Why You Should Consider Going Bitless - The Q&A

Why You Should Consider Going Bitless – The Q&A

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Further to our recent webinar with Dr. Robert Cook, here are the Q&A from the event in written format.]

1. Why Bitless?

The question is most readily answered by turning it around, “Why bitted?” There are no good reasons, from the horse’s or the rider’s point of view, for putting a bit in a horse’s mouth. The horse’s welfare is best served by a bitless rein-aid, as is the rider’s safety. The main reason for not using a bit is that too often it hurts horses and frightens them. The welfare reason is reason enough not to use a bit but this also makes sense for the rider. Pain, fear and distress make a horse nervous, tense, highly-strung and more inclined to spook. Accidents are prevented and safety enhanced by riding bitless. A horse that is not in pain is able to listen and learn. Response to a painless rein-aid is more willing and training proceeds faster, with fewer setbacks.

2. Can all horses go bitless?

Yes. There is only one reason for using a bit and that is in order that a rider/driver can compete in certain disciplines. The justification for this mandate is the mistaken assumption that a bit controls a horse; it doesn’t.

3. What are the pros and cons of using a bit?

The one ‘pro’ is listed above. There are an endless number of ‘cons,’ i.e., well over 100 unwanted behaviors and c.40 diseases.

Some of the behaviors are potentially fatal to rider and/or horse (e.g., bolting, bucking, rearing, and stumbling). All are regrettable from the horse’s point of view. For the rider, they ruin the pleasure of riding, handicap performance, lead to rider injury, hospital bills and other huge expenses. From the horse’s point of view, the behaviors themselves are signs of their unacceptability – signs demonstrating that a horse does not ‘accept the bit.’ All bit-induced stress behaviors are unwanted and avoidable. They are pain and fear responses; signs of discomfort and distress. The term ‘unwanted behavior’ is not a good one as this implies that the horse is at fault. It’s a rider-centric label. Let’s call them what they are; signs of pain and fear, discomfort and distress. A better term would be ‘stress responses.’ Owners of bitted horses are unaware that they have a better horse than they think. They do not recognize that features of their horse’s behavior they ascribe to ‘character’ and ‘temperament’ and assume to be unalterable genetic traits are often caused by the bit and, therefore, reversible.

Bit-induced diseases run the gamut from oral problems such as bone spurs on the bars of the mouth and dental damage, to facial neuralgia, neck and back pain, bridle lameness, learned helplessness, depression, suffocation, waterlogging of the lungs and sudden death. A small metal foreign body in the mouth has a baleful effect on just about every bodily system, with the possible exception of the reproductive system. It is especially harmful to the optimum functioning of all the systems associated with athletic performance – the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous and musculoskeletal systems.

This is an appropriate moment to refute the claim that bitted bridles are not inherently more harmful than bitless bridles and that ‘it-all-depends-on-the-riders’-hands.’ In the same vein, defenders of the bit will state that bitless bridles can be just as severe as bitted bridles. But there is no symmetry or equivalence in the potential for harm of these two classes of bridle. The number, frequency and severity of stress responses in the horse that could conceivably be generated by a bitless bridle are few, infrequent and trivial compared with the high degree of stress caused by a bitted bridle. Related to this disparity in stress for the horse, the risk of injury to the rider when using a bitless bridle is far less than with a bitted bridle.

The implication in the ‘it-all-depends-on-the-riders’-hands’ defense of the bit is that, used ‘properly,’ the bit causes the horse no stress and does not imperil the rider’s safety; that bad results with the bit are the rider’s fault; and that the bit method of communication should only be judged by the results that can be obtained by those that have learned to ride. Such premises, even if they were true, ignore the realities. A method of communication that can only be used ‘properly’ by a minority of riders is not a method that can be recommended for use by riders of all ages, skill and experience. Nor is it a method applicable to all disciplines of equitation. Novice and ‘uneducated hands’ at the end of a bitless rein are prevented from causing the mayhem that the same hands frequently cause when connected to a bitted rein. Bitless riders are, to a very great extent, protected from rider error. With strap on skin, as opposed to metal on bone, they are virtually incapable of causing their horse physical and mental harm. By doing no harm, riders are safer. But also, their rein cues being painless, are more easily understood by the horse and are therefore more accurate. An element of pain in the signal introduces signal ‘noise.’ This is not just confusing for the horse but can trigger a quite different response from the one the rider intended.

4. Is it safer to use a bit?

No. A bit frightens a horse and renders it nervous, highly strung and more inclined to spook. A frightened horse cannot listen and learn and is less likely to respond to rider requests. As the saying goes, ‘To a frightened man, everything rustles.’ The same applies to the horse.

