It is not that I am opposed to using a bit, but Cirius and my previous Arab indicated that they were not very happy with a bit in their mouth. I have started both with a bit, but switched to bitless because neither of them wanted to relax under saddle. And if there is one thing that I have learned from my Arabs, it is that I should listen to them. That makes both of us a lot happier. But it is not always easy to do well. For example, it was not totally clear which type of bitless bridle I should choose.
There is plenty of choice…..
My search has started with my previous Arab. With her I started to use a hackamore with short arms. She was fine with it, but I am used to ride with a bit and in ‘English’ style. The steering works a bit different with a hackamore as compared to with a bit. You should use pressure against the neck, for if you pull a rein, the side of the hackamore twists and the edge presses against the side of the face of the horse. That she did not like too much (I can imagine), but I wanted to ride ‘normal’ dressage, so I was not prepared to use a neck rein.
Ok, so the hackamore was exit. Then I tried a side pull. In fact that is just a noseband with two rings on the side that you can attach the reins to. That was not a big succes to the extend that she just ‘bulldozed through’. I could steer, but the brakes were failing big time. For riding in the arena it was still ok as she did respond to my seat telling her to slow down. But riding out was not safe as she did not want to stop when I told her (for example to cross a road). So it was irresponsible to continue to use that. Later I have also tried a caveson (mine is completely made of leather, so quite soft). I use that for lunging, but you can also use it for riding. It had the same effect (or no effect) as the side pull: no respect. (NB the caveson that is used in classical dressage has metal in the nose band so that works much sharper than my leather one).
Then I have tried the ‘Glücksrad’. That is almost the same as the ‘flower hackamore’. A wheel with six openings (between the ‘spikes’) at equal distances. The noseband is attached to two opposite openings, so that there are two openings above the noseband and two below. Now you have a ‘flower’ on both sides of the head, with a band across the nose and one under the chin/cheek. Then you can choose which of the remaining openings on top you will use for attaching the head piece and which of the openings in the bottom to attach the reins to. The softest impact you have when the reins are attached to the opening near the rider and the head piece to the opening near the front. By choosing other openings, you can increase the lever, and thus the ‘sharpness’ of the flower. It works by putting pressure on the nose, below the chin/cheek, and behind the ears. The story went that you could use it as if you were using a bit and you could ride normal dressage in the ‘English’ style. That intrigued me, but unfortunately my experiences were a bit different. My lady was happy with it, but as soon as I tried to steer the ‘English’ way, the flower would tilt (or at least try to do that) and the edge would press into her face. Not ideal.
I already had borrowed a ‘cheek crossed’ or ‘cross linked’ bridle, but she completely ignored my then (it was a but too large for her). But after my flower experience, I decided to try it once more, but this time with a good fit for her small head. In those days (approximately 10 years ago) there was little choice and that is how I ended up with a bridle by DrCook: the original cross linked bridle. Cross linked means that there is one strap running from the head piece, under the cheek, through a ring in the nose band on the other side of the head, and the same on the other side of the head.. The reins are attached to the end of those straps. Steering works the same as with a bit: pull left is going left, pull right is going right (to bluntly put it). By putting pressure on one rein more than the other, the strap on the opposite side will push against the cheek of the horse and the head will be turned. Pressure on both reins will put pressure on both straps, so on the sides of the cheek, on the nose (because the straps run though rings that are attached to the noseband), and behind the ears (because the straps are attached to the headpiece).
That bridle was a success and I continued to use it, instead of a bridle with a bit. I have sold the mare and now, already for the past seven years, I have Cirius. I have started Cirius both with and without a bit. He really detested the bit and continued chewing it and was more focussed on the bit than on me during riding. I have to admit that part of the reason he kept on chewing his bit was that I did not keep my hands perfectly still. I mean, it was not disastrous, but they were not still. I have tried several different types of bit, but none would please him. The cross linked bridle was ok for him, for as long as I rode with fairly loose reins. A while after I picked up the reins and put some pressure on the reins, he started to shake his head as if to get rid of something.
