Way back when I was a kid and I first learned to ride, the idea of not using a bit was unheard of. It wasn’t even in the realm of consideration. Just like breathing, bitless was not even thought about, let alone debated as an option. Bits just were.
Returning to horses many years later the times and ideas have changed a great deal. While the horse world as a whole remains fairly mainstream, today there are growing pockets of horse people who have the courage and independence to say “but why?” ….and quite often, it seems, there is not a good or satisfactory answer to that question.
Because of the courage of these people to step away from conventional methods, we are provided with a plethora of bitless bridle options to choose from. There is a growing realisation that you do not need to be some guru horse person to ride bitless. There is an increasing understanding of how detrimental bits are to a horse’s physical and mental wellbeing. Even in the mainstream world where the status quo and old traditions cling on tenaciously there is an emerging awareness and increasing discussion, and acceptance, of the idea of bitless riding as a real option.
For me, a full convert to bitless, sometimes I despair at how set in their ways some horse people remain, and how stuck in the conventional paradigm the horse world is as a whole.
But two recent events have given me hope that in my lifetime I might just see a shift occur; a shift to a world where bitless riding is just as accepted – if not more accepted – as riding with a bit; a world where it is the relationship with the horse that is more important than the piece of gear you hang on his or her head.
The first event is as follows:
My partner and I offer ‘Transition to Bitless Riding’ sessions. Recently a man in his 50s rang enquiring about bitless bridles, and asked if he come and look at a few of ours. John had only “got into horses” about 3 years earlier when his “been doing horses all my life” new partner talked him into it.
He was that wonderful combination of innocence and age. He had not yet been indoctrinated too heavily into the “this is how we do it with horses because this is how it has always been done” mould, his eyes were still open and his mind still questioning. Combine this with the maturity and confidence of age which allowed him to actually question what he was being told, and if the answer was not satisfactory, keep wondering and exploring options, looking and asking.
His horse was shaking her head a lot, and after trying a number of things he began to wonder if the bit was giving her grief… and so he started investigating, hence the phone call to us.
John and his partner Sue arrived for a visit and a chat about bitless, and while Sue was respectful of John’s desire to follow up this bitless thing, the look of apprehension and fear in her eyes at the mere idea of considering riding bitless said it all. Her words of “there is NO WAY I would ride my horse bitless” confirmed it. All her life she had been told bits were needed for control, bits made riding safe, bits were a must. You don’t just throw away an ingrained belief system like that without some time, lots of evidence and a dose of coaxing.
As the afternoon passed, and we all talked and chatted and encouraged, a shift started to occur in Sue, she was becoming more curious. When she heard that my ex-trotter had been ridden for the first time bitless by me (certainly no ‘expert’ horsewoman) when he was 13; and that even though he was quite herd bound, one day early in our bitless riding experiences he had listened to me and not panicked and run after his herd as they galloping of in a cloud of dust when we were riding amongst them, her ears pricked up.
Then when we brought out an English style Light Rider bridle, she visibly relaxed and said “Oohh, I like that one, it looks like a proper bridle.”
At the end of their visit with us John was very keen to come back and have a bitless session with his horse. Sue was still “Yeah, I don’t think so.” But as they were leaving my partner Glenn said to her “Why don’t you just bring your horse along too, and if you decide you might like to try it out in the safe space of our round yard, you can.”
When the day arrived, two people and two horses rolled through the front gate. Sue stepped out of the car and said “I want to give it a go.” On the inside Glenn and I gave a little happy dance, on the outside we gave a low key, but heartfelt reply of “That’s great :)”
Four hours later both Sue and John were smiling broadly. Sue had become aware that she carried a lot of tension and fear when she rode, which trickled through to her horse Kahlua. Acknowledging this she started to relax and breathe when she became aware of tension building. In addition she had trotted in the round yard, opened the gate from Kahlua’s back and ridden calmly out into the bigger paddock to sit confidently on Kalhua chatting to us… Four hours earlier this would have been an unimaginable achievement. Meanwhile there was no stopping John once he had got the partnership going in the round yard with his Belle. They were out in the bigger paddock practicing weaving around some handy feed tubs, trotting and stopping, and generally having fun together.
The best part though… both horses looked decidedly more relaxed, and John’s horse had almost immediately stopped the head tossing that led them all down the bitless path.
Recently we received an email from Sue that said in part “John & I rode with the bitless bridles around home this weekend in the bush. We trotted & cantered some. I found Kahlua wasn’t grinding his teeth, tossing his head or reefing on the reins, very different…”
And the icing? Sue and John regularly ride and mix with bitted riders. They will now go on to be advocates and examples, for those who still have traditional mindsets, that bitless riding is safe and possible.
To witness someone as fixed and indoctrinated as Sue was to the idea that one requires a bit to control a horse, become not only open minded to the concept of bitless but to then try it, feel comfortable with it, continue practicing it at home and see real and positive transformation for the better in her horse, then I believe there is hope and the world – even the ‘set in its ways’ one – is changing.
The second event is currently a small, but I believe significant, occurrence at a National level in Australia where I live:
Late last year a group of inspired (and frustrated) bitless riders and drivers came together and formed an organisation called “Bitless Inc,” www.bitlessinc.org.au
The organisation’s primary goal is to bring together the bitless, bridle-less and liberty horse community in Australia and as a united group: support each other; encourage those who are considering bitless, bridle-less or liberty; promote bitless, bridle-less and liberty as a genuine and safe option in the horse world; and provide a united voice to campaign for changes that would see bitless riding and driving become an accepted and normal option in competition and clubs.
Bitless Inc is a well thought out organisation. It offers 24/7 insurance cover for all individuals who want to ride or drive bitless or bridle-less, or do liberty work/play with their horses. It encourages and supports individuals, through this insurance cover, who want to ride bitless or bridle-less in a club or competition but are refused due to the “Ohhh, our insurance would not cover you” argument.
Bitless Inc provides a common point to find other like-minded people and clubs, and encourages groups and clubs to be formed or altered to allow bitless or bridle-less riding or driving and liberty horse activities.
In addition to the above, there are a number of initiatives under way for Bitless Inc members. The organisation has initiated a “High Points Award” scheme which is “designed to reward and support Bitless Inc Members who are actively participating bitless or bridle-less in equestrian activities, events, competitions, demonstrations or parades, and by doing so, are demonstrating how safe, reliable, and versatile bitless and bridle-less equines really are.” Bitless Inc also has a ‘Bitless Bridle Bank’ with an extensive number of different brands and types of bitless bridles, which members and guests can borrow and try at any time.
When I see inspired and motivated individuals create an organisation like Bitless Inc and then observe its growth and the ground swell support it has received in just six short months, it gives me great hope that real and far reaching change is underway in the horse world.
So yes, the wheels of change might move slowly, but with occurrences such as the two I have shared above – one at an individual level the other national, I truly do believe the horse world is beginning to come of age.
Perhaps I shall live to see the day when my grandchildren will say to me in disbelief and horror “Gran, did you really use those things called bits when you rode horses as a girl!!”….I certainly hope so.