5. Is it kinder not to use a bit?

Yes. Inherent in the principle of all bits is that they are designed to cause pain. Unless used by a master horseman they will cause pain. Some bitless bridles have the potential for causing pain (e.g., the more severe mechanical hackamores) but most are painless. But even the mechanical hackamore is nothing like as painful as a bit. Strap on skin trumps metal on bone. Apart from the pain factor, every bit is incompatible with the physiology of exercise. So yes, bitless bridles are inherently kinder. A bitless rider does not have to be a master horseman in order to communicate painlessly.

6. Is it possible for ALL horses to go bitless, regardless of the discipline?

Yes – competition rules are the only barrier.

7. Do you think a bitless bridle gives enough control or release

It gives more control – or to phrase it more appropriately (riders should be looking for willing cooperation from their horse, not control) it allows for more accurate ‘communication.’ Because of riders inadvertently inflicting pain with a bit, the bit is the most common cause of complete loss of control. It is a myth that bits ‘control.’ A bit is not like the brake on a car. It is much more akin to the accelerator. Horses run when hurt. A cardinal error made by a learner driver is to mistake the accelerator pedal for the brake. A huge benefit of a painless bitless bridle is that it prevents a rider from making this dangerous mistake. Even if her horse spooks and she throws her whole body weight onto the reins to regain her balance, she cannot hurt her horse. It is as though a bitless bridle comes with a built-in monitoring system to prevent operator error. We will come back to this important topic later but, for the moment, let it be said that the rein is for communication. It should not be thought of as a method of control. It is for signaling polite requests, not for commanding coercion.

The ‘Dr Cook’ provides plenty of release. See Dr.Jessica Jahiel’s comments in the archives for her HorseSense newsletter. More importantly, there is no pain to the ‘pressure’ in the first instance. With a bit, pressure-and-release is too often pain-and-release.

8. Why should I ‘go bitless’?

Because it’s safer, kinder to the horse, improves its performance and makes you a better rider. As already stated (but it bears repetition) If you are currently riding with a bitted bridle, you have a better horse than you think.

9. What is the difference between Dr. Cook’s bridle and the Micklem Multibridle?

One of the configurations for the Micklem bridle is a crossunder configuration. It can also be used as a bitted bridle.

10. I know your philosophy has been around for a while (you were the first I had read about in the late 90s, early 00) and, being in America, I am wondering what your thoughts are on the Nevzorov Haute theory which comes out of Russia. The teacher uses no bit or bitless bridle because of concerns with anything hampering the anatomical range of the horse’s face. Do you feel your bitless bridle and others are exempt from harming or irritating horse nerves and muscles in that region, traveling all the way to the eye and cranial?

I have corresponded with Alexander Nevzorov (through his wife Lydia) since 2003. We had both written books about bits before either of us came to know each other. As I understand Alexander’s present philosophy, he no longer rides. That is his personal decision and one that I respect. An opinion of his with which I cannot agree is his concern about the fragility of the horse’s nasal bone at its peak close to the muzzle. The bone here is not as fragile in the living horse as it is in a dried skull. In nearly 20 years of crossunder bitless usage, no damage to the bone or the nerves of the face has ever been reported. With regard to the facial nerves, to my knowledge, the same can be said for other bitless bridles. It is often remarked that a mechanical hackamore, improperly used, is capable of fracturing the peak of the nasal bone. In 64 years as a veterinarian, I have not encountered such damage, nor have I come across such a case record in the literature.

11. How does one change from bit to bitless, and what should one expect?

To first answer the ‘what,’ you can expect to be delighted, happy and kicking yourself for not having made make the change 30 years ago!

As to the ‘how,’ this is much simpler than you might imagine. First, read the manual. Once this is done, follow the steps below. The actual transition is disarmingly simple, quick and rewarding.

SStage 1. Take off the bitted bridle and replace with a bitless bridle.
SStage 2. From the ground, check that your horse understands the bitless rein aids, for ‘turn left’ – ‘turn right’ – ‘stop’ and ‘reverse’
SStage 3. Mount, stand for a moment, then ride off at the walk in a closed arena or small paddock. Test for ‘left, right, stop and reverse.’
SStage 4. Trot
Stage 5. Canter

Many trail riders will be sufficiently confident by the end of day one that they are ready to go for a ride.

