lipizzaner Žuža (Famosa) to saddle and build her carrying strength and posture with a bitless bridle and without the use of side reins or any other repressive devices to control the horse.

The horse needs to be trained in terms of its body and movement to progress from its natural balance to an adequate riding balance. It is thus able to carry the weight of the rider with ease. Quality in training definitely comes before quantity. Lungeing aimlessly can cause more harm than good.

The first step to a correct posture is hand work. These exercises aim at the horse and rider agreeing on the “language” to use at a distance (when lungeing) and later in the saddle. Irena’s approach prioritises free and unconstrained movement of the horse’s body, with precise guidance that results in a balanced, light, and adequate carrying posture.

This entails pressure and release communication or the activation of individual body parts triggered by specific prompts of body language, verbal language, or emotional state of the trainer. Empathy, simultaneous use of riding aids with specific horse movements, mastering individual movements, body awareness, and understanding the horse’s motor skills (biomechanics) play a crucial role in the horse training process.

If used correctly, a bitted bridle is undoubtedly a horse-friendly technique. Yet if you step into the horse’s shoes, you’d probably want to get rid of a piece of metal in the mouth and swap it with leather around the head.

The most common concern regarding the use of a bitless bridle is ineffective horse control and the inability to collect. However, it needs to be said that controlling a horse, regardless of the device used, is about trust, which is the prerequisite of successful leading. Collection is a multidimensional reaction on the part of the horse which happens back to front, not vice versa. It depends on the overall condition of the rider, accurate perception, and mirroring.

The reaction of the horse to riding aids as means to control its movement depends on the specification and accuracy of the agreed prompts, regardless of the device used to control the horse. The question is how and why to approach the horse in a certain manner and not only which means or methods to choose.

Scientific reasons in support of using a bitless Bridle according to Dr. Cook:

In a study of behaviour, a survey was carried out of 440 reports from riders who switched from bitted to bitless bridle. It compared the invasive and painful bitted bridle to the non-invasive and painless bitless bridle. The survey showed the bit to cause at least 50 behavioural problems. The most frequent were fear, rebellion, a flight response, and facial neuralgia (headshaking). These and other problems were associated mainly with oral pain, yet weren’t limited to the oral cavity. They included a cascade of systemic effects. They mainly concerned the nervous system and caused adverse behavioural responses (58%). Musculoskeletal system effects impeded locomotion (26 %), while respiratory system effects resulted in breathing difficulties or dyspnea (16%).

Furthermore, the fact that the method has been in use for a very long time doesn’t assure its fit for its purpose. The main disadvantage of the bitted bridle is that only a very skilled rider with an unshakably independent seat can use it without major discomfort for the horse. In the hands of an average rider it causes pain, while if used by a beginner it means torture for the animal.

‘Good’ hands depend on having very little or no pressure on the bit. As the horse’s mouth is one of the most sensitive parts of its anatomy, even slight pressure can cause considerable pain. The horse exhibits this pain through the four F’s: fright, flight, fight or freeze. Besides it being the main cause of accidents to both horse and rider, the bit can obstruct breathing and impede correct movement. The bit stimulates the gastro-intestinal function, which is physiologically opposite to fast breathing. Therefore, the horse receives feeding and work signals at the same time, which is problematic since they are mutually exclusive activities. It has been concluded that using the bit is detrimental to the health and safety of both horse and rider, as well as an impediment to performance.

An important advantage of using a bitless bridle can be painless, stress-free, and relaxed communication between horse and rider. Painless communication inevitably leads to more effective control. The bitless bridle aids communication by distributing pressure more evenly over the horse’s head, which makes the pressure milder and thus more acceptable. It enables a more humane, non-invasive, and natural approach suitable for early and advanced schooling alike.

Source: Patophysiology of bit control in the horse, W.Robert Cook, FRCVS, Ph.D.

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