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Bitless Equipment & Horse Training

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Equipment and tips for training without the bit                                  
( Part Two)

By Bonnie J. Hilton (Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine. )

What is bitless equipment and how do you use it? The first thing I want to make perfectly clear is that I am not talking about a mechanical hackamore in any of its configurations. For those readers who are into research, Blair s Pattern was the English mechanical hackamore. What we see now is a western mechanical hackamore in the jumper section of most English catalogs. I am also not talking about a bosal, which research will prove to be the true hackamore and a viable bitless western approach. I am not talking about anything that has shanks, chains or gag action of any kind. They all have their place and here again you need to get savvy about what is being marketed. The names are all interesting and you can t really put research from western and English application from the past into trying to sort through the applications that are out there today. What is the bitless equipment I like touse? I need to tell a little amusing story about my most coveted English bitless equipment called the jumping hackamore noseband, with which I was working a horse.

A couple of decades ago I purchased what is called a jumping hackamore noseband to put a horse bitless. I can t remember which mentor told me to try it, but I have used it as the last resort with many supposedly ruined equines. Several years ago one of my students bought one. When they received their hackamore, from the same company, it was not the original design. I just assumed that the design had been changed due to some recent study of usage. I tried the new design and felt that it negated the original training intent and my student took their new piece of equipment to a cobbler and had them take it apart and make it like mine.

I thought for this article that I should at least try to find out why there was a design change. I called Smith-Worthington Saddlery Company in Hartford, Conn., and I was connected with Mr. Curtis Hanks. After a short conversation about what I was talking about and Mr. Hanks going into the warehouse and getting the product to look at, we had a wonderful time figuring out that the design was changed without any input that he could remember. Simply put, the design should not have been changed, and no one else had brought it to the company s attention. I told him that all the English jumping hackamore nosebands that I can find elsewhere are made the same way as Smith-Worthington s, so we can assume the copy cats are doing it wrong as well!

If anyone has a copy of The Whole Horse Catalog from 1977, the original hackamore noseband is depicted there, the exact piece of equipment I still own, where the rein rings come off the rounded leather nose band on their own extension of leather, while the under chin strap goes separately underneath the jaw from the back. This really makes this application a true English side pull in the tradition of noseband control. The noseband is rounded and the stitching is on the bottom of the noseband. (The design change being marketed now has the rein rings inside of the noseband and the chin strap is an extension of the noseband and has to pass inside of the rein rings to go under the jaw.)

 As noted, I have tried working with this application and I feel it is not stable enough for bilateral use, the sidepull action is negated by the design, which borders on bosal and does not apply for retraining work.) For readers as old as I, there was a full bridle, called the English jumping bridle, last seen about 25 years ago. Mr. Hanks tells me that Smith-Worthington did market something like this. Show jumping trivia buffs may remember Kathy Kusner, one of my idols, who I believe rode with that bitless jumping bridle. It incorporated the jumping noseband into a full headstall and had an extra side stay strap coming off the cheek piece which kept the noseband from dropping down the bridge.

The western all leather side pull bridle is another piece of equipment I like. It is similar in design to the English jumping hackamore bridle except that the actual noseband is flat strap. You will have to search for this, I don t presently get enough western tack catalogs to know where it is available. The flat strap noseband on the leather side pull is  1 inch wide and produces the same effect as riding or line driving in a cavesson without the padding. I like the fact that it carries two rings off the noseband, the small ring for the reins and the larger ring that folds to the back under the chin to carry the chin strap. Along this same design I recently purchased the nylon sidepull bridle with the 1 wide ribbed cotton noseband. Looking at this piece of equipment brings me back to riding in a halter with two leads attached to the noseband rings, same thing, only modified to fit a lot better.

As a trainer, I have worked with the rawhide rope sidepulls which are misunderstood and dangerous in the hands of a novice. I own the double rawhide rope bridle sidepull which is 7/8 wide on the bridge. I also own what is known as the half breed bridle, which is a single rope side pull and bit combination. I should note here that in retraining you don t want a bit being part of the process until you have compliance without it. I usually will put a bit on a separate headstall under the hackamore. I purchased the half breed to see what results I could have with it in retraining. I found in my work that with a problem equine that is boring and leaning, the effect of both the noseband sidepull and the bit being joined in application off the same cheekpiece nullified the direct action of each. It is probably wonderful in a sensitive mouthed, well started youngster coming up in training but I have not had much success with it and go back to my double rope or the jumping hackamore.