Most horses ‘understand’ the new bridle in the first 5 minutes. The rider may take a little longer (anything from 30 minutes to a couple of days). Many heart-warming testimonials are written on the evening of day one (see ‘User comments’ at http://www.bitlessbridle.com/index.php?main_page=page&id=7

12. How has Dr.Cook’s bitless bridle changed since 2001? That is when I got mine and I’m still riding with it!

The design hasn’t changed. We have added a wider range of colors in the beta and nylon materials. More recently, we have added the option of rope reins.

13. Is there any merit in the ‘new’ designs of headpiece, shaped behind the ears to reduce pressure? If so, is this something we’ll see offered by Dr Cook?

The amount of pressure that the crossunder applies at the poll is trivial. I see no need to change it.

14. What is the best all-purpose gear with a green broke horse for trail work alone & in groups

I could be biased but, since you ask, there is nothing better than the ‘Dr. Cook’!

15. Is there ever a justification for using a bit? Even so-called natural horseman suggest you get a greater degree of communication via a bit.

First, not all ‘natural horsemen’ make this suggestion. Secondly, from the horse’s point of view, there is no justification for using a bit. Those few riders who find that a greater degree of communication can be obtained with a bit should bear in mind that exquisite ‘communication’ is possible without a bit and even without a bridle. So what does this tell us? To me it suggests that those riders who are obtaining what they think of as superior communication may be obtaining it at the expense of the horse. A horse that feels pain may respond, at least for the moment, with greater alacrity than one that is not being hurt. However, this may be a short-term gain and there may well come a time when such a horse revolts. Also, the suggestion does not give sufficient credit to a horse’s sensitivity. Horses can feel a fly landing on their skin. They don’t need to be ‘hurt’ with a bit before they will respond. If a touch on skin is found inadequate, the fault lies with the training, rather than with the equipment. As with most equestrian problems, poor communication is not a horse problem but a rider problem.

16. Is it easy to retrain a horse to be ridden bitless?

Yes. A horse takes to it like a duck to water. Being no longer in fear or pain, a horse can listen and learn so much better. Training proceeds faster, more smoothly and without the continued and mounting accumulation of a host of bit-induced problems.

17. Before I bought him, my horse was in a 3-ring gag, flash noseband and running martingale, and getting stronger. When I restarted him, I rode him in a horseman’s halter, but a) he seemed worried by having no bit in his mouth, and b) car drivers looked very worried when they spotted that I had no bit in his mouth! I have since gone back to a Neue Schule Team Up bit (cyprium, double jointed with a lozenge in the middle) with no noseband or martingale, and ride mainly off my energy and my body, and use the reins as little as possible, just to support him when he needs it, and then I leave him alone when he is right. Is there anything wrong with this, so long as the rider’s hands are kind and considerate, if it gives the horse the confidence of something that he has known in the past, albeit I think that he was previously running away from another rider’s harsh hands?

I am not sure what the negative signs of bit withdrawal might be as I have only encountered positive signs. Many a rider fails to notice that a bit is missing, so – again – I am surprised that motorists spot a bitless horse. Are you sure that these were the only reasons for returning to a bit? It sounds as though your horse, in the previous owner’s hands, had developed a firm dislike of the bit. There is nothing wrong with using the reins a little as possible. I commend you for this, especially when a rein-aid terminates in a horse’s mouth.

18. Riding bitless with almost no use of the reins – can that be a disadvantage for my horse or the way she moves or carries her body?

Absolutely not. Quite the contrary. All riders should aim to do two things. First, ‘get out of their horse’s mouth’ and secondly, ‘give him back his head.’ Freedom of the head and neck is a prime requirement for optimum welfare, safety and performance. Without it, a horse cannot balance or conserve energy for breathing and locomotion. In the last few years, thanks to Dr. Fridtjof Hanson’s work, a master horseman in New Zealand, I have learned that the quest of all riders should be to ride ‘on the buckle’ with a loose but ‘feeling’ rein, i.e., a rein with some body – a ‘weighted’ rein such as a good quality rope rein. For more information, read “The Bedouin bridle rediscovered” online at http://www.bitlessbridle.com/THEBEDOUBRIDLE.pdf

An unrestrained head/neck pendulum is a physiological requirement for the horse. The provision of this could be every rider’s goal; riding with an independent seat, ‘on the buckle,’ using a loose rein, i.e., a ‘feeling,’ weighted rein. The only ‘contact’ is the weight of the rein. Communication is entirely proprioceptive, with no rein tension, i.e., the method makes use of the horse’s exquisitely developed sense of body awareness and balance – his sense of proprioception. Invisible signals are transmitted with a squeeze of the fingers or a subtle vibration of the weighted rein. But to emphasize, all this requires an independent seat in the first instance and a willingness to learn a completely new way of handling the reins. Sadly, the FEI’s dressage mantra is for a horse to be “on the bit,” the very opposite of head freedom.

