Starting Out Bitless
Many choose to ride their horses without a bit and, if you are considering this option, I would like to give you a few pointers on how to get the best result. There can be many reasons for choosing a bitless bridle and there are many different types of bridles. All these things, I will get into more detail with in one or more later posts, but for today we will cover how to get started.
Sometimes I hear people say that they just put on a halter or their new fancy bitless bridle and jumped on the back of their horse. In many cases this works without major problems, but in many cases, this also gives quite a lot of trouble. Some of the "minor" problems that can arise is the horse being deafer to the signals than usual and the rider having tired arms after riding due to pulling more. This extra resistance might be especially on straight lines but can also be when trying to turn the horse or in other situations. More serious problems are horses not reacting at all, and maybe even running off. Been there, done that. Well not the last part, but the rest. So, I speak from experience from playing around with my horses and being a little naive.
Why do these problems arise? Most often the case is lack of understanding of the aids from the horse's point of view. Riding in bitless bridle with reins attached gives other pressure points than riding with reins attached to a bit. Horse's aren't good at generalizing and many are not able to "transfer" or "guess" that the pressure points placed on the nose (often in different spots than the halter) mean the same as those experienced in a halter or through a bit. And if you then have a horse that is a little rough to walk in its halter, that doesn't make it easier, as it will very often have been desensitized to the pressure of the halter. As you see, it comes down to the horses understanding of the aids.
It is not more dangerous to ride in a bitless bridle than in a bridle with a bit - but many neglect to teach the horse the signals for the bitless bridle, and then they can end up in a different situation. However, this same situation would have been created if you jumped on a horse with no previous knowledge of the signals of the bit.
So how do you then introduce your horse best to the bitless bridle? You need to teach your horse what the signals means. And I usually use one of these two options depending on the horse and rider:
The first option is to teach the different signals from the ground, like I would when teaching a completely raw horse. Teaching the horse stop and turn as with a bridle and using positive and negative reinforcement for this. If the horse already knows the exercise or behaviour (which is often the case) then teaching a new signal for the same exercise/behaviour goes quite fast. However, it might take some time for the learning to "sink in" and for the responses on the signals to become more "reflex"-like in all situations. The only way for this to happen is repetitions, repetitions and even more repetitions.
The second option is to ride with a double rein - one attached to the bitless bridle and one attached to the bit. This requires that the horse reacts well to the signals in the bit (and if not completely well, you can try and use positive reinforcement to make the reactions better) and that the rider is very aware of what the hands are doing. To teach the horse with this method you start by giving the horse the light signal in the bitless bridle and then a short moment later (for example, 1 second in the beginning) you give its known signal in the bit. Through repetition you can get the horse to understand that the signals in the bitless bridle means the same as the signals in the bit. This will happen because the horse will recognize the chain "Signal in bitless bridle means that the signal in the bit comes. The signal in the bit means I have to do X. When I do X the pressure releases" and the horse will then shorten the chain up to avoid unnecessary pressure to "Signal in the bitless bridle means I have to do X. When I do X pressure releases."
So, there you have two different options on how to teach your horse the meaning of the bitless bridle. Some horses know intuitively or from earlier experiences what it has to do when feeling the signals through the bitless bridle, and if you want to test this you can try the second option. However, if you want to use a bitless bridle to avoid a bit altogether from day one you should pick option one and wait with jumping on the horse until the horse is easy to steer from the ground with minimal use of visual and auditory aids.
I prefer starting youngsters in a halter or bitless bridle and for this I naturally teach the horse through the first option as it doesn't know any signals in the bit. Later I often use the second option for teaching the bit - so it can go the other way around as well.
No matter which option you choose I really hope that you will create a safe setup for you and your horse and create a situation in which you minimize your horse’s confusion and stress. And this can optimally be done by making sure you horse knows the new signals before you go using them. Because for him they might seem like a whole new language or dialect, that he doesn't understand.
On a final note: Good luck on trying out bitless!