Drassige with a cross linked bitless bridle
After trying long and hard to have him accept the bit, I eventually bought him a (and now I don’t know the correct term in English) ‘chin crossed’ bridle. That is a noseband, with on both sides two short straps with a ring at the end, and two longer straps with a rind at the end. The longer strap on the left side goes under the chin and through the ring of the short strap on the right side. The rein is attached to the ring on the long strap. The same for the other side. So by taking up the reins, pressure is put on the nose and under the chin, and to a lesser extend also behind the ears. This was the ideal bridle for Cirius. He relaxed immediately and was as happy as can be. He still is distracted very easily, that is part of who he is. But if I can convince him to turn his attention to me and not to the environment, he is willing to go to work very well in this bridle.
Steering works almost exactly as with a bit. Pressure on the left rein puts pressure on the left side ánd the right side of the nose. Just like with a bit, because then you also get pressure on the outside as you ‘pull’ the bit through the mouth (a tiny bit). Even when you put little pressure on the rein, the bit will move in the mouth. The pressure you put on the corners of the mouth, in the chin crossed bridle you put on the side of the nose. And the effect of the bit ín the mouth, the chin crossed bridle puts more or less under the chin. So it is different, but the influence of both bridles (the reaction of the horse) are comparable.
In my experience you do not have to adjust your aids when you switch to a chin crossed bitless bridle. Apart from the steering,, other aids work similar as well. For example, you can invite your horse to flex his poll by lifting you inside hand, you can give half halts, you can ride towards your outside hand, etc. Anything you can do with a bit, you can do with a chin crossed bridle. At least, when the horse is sensitive enough and accepts the clues. And I do not ride very high level dressage (low-intermediate level). I have no idea whether you can ride higher levels of dressage using this bridle, but I suppose you can. After all, dressage is based on agreements between you and your horse on how to respond to which clue, and as long as you understand each other I don’t think it matters too much what kind of bridle you are using. Cirius is a very sensitive horse and responds to small clues (if he is focused on me). I can imagine that a less sensitive horse may more easily ignore the less sharp clues. It does help when your horse is responding to your seat as well, so that you don’t need your reins so much for tempo control. Then you can use them for the finer work. Because as the chin crossed bridle is less sharp than a bit, you will ‘need to’ pull harder to obtain the same effect. When you teach your horse to respond to your seat, you don’t need to pull at all.
Chin crosses and cross linked: the ideal combination for us
I have two bridles for Cirius: the chin crossed for dressage and the cross linked for riding out. Because he dislikes the pressure on his head, he responds very well to the cross linked for tempo control. Better than with a bit. A big advantage of the cross linked bridle is that he cannot avoid the pressure. He cannot take it between his teeth. I determine the pressure and he can’t do anything about it. Except to listen, because that will release the pressure. For that reason riding out the cross linked is much safer to use on Cirius than a bit. I often get comments from people on the street. They think it is ‘very brave’ or ‘very dangerous’, ‘I would never dare to do that, but it looks lovely and kind’, or ‘it should be forbidden and we will have to pay for the accidents’. For us it is not a matter of daring. It is safer than with a bit and it feels nice to know that Cirius is ok with it. As long as I don’t put too much pressure on the reins.
Why no chin crossed while riding out? That is for two reasons: first of all I use a fairly ‘clean’ chin crossed bridle. It is just a nose band, no head band or cheek strap, so when he shakes his head it can easily fall off. That has not happened yet during riding, but it did flop down one ear once. You don’t want to experience that in the forrest. Secondly, he does respond very well to the chin crossed bridle in the arena. But I have more to tell when I use the cross linked bridle. So for safety reasons, that is the better bridle for riding out. Knock wood, but he has never bolted or taken off in the forrest with me. Not even when another horse ran off. And also not even on those days he is VERY fresh. He does want to go faster, but he does respond to pressure on his head.
The ideal solution is horse-dependent
In short: I have ended up riding bitless with my horses and that works very well for us. Not because I am opposed to the use of a bit, but because it works better for us. Without a bit relaxation is much easier to achieve (apart from certain days…), with a bit that rarely happened. It has taken me some time to admit that bitless was ‘the way to go’ for us. For a while it felt like failure, because dressage you ride with a bit. Fortunately I am over that and I can tremendously enjoy a bit of dressage or a ride out in the forrest.
Despite the fact that I by now have tried almost all types of bitless bridles there are, I cannot advise anyone on which bridle is best. That depends so much on the horse. And perhaps a bit is ideal for your horse. It remains a matter of trying. But that is definitely worth it!
Do you want to read more about my experiences with my horses (and pony’s)? Then check out my other blogs