19. I have a mustang who can be hot and spirited at times…could I even consider bitless on him?

Yes, he is exactly the temperament to benefit dramatically from removal of the bit. It is the bit that makes a horse ‘hot’ and ‘spirited’, i.e., frightened and jittery. When bitless, such a horse will calm down, be a safer ride and a better performer.

20. I have 3 OTTB’s that I want to transition to bitless riding. I tried it with a Tennessee Walker and he was very unhappy. These horses have not been ridden in 5+ years. What is the best way to start a horse with your bridle?

See above but start with groundwork, groundwork and more groundwork. In what way was your TW unhappy when bitless? There is probably a simple solution.

21. I have a VERY independent thinking Arab gelding. I have been hesitant to use a bitless bridle with him for fear of lack of control.

Your fear is understandable but ungrounded. For thousands of years, the bit has been wrongly credited with its ability to control. Yet for an equal period of time, bitted horses have been bolting, bucking, and rearing their way through history. The bit is probably the most common cause of all three nightmares and most other instances of loss of control. So hesitate no longer. You will have a calmer horse, better communication and, therefore, better ‘control.’

22. A properly fitted horse in a crossunder throws his head and doesn’t like being “grabbed” under the chin.

How old is your horse and for how many years had he been bitted before you made the switch? It could be that the snug noseband of the crossunder is pressing his cheek against sharp molar edges. Have you had his teeth floated? Another possibility is that he had already developed bit-induced trigeminal neuralgia before the switch and now is uncomfortable, because of the whole-head hug of a crossunder. Use the least possible rein pressure. Try a Cashel pad under his noseband and/or chin strap.

23. Why do you think that the bit rests on the bars of the mouth, when in reality it rests on the tongue?

Whether the bit rests on the bars or the tongue is a moot point as it should not ‘rest’ on either. Physiologically, a bit has no business to be in a horse’s mouth in the first place.

It is a foreign body in an exquisitely sensitive body cavity. I ‘think’ (know) that the bit frequently ‘rests’ (causes pressure) on the bars of the mouth because of behavioral studies and post-mortem evidence. In my survey of 66 skulls in US Natural History Museums on the East coast, I found bone spurs in 62%. Erosion of the first lower cheek tooth was present in 61%. The nature of the erosion was a beveling of the tooth’s table and/or a blunting of its normal prow (front edge). Both were caused by a horse defending himself from the bit by disarming it. The first, by a horse grabbing the bit between his teeth. The second by the horse lifting the bit off the sensitive bars with its tongue, using the less sensitive prow of the tooth as a buffer. Both strategies explain how a horse can ‘lean’ on the bit, ‘pull’ or yank the reins out of a rider’s hands (pig-root). Damage to the bars or the teeth and sometimes both were present in 88% of the specimens. The data was published in the peer-reviewed Equine Veterinary Journal in 201i and is available online at

http://www.bitlessbridle.com/DamageByTheBit.pdf. I agree that the bit can also rest on the tongue, as – from time to time – this becomes apparent from episodes of ‘blue tongue’ (cyanosis) or from ugly lacerations of the tongue by the bit and even entire amputation of its four-inch tip.

24. Why do you think that the reins are for stopping and turning the horse when they are not used in this manner in correct riding?

As you hint, in the ideal world every rider would turn and stop their horse with seat and legs, balance and breathing, or even just with voice commands. In the real horse world, we all tend to use our hands far too much. In theory, I agree that rein-aids should only be supplementary to seat and leg aids. For reasons already given, I maintain that a bit should not be part of a bridle. That being so, just as it is unethical to speak of the ‘proper’ fitting or use of a bit, so is it inappropriate to speak of ‘correct’ riding when a bit is involved.

25. Why do you say that the bit causes pain in the horse’s mouth when a bit that is properly fitted, properly hung, and used by educated hands does not?

