-By Charles Wilhelm-
Any type of equipment that goes on a horse’s face but does not go into the mouth is categorized as bitless. Thus, for example, the side pull is categorized as bitless. One fellow has come out with a piece of equipment called a bitless bridle. It is designed to make contact with the chin and poll and it works quite well. I designed what I call the hack-a-pull, a combination of a hackamore and a side pull. Riding a horse in a cowboy or web halter is riding bitless. I ride many horses with hackamores. A hackamore is made up of a bosal which is a firm piece that goes around the nose and then the reins are attached under the chin. There is a leather hanger that goes around the ears. When people ride with a cowboy or web halter, the rope is tied similar to a hackamore.
For me, riding bitless is neither right nor wrong. Depending on the horse and what you are trying to accomplish, the use of this type of equipment may be very appropriate. I think someone that is just learning to ride should use some type of bitless apparatus. A new rider usually does not have good hands and I would rather the outside of a horse’s face be pulled on rather than the mouth. A horse has sensitive areas on the edge of the jaw and the nose and even a string halter can inflict pain. In untrained hands, a regular hackamore can be very abrasive. I don’t recommend starting a horse in training with a regular hackamore which is usually 9/16 to 5/8 inch in diameter.
What most horses are started with is a large diameter hackamore. As training progresses, a smaller diameter or pencil hackamore is used and then with a bridle. All bitless apparatus will have a tendency to rub under the horse’s chin. Getting scuffed up is usual for a horse, in other words rubbed and sore. With time, a horse will build up a callus and those areas will be less sensitive but still feel. I have started colts in cowboy and regular halters, snaffle bits and hackamores but if the hands aren’t trained, starting it in a halter is better.
Each type of equipment has definite advantages. The most important thing to remember is that it is not what you put on the horse’s face, it is what you do with that piece of equipment. It comes down to your hands, seat and legs. You must try to ride with an independent seat and not use the reins for balance. Also, when you ask your horse to do something, you must not ask with the reins while hanging onto them to remain balanced. All that pulling would confuse the horse and the line of communication would be lost.
Some horses, based on personality, can be pushy in the face. For that type of horse, a piece of equipment, for instance a hackamore, with a little more feel or weight to it is better. This will prevent the horse from running through your hands. The skill of the rider and the personality of the horse relate to the type of equipment that will work best.
A few years ago I knew a fellow who did a lot of Parelli work and he started his horse in a string halter. He did bareback riding with a halter and he did a very nice job with the horse. However, as the horse got more broke and the requests needed to be more specific, the feel of the halter was too general. I found that out for myself when I was working with a dressage trainer, Major Miguel Trevera. I wanted to see how much I could accomplish using a hackamore. He told me it was not specific enough to all the movements required for finished horsemanship. A bit has more communication value. Stacy Westfall is known for riding without a bridle but when she schools her horse she uses a bridle. For some time she rode the horse with just a rope around its neck. It takes time to get a horse educated enough to understand that type of communication. Also, her horse has a very docile personality. A horse that is too smart or has a high flight instinct can be ridden without a bridle but the horse must be sufficiently trained and predictable. A compliant horse may be ridden without a bridle sooner than a willful horse.
Depending on your goal, if you want to expand your horsemanship, you will need to put a bit in the horse’s mouth. A request with a bit is more specific and not as limited. I’ll talk more next time on riding with or without a bit.
Charles’ warm and relaxed demeanor has made him a favorite at regional and national clinics and demonstrations. Charles offers extensive hands-on learning programs for every level of horsemanship. He may be reached through his web site: http://www.charleswilhelm.com/