 I did purchase the Dually* training halter and have started using it for experimentation. As noted by Roberts, this can be used to ride in and in application is the same as a rope side pull but the halter design does not adjust to be stable enough for my retraining work. Some readers may have seen the full bitless bridle being marketed. One of my students has one and brought me the information. I find the design and advertising intriguing, but I don t own my own and therefore can t say how it has worked in retraining.

As noted in advertising hype, there are disparaging remarks made about bosals and sidepulls that were grouped with hackamores. Be careful when you read some of these advertisements in that you do not take the remarks made as fact. As I have just explained, all hackamores are not the same and bosal training is an art form which I have not had the training in, although I did show western reining with a bosal horse in New England in the early 70s. I suppose I do know why ad writers do this and why they use words like limitations and disadvantages to denote problems with the bosal and side pull application of other bitless equipment. We the public, believe what we read and don t do the experimentation and research ourselves and they are trying to promote and sell a product.

 Here again, be aware that ignorant use of equipment gives the equipment a bad reputation. The noseband of any side pull has to be moved frequently to avoid callousing on the bridge. Common sense horsemanship should tell you that. When problems arise, the human hands that used the equipment wrong, never seem to take the responsibility. In my opinion, the English and western side pull hackamores are great retraining tools. If I didn t have to produce a bitted horse, I see no reason why some couldn t remain in bitless equipment from the initial stages of training. It has nothing to do with natural horsemanship and I resent the fact that this hype has made some people think that the use of bits is the opposite. It has everything to do with training and if you had the time and the horse with the right mind, you don t need a bridle, a neck rope will do, as some readers may have seen.

I was asked if you could use a sturdy, well made, true drop noseband as a side pull hackamore? I suppose you could if you can find the padded adjustable noseband drops which have rather large side cheek rings where you could attach a 5/8 rein to. You could use rein snaps as well. The nosebands on these designs are over an inch wide and are comparable to a flat strap side pull. I am always trying to experiment with equipment, but  I  would suggest that your first priority must be that the drop is adjustable enough not to cause harm to nasal tissue, which could happen if it falls too low on the bridge. You are not going to be able to produce a truly independent side pull action, but for a horse with only mild mouth issues, it may be a way to evaluate if going bitless will be worthwhile for you and your horse, before purchasing bitless equipment.

If you cavesson train in initial stages with a youngster, the side reins are first applied to the cavesson and the youngster develops the correct muscle and accepts their application without any pressure being applied to the mouth. Once working off long reins and line driving well to the cavesson, the young horse is backed and can be ridden with the cavesson. (The somewhat comparative training stage for western would be into the bosal work.) When I make the decision to go bitless with an older horse in retraining, I have already developed fitness and compliance on the ground with the cavesson but the side reins, may they be regular, sliding or any combination of application, have been applied to the bit, which has been changed to a simple, mild eggbutt of either single or double (French) link mouthpiece design. The reason why the side reins are to the bit is that I want to see if I can induce the mouth problem on the ground without a rider. If there is no problem on the ground and all physical problems are ruled out, it can be assumed it is an under saddle problem. Simply put, the rider/bit connection, probably fitness, which is a little easier to work with. If the horse has a mouth problem while on the longe with the side reins to the bit, I will remove them and working with extensions, place them on the cavesson. Does the mouth problem stop?  If it does, I know I have a bit acceptance problem and the road ahead is going to be long and time consuming. If the horse is never going into a show ring where a bit must be worn, I have a lot less of a problem, as long as the equine will be safe bitless.

Working bitless and the possible bit cure will depend on the equine mind and your work at bringing the equine up into fitness if it isn t there already. Personally, I think the evaluation has to be done with safety as the bottom line. When the decision to try bitless has been made your first priority must be the safety of the rider and horse team. The horse should be fit on the longe, capable of working the gaits you expect under saddle without a bit, working to cavesson and side reins.

The horse should not be rushing or otherwise trying to bore through the cavesson. If you can t get balanced, consistent work and whoa, you will have to go back even further to in hand work and start over. I have had to take horses back to the true chambon. (Sorry, but the rubber neck stretch device is not a chambon.) When balanced, consistent work is achieved on the longe then I will put on the hackamore noseband, carried on a regular bridle headstall and adjusted just like a cavesson, snugly on the bridge. The diameter of the noseband, although round and padded, produces a stronger aid than the cavesson. I will longe with the hackamore on for acceptance before attempting mounted work. You can raise your longe cavesson up high on the bridge and put the hackamore below it.