Signs of bit-induced pain in the horse’s mouth and other parts of its body can be measured by studying the same horse’s behavior, with and without a bit. My survey based on an 81 line-item questionnaire of 66 horses that were switched from bit to bitless is currently being prepared for publication. When bitted, this population of horses collectively exhibited a total of 1646 unwanted behaviors, with an average number of 25 per horse. When bitless, the unwanted behaviors totaled 249 (an 85% reduction) with an average of 4 per horse. I cannot accept your assertion that a properly fitted bit used by educated hands does not cause pain. You would have to carry out a similar experiment to mine to test that assertion. It would have to show that the horses’ behavior when bitted did not improve when the bit was removed. It is my experience that riders who switched to bitless were consistently surprised by the number and nature of the unwanted behaviours that disappeared. Prior to the switch they had not even suspected that many unwanted behaviors (i.e., stress responses) shown by their horse were caused by the bit. While I agree that ‘educated hands’ at the end of bitted reins will trigger fewer unwanted behaviors than sophomore hands, ‘educated hands’ are uncommon and even these are not always entirely blameless. I concede that, in the rare top echelons of riding, there are riders who can use a bit without apparently causing harm but these are masters who have honed their skills to such a degree that they are no longer using the bit for anything other than the very lightest of touches. In such cases, the bit is still a foreign body in the mouth but it is almost a ‘dummy.’ Such masters can often give the same performance if they dispense with the bridle altogether.

26. Why do you say that horses hate having a bit in their mouth when this is normally not the case at all with a bit that is correctly fitted, correctly hung and correctly used?

From the same survey I quoted above, 53 out of 66 respondents (80%) reported that their horse ‘Hated the bit.’ This was evinced by their horse chomping, chewing or clenching the bit, teeth grinding, constant fussing with the bit, ‘busy mouth’ or evading contact. The most commonly checked line item on the questionnaire was – ‘hates the bit.’ 43% of respondents were dressage riders.

Admittedly, this was a selected population of horses and not a random population (the protocol for such an experiment would be logistically impossible to execute). Owners whose horses hated the bit rather obviously were more likely to switch their horse to bitless and complete the questionnaire than owners of horses that did not so obviously ‘hate the bit.’ So I agree, that the degree to which the horses in this particular population showed their resentment of the bit will not necessarily be exhibited by horses in general. The results from the analysis of this particular population of 66 horses are specific to this population only. That said, experience tells me that results from a random population would not be so much different. I cannot agree that it is possible to strap a metal pressuring device in a horse’s mouth without running a high risk of this having a negative effect on his ridden behavior or even his behavior at rest. In order to demonstrate that a bitted horse’s behavior is normal, a rider needs to remove the bit and be able to cross their heart and avow that their horse’s behavior did not improve.

The species Equus caballus is an astonishingly tolerant species. But the fact that It acquiesces to being walled-up for 23 hours out of 24, allows us to drive nails into its hooves and embed iron rods in its mouth should not be taken as proof that it accepts these burdens without demur or without suffering either short or long-term harm. The problem is that many a rider will happily assert that their horse does not mind the bit because they have not recognized the signs and cause of discomfort that their horse nevertheless exhibits. For 40 years, I was such a person myself. The diagnosis of behavioral stress responses requires study, as does the diagnosis of lameness. The percentage of riders that can use a bit without hurting their horse is vanishingly small and does not justify the use of a device which, in the hands of the general rider, is physically and mentally unacceptable to the horse. No matter how often the FEI mantra is repeated, horses do not ‘accept the bit.’ It is unconvincing to defend the bit on the grounds that a tiny percentage of riders are maestros. This is akin to asserting that everyone can be a sword-swallower.

27. Did you know that all of the problems and resistances that you claim to disappear when a rider switches from bit to bitless would also disappear if a person learned how to fit, hang and use the bit properly?

No, I do not know that and, sadly, neither do I believe your premise to be true. In relation to riders in general, the phrase ‘proper use of the bit’ is an oxymoron, a phrase with an internal contradiction. It is akin to talking about the ‘proper’ use of a bullet or a poison. I agree that a master horseman, with a relentlessly independent seat, the hands of a neurosurgeon and mind of a Buddha can use the bitted reins with such delicacy that he/she may avoid causing a horse obvious pain or distress. But how many such paragons are there and how many years of trial and error did it take them to develop such skill? I am reminded of the advice, ‘No one should be allowed to play the violin who has not mastered it.’ Even if I concede that a bit in the ‘educated hands’ of a master horseman may not damage lips, bars, tongue and teeth (something yet to be shown possible), there still remain reasons why universal bit usage is not acceptable, humane or safe. First, there is the problem of its use and abuse by riders less than maestros, i.e., the vast majority of riders. Secondly, and this is of concern in all disciplines, not just racing, a bit breaks the lip seal of a running horse and eliminates what should be an oral vacuum. The soft palate, no longer vacuum-packed onto the root of the tongue, now obstructs breathing and this in turn leads to waterlogging of the lungs and ‘bleeding.’ In racing and other extreme horse sports, it causes sudden death. Thirdly, bit usage causes avoidable accidents and injuries to riders. Adult riders may knowingly accept the unnecessary risk but children should not be obliged by competition rules to use this dangerous device.

28. Do you recommend use of the one-rein stop if your horse does not respond to other aids to stop?

Yes. If you are riding bitless you are far less likely to have need of this but a one-rein stop works well when required.

29. What are the advantages of a Dr. Cook bridle over a side pull?

Clearer communication, steering and brakes

30. Is it safe to ride bitless on a trail ride?

Yes, it is safer than with a bit. Being less nervous without a bit, your horse is less likely to spook in the first place. But to illustrate the greater safety of ‘no bit’ let’s compare the sequence of events during a spook, with and without a bit.

If, when bitted, your horse takes fright, he will throw his head in the air, spin and start to run. Unless you are a better rider than average, you will be unbalanced and will instinctively clutch at the reins. In so doing, you will hit your horse in the mouth. From your horse’s point of view, this adds pain to fear. It will confirm his impression that the ‘monster’ is dangerous. As a result, he will pick up speed. Once more, your instinctive reaction will be to haul on the reins. Your horse will experience further lip, tongue and bone pain. In fright and escalating panic he will run even faster. Unintentionally, your rein pressure will draw the bit back in the horse’s mouth and place it between your horse’s cheek teeth. Your horse will eagerly defend himself by grabbing the bit between his teeth. At this point, you have no control and the horse is in charge. So in this emergency, just at the very time when you need the best of control, you have none; no brakes, no steering and a horse in ‘blind’ panic who is not in his right mind and liable to run into standing objects.

Now consider the bitless sequence. The horse will still spook at a perceived monster. Being bitless does not prevent this evolutionary reflex. However, being less ‘highly strung’ overall, the spook will be less convulsive. You will still be unbalanced but, by clutching at the reins, you will do no more than give your horse a passing tug on his head – something that does not hurt. He will still run a few yards but then will recognize that there is no pain and the monster isn’t following, so he will slow down. Recovery from the spook will be quicker and will not escalate into a full-blooded bolt. Your horse will not have been ‘classically conditioned’ to spook even quicker the next time he sees the monster.

31. How do I fit the noseband?

Bottom edge of the noseband to be 1.5 to 2 inches (3.7 – 5 cm) above the corner of the lip. Chin strap adjusted so that you can place a finger between it and the bottom edge of the jaw.

32. Talk about sizing – I am confused – my horse has a large jaw.

Don’t worry. Give Carole a call and she will talk you through the options. If you still find that something does not fit, mixing and matching the whole bridle or its different parts is part of the service.

33. Do you believe complicated courses like 3 day trials could be ridden with accuracy without a bit?

Yes, with better brakes and steering, they have been ridden bitless with accuracy by many for years.

34. Please explain how you respond to people when they have the misconception that they can actually control their horse with a bit.

  • Ask them, have you ever been runaway with? Was your horse bitted?
  • Explain the sequence of events with a spook, bitted and unbitted (see above question)
  • You could show them a copy of the behavioral profiling questionnaire and ask them to note how many of the line items they recognize in their own horse
  • More simply, you could show them a list of the 12 most common bit-induced behaviors (see below)
  • Let them use your bridle and show them how easily they will overcome their fear of the maiden bitless voyage.

The 12 most commonly checked line items in my 81-line-item questionnaire for behavioral profiling were, as under, in order of frequency for 66 horses when bitted. The figures represent the percentage of the population affected when bitted and then again when bitless:


A few horses continued to chew, chomp and fuss with their mouths for a short while after the bit was removed.
As the questionnaires were completed in time periods varying from one-day bitless to several months, many of the horses would have shown even greater improvement had they been given a longer period bitless before being finally assessed.

35. Do I really have control if he gets really scared?

As explained above, when a bitless horse spooks, he may spin and run for six or seven yards. But soon, he will realize that the monster didn’t hurt and he will slow down again. The next time he sees that same monster he will be less likely to spook rather than more, as he would do if bitted and remembers that the monster hurt him in the mouth.

36. General interest, pressure points, operation of the bridle.

Whatever rein pressure is applied with the crossunder bridle, it is well-distributed around the head. Even in an emergency when a horse spooks and a rider throws the whole of her weight on the reins, all the horse feels is a passing tug on his head which does not hurt. During routine work, the pressure is trivial. Such as it is, most of the pressure is felt across the bridge of his nose, with less pressure under the chin, even less on his cheek and least of all at the poll. The rein aids are the same as with a bit. If you have an independent seat, a wonderful option is to learn to ride all the time, at every pace, ‘on the buckle.’ For this, use a weighted rein, i.e., a rope rein. Communicate with mere vibrations of the rein and absolutely no rein tension. When you ‘give him back his head’ your horse will be able to balance so much better, self-carriage will be achieved and horse/rider harmony established. To learn how to use a loose yet ‘feeling’ rein while you are still using a bit, Dr. Hanson recommends that you insert a slobber strap between the bit and the weighted rein.