You can attach side reins to the rein rings of the hackamore. For short faced horses, you will have to work off the hackamore alone and run you longe off each side on the rein ring with the side reins attached. If you have done your supporting training sessions, there should not be a problem with longing off the hackamore. The side reins will need to be adjusted slowly for contact, no different than in the early stages of working to a bit. If the horse has been belligerent (tough) from the start, most notably with boring and  leaning, be careful to keep your training sessions short. I have had several tough horses who have really tested this equipment and within a short training session had a sensitive area develop on the bridge, which showed some soft swelling. Just because the bit was out of their mouth, did not mean that they would not try to continue to bore and lean. You need to change the adjustment up or down just a little, to keep the pressure points at a different spot each training session.

 As I stated earlier, the major complaint against the jumping hack and any side pull work is callousing of the bridge, caused by continuous pressure in the same spot causing underlying tissue death and thickening. There should not be continuous pressure being applied. We just want the horse to work quietly with its mouth shut and without erratic behavior. Although the correct set would be nice, that s not the primary objective when you start ridden work. You can have contact, but there should not be any pulling on the riders part and no leaning done by the equine. You can keep working for the correct set on the ground on the longe. When the muscles can support the position, the horse will hopefully take the position without fussing.

Obviously I would opt for an enclosed area to start mounted work. All I am looking for is walk and halt transitions, just like what I got on the ground and then maybe some trot work. It depends on how bad the bit issue was to begin with and the reason why you are trying this approach of bitless. I would start on a circle and do bending comparison work at the walk and then move into the figure of eight and the serpentine. You can lift an inside shoulder with a hackamore noseband by use of the counter rein the same way as with a bit. Its effect will only be limited by the rider s ability to use the supportive leg aids.  I have had some mild cases of mouth issues where the horse was immediately fine in the jumping hack. To be honest, I think the horse would have been fine to ride with a halter and two lead ropes.

From one training session to the next, you keep building on performance and see where you can go. If the horse is compliant without any erratic behavior from the mouth, you make the decision on what to do next. I have had horses work in and out of the ring as well as school fences and cross country bitless. It has been mind boggling at times to watch the initial stages and see the horse actually look for the bit with its tongue and seemingly try to figure out where that thing went to, that was usually there when it had a rider up. Once the mouth is closed the mind does focus and owners have said repeatedly, Is this my horse? Sometimes the mouth does not close and you can see where the horse is still tense in the mouth even without anything there, as was the TB that started this article.

Take some time, give the horse as long as you can to see if the tense issue subsides. Work on getting the equine back to relax and the hindquarters to carry the forehand. It is amazing to see some horses stretch forward and down for the first time in years and sometimes riders don t know  how to ride long and low. It will all depend on the amount of time you can put into it. I would give a horse at least a few weeks to a month. You may be able to transfer without the problems coming back, you may not, but how you transfer is going to be important.

I am not going to go into depth about what bit to work with when you come off the bitless approach and start the transfer. I don t have any miracle product, maybe you do. I stay as mild as I can (diameter and eggbutt) and experiment from single joint snaffles to the milder double joints to all cheek styles. It will all depend on what goals are being set for the equine and rider team. The transfer is started with the horse wearing the bit, under the hackamore. I would have already started doing this on the longe. I will not have any reins to it, it will just be in the horse s mouth. From then on I will be training with the horse wearing it and hoping that the mouth issues don t start up again. If they do, we will continue to ride bitless.

Longe with the bit, put a higher side rein pressure to them to imitate the riders hands, but not attempt to ride with it for another few weeks. As I have noted before, if it can be done, I would have the horse back to bitting basics, wearing the bit in the stall, etc. If the issue just keeps continuing and we have to use a bit, then as noted, I will look at the rules for the performance we are heading for and see what bits I can try. Recently I started to rethink the Pelhams again, for those horses for whom that approach may be a good fit. I know it is hard to believe, but I remember somewhere that the thinking was that with a light set of hands, a Pelham could be better than a mild snaffle for some horses who have bit issues. While in school in England, all I ever seemed to ride with was a Pelham. It got relegated to the bit archives and will probably resurface again, just like the drop noseband, as being a new and innovative approach to bitting. However, the Pelham is not approved for dressage, nor are any rollers, which I have always found fascinating.

Personally, as I have stated before, I feel if there were more education about bitless application the rules would not be so confining for English competition, especially dressage. Of course, if there were not rushing issues in training, there would not be mouth issues being developed and I would be out of a job and the bitless approach would be a moot point, except for those people who truly feel a bit is abusive.

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