37. Getting collection when bitless.

Collection is not achieved through the reins. It requires patient training to develop your horse’s fitness and ability to balance properly while carrying your weight. Self-carriage achieved, his head carriage will be that of a naturally balanced (collected) position.

38. How do we as a whole, convince the rule makers, to change the current lack of choice for bitless bridles in many competitions?

By bitless riders banding together and using their collective voice. By education, cajoling, lobbying, shaming, publishing, writing letters to editors, newspapers, making use of social media and, most important, by constant, formal, and repetitive submission of rule change proposals. Become members of the relevant association, enlist the support of committee members, volunteer for committee work and become officers of rule-changing committees.

39. I have ridden with your bridle and now I am getting into driving. I have a Dr. Cook bitless driving bridle for my pony. I don’t really have a question, but I am interested in more information about driving bitless. Most driving people are against driving bitless. I do not show and my pony does seem sensitive/spooky in a bit; therefore, I feel bitless should work well for us. Seeking bitless driving encouragement.

The physiological, ethical and safety principles that render use of the bit unacceptable for riding apply also to driving. It might be added that the principles are even more compelling for driving. Drivers cannot use seat and leg aids and rely more heavily (metaphorically and literally) on the rein-aid. There is no data but if this was ever collected it may show that there are more accidents per driven mile than ridden mile. Administrators of driving associations are highly sensitive to the possibility of accidents. This is probably no coincidence. Certainly, based on the fact that – with long reins and a firm seat – drivers can apply enormous pressure on their horse’s mouths, accidents are to be expected. For competition driving, bits are still mandated but pleasure drivers are free to drive bitless. Many are so doing in many countries. Once again, Holland has given a lead. Bitless pleasure driving in The Netherlands has been enthusiastically supported. My contacts in Holland have not told me of any accidents. In the USA, a carriage driving company in South Carolina have driven all five of their horses in the ‘Dr Cook’ since 2004, with entirely satisfactory results.

40. I would like to know the pros and cons of the different bridles that are listed above.

It would not be appropriate for me to expand here on this topic. Some comparative comments are on my website. Over the years, a number of people have carried out independent tests of different designs. An internet search will provide the information.

41. How do you deal with the slow release of the Bitless Bridle?

The release is not slow, it is instantaneous. You will see several of my comments on this topic if you go to the website and search the FAQs. For an independent opinion, carry out a search on Dr. Jessica Jahiel’s Horsesense Newsletter. Be assured that the Dr. Cook does ‘release.‘ You can check this for yourself by standing at the head of your horse and placing a finger of one hand under any of the bridle’s straps while you apply pressure and release on the rein with the other hand. The release of pressure is easily felt and it is instantaneous. When riding, just because the rein or noseband does not shift in position does not mean that release has not occurred. If you still feel that you need quicker release, use less rein pressure in the first instance.

42. Where on the nose should the pressure of a bitless bridle/caveson be or not be?

The noseband should lie on the base of the peak of the nasal bone (see diagram in website articles for 2007, “The ‘why,’ ‘what’ and ‘how’ of fitting the crossover bitless bridle” available online at http://www.bitlessbridle.com/crossover.pdf

Slight up or down adjustments from this position may better suit individual horses. The noseband should not be so low that it obstructs the nostrils.

43. From what I read, bitless can be as harsh on the nerves on the horses face as the bit can be in the mouth.

Not everything one can read on the internet or elsewhere is reliable. This particular comparison is loudly incorrect. Even with the most extreme rein pressure, the ‘Dr Cook’ will not damage facial nerves. The crossunder bridle is painless, harmless and compatible with the physiology of exercise, unlike the bit.

44. If you ride with a bit and use it very kindly in terms of rein pressure does it still hurt the horse?

Even though your intentions are good, with a bitted rein you cannot be sure that, if your horse spooks, you will not hit him hard in the mouth. Similarly, if you should fall and retain a hold on the reins, you will do the same. If a loose horse runs off with the reins trailing on the ground and he steps on the reins, he may do severe damage to his tongue or fracture his lower jaw. See also my previous response about the importance of not breaking the lip seal.

45. What’s your view on the cross-under versus side pull and the pressure put on sensitive nasal tissue?

Neither the crossunder nor the sidepull put unacceptable pressure on ‘sensitive nasal tissue.’

46. What is your opinion on bitless bridles that have metal parts at the sides such as hackamores & wheel type bridles.

These are leverage bridles designed to permit the application of increased rein pressures. Such a provision is unnecessary. A light touch is all that is required.

47. I keep getting told that the pressure doesn’t release as the rein doesn’t run back. I have ridden bitless for nearly 10 years and all the horses seem fine. It’s just that niggle that I might be hurting the horse as I know they have nerves running down the side of the face. This is just to put my mind at rest.

Relax, you are not hurting your horse (see also some previous answers).

48. How can we implement the bitless idea into the riding schools in the UK. I truly believe it is a question of education and if the right approach is taken, it can go far.

Absolutely. See a previous answer

49. How to transition a horse to bitless.

See a previous answer

50. What is the best answer I can give people when they ask me the question ‘Are bitless bridles safe?’ Most people want some sort of ‘proof’.

Since 2000, BitlessBridle Inc has sold, at a conservative estimate, over 50,000 bridles. I have yet to hear of one accident attributed to the bridle. On the contrary, we have been told of a number of incidents in which a serious accident might have occurred had the horse been bitted. I doubt that such a record could be claimed on behalf of a similar number of bitted bridles.

51. I desperately want to use my Dr Cook bridle on my TWH. However, because I am only an advanced beginner and my 8 yr old mare is a bit of a brat, the trainers think I should have a bit. She is a bit spooky. Because trainers feel I should have a bit for control, I now will not ride her at all. I refuse to put a bit in her mouth. She has bolted on me before, with a bit in her mouth. From fear, all I did was to pull on the reins. As a result, she simply grabbed the bit between her teeth. So having a bit in her mouth was no advantage. Please help me to understand that I can be more confident in a similar situation if I go bitless. I adore my mare and she is super sweet on the ground. I know she can listen with the Dr Cook.

Your dilemma is all too familiar and I do sympathize. Congratulations on the ethical solution you arrived at. But now take courage and ignore the incorrect advice you were given about a bit being needed for control. My answers above should help you to understand that you can go ahead and use your bitless bridle. Your mare will thank you on day one.

52. We have trouble executing turns with the bridle, when we use the right rein – he wants to go left and likewise with other rein. Other bitless bridles appear to be more ‘direct rein’ method. We have tried to follow all the online instructions but feel we are just confusing our horse. We appreciate any assistance!

This problem stumps me. In 17 years, you are the first to bring it up. Are you sure about the fitting? Please double check that what you have on your horse is exactly what is described in the manual. Is it possible, for example, that the crossunder straps are trapped under the chin strap? The straps should be free to slide. They should not, in my opinion, be united at the point they cross over each other.

53. I am already signed up to the idea of riding bitless, and just would like to know what I need to think about in terms of the transition.

See previous answers. But also view a film of four school-horses that were transitioned in real time. This was during an experiment I carried out in 2008 at a Certified Horsemanship Association Conference. See the peer-reviewed publication, available on my website. First click on ‘Articles’ then ‘2011’ and scroll down to the article “Preliminary study of jointed snaffle bridle vs. crossunder bitless bridle: A Quantified Comparison of Behaviour in 4 Horses.” Available online at http://www.bitlessbridle.com/CHAexperiment.pdf

The behaviour (performance) of all four horses markedly improved when bitless. The average score when bitted was 37 and, when bitless, 64. In four minutes, the scores improved from a category of ‘fairly bad’ to ‘satisfactory.’ Percentage improvement in scores from bitted to bitless ranged from 45% to109%, with an average of 75%. None of the riders (CHA Instructors) had ever ridden bitless prior to the experiment.

54. Are bitless side-pulls, bosals or hackamores as harmful as a bit itself? What about riding with a neck string?

No – nothing like as harmful. In fact, most bitless bridles are relatively painless. Even the most severe bitless bridle is to be infinitely preferred to a bit.

I love to see riders using a neck string (cordeo). What rein-aid could better represent the two goals of an equestrian – ‘Get out of his mouth’ and ‘Give him back his head’?

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About the author

Dr. Robert Cook

Robert Cook, FRCVS., PhD., graduated from the Royal Veterinary College, London and is Professor of Surgery Emeritus of Tufts University, Massachusetts. His research has been focused on diseases of the horse's mouth, ear, nose and throat, with a special interest in unsoundness of wind, the cause of bleeding in racehorses, and the harmful effects of the bit method of communication.


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