The soft cavesson – the Classical bitless bridle anno 1500

I am one of the lucky ones, since youth exposed to the classical way of working with horses. Back then, over thirty years ago, we used a simple snaffle for all work and the double bridle only for the highest level of competition or artful work such as can be still be seen today at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. However, in training even those accomplished riders went back to the snaffle. We never thought about using anything else, for horses never had problems with their simple snaffle simply because it was mandatory to have soft, quiet and kind hands and ride the horse from seat, leg and weight aids, simply holding a soft contact. We were never that concerned with the way a horse carried his head, however all the more with how the horse moved and reacted to the aids. Looking back, there weren’t many problems with horses, not in work and not in handling.

Some 15 years ago a change occurred. Suddenly many more people had horses, than ever before in modern times. A lot of these new horse owners did not grew up with horses, as was mainstream amongst horse owners before. This, alas, resulted in many new problems with horses. This also resulted in people searching solutions for these problems without understanding the fundamental Equine needs and a wide variety on bits and auxiliary reins assortment in the tack shops was born. You see, the rider of today might find the tack shops of 30 years ago very boring. There were only a few types of bridles and bits, saddles and even the colour range of pads and clothing was limited to a few. I must admit, walking into a tack shop of the past would be very refreshing to me now.

With these new problems born in horses and riders without a sound classical experienced back ground, trainers and instructor like me had to find new ways to fix these new problems. A horse who is abused with a bit is very hard to get to trust a bit again, especially, if the rider does not have educated hands. Finding a solution for the 21th century problems, I started to experiment with bitless in 2004. I first started to experiment with the bitless bridle by the courtesy of Dr. William Cook. Already the advantage of this bridle showed vast on horses who have had lost trust in the bit and riders who were not able to inspire trust back into the horse. Horses relaxing and starting to stretch their topline into the riders seat was a fast result from working with the bitless bridle. But something was missing.

How to get the correct bend on the lunge was one thing that was missing with the bitless bridle, but also, after the topliner is active again and the horse works well forward and down, how do you get 'Stellung' and lift the horse off the shoulders? With the bitless bridle this did not work perfectly. It was harder to ask the horse to relax the jaw, open the poll and take correct Stellung.

I thought back to when I was very young. How did we lunge a horse? With a cavesson! I remembered how easy it was to get correct bend on the lunge while educating a young horse to go under saddle. I searched through old photos of my great example, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and saw it: The leather, soft cavesson! A cavesson completely made out of leather without any form of iron or hard material in the nose piece. Why did I not think of that before? I asked my manufacturer in Spain to make me one just like that. For weeks, I looked longingly in the mail, and then finally it arrived! Lunging, work in hand and riding started to make sense like never before. I used it on all horses and students and the positive effect was immediate with each and every horse and combination. So how is that possible?

First of all, the way the cavesson is designed is based on a completely opposite philosophy then most bridles or halters. I think it is safe to say that most bridles and halters, used for training are designed to work on to the most sensitive places of the horse’s head. The mouth, the lower part of the nose, the cheekbones, the chin, the poll etcetera. Examples are the common bridle, but also the rope halter or hard cavesson (which we call a serreta). But with all these type of bridles, once misused, whether by mistake or not, the effect is that the horse trust in the rider’s hand is gone and it is very hard to regain. The soft cavesson however is designed to lay at the places of the horse’s face where he is the least sensitive! Thus, when pulling the reins, or lunge, the effect on the horse’s face and head, is much less severe than with most other bridles and halter. So when working with the soft cavesson, it very easy to get the horse to trust the reins and hand of the rider, either on the lunge, in hand or under saddle. This promotes excellent stretch of the topline and wonderful relaxed and happy horses. This, in effect, would be enough for me to choose for this bridle, but there is more!

The way the bridle is placed, including the three rings on the nose is completely biomechanically correct towards the horse’s correct movement and the rider’s correct aids. When working with one or two reins or lunge, the soft cavesson provides very easy and correct Stellung for the horse.

Stellung is the basis of all correct classical work. Without it there can be no correct lateral work and without correct lateral work there can be no true collection. Stellung makes the horse relax the jaw and with that engage the upper neck and back muscles. With correct Stellung you can instantly ask the horse off the shoulders and help him to straighten his body and thus evenly distribute the strain put on his body whilst being ridden. You see, with other bridles, whether with bit or not, the reins are attached to the side of the head, as opposed to the middle of the nose as with the cavesson. With reins attached to the side of the head or the bit, it is much more difficult for a (inexperienced) rider or horse, to produce correct Stellung and the horse will be more inclined to tilt his head sideways with which the jaw and poll will be locked and stiffened, stiffening the back and bringing the horse on the forehand. In effect I am not saying that Stellung is impossible without a cavesson, rest assured! A good rider can produce this of course. I am saying that many horses and riders find it much more easy with the soft cavesson.

Also, following the work of Baucher and his flexions in hand and under saddle work beautiful and in many cases better, to my experience, with the soft cavesson.

Correct Stellung provides all lateral work and since the ‘release and take’ of this bridle is instant and never hurtful, it promotes (re) balancing and collected work with ease, calmess and lightness.

I am so found of the cavesson that I haven’t used a bit since 2005! Not on my own horses nor on any of my students horses.

As always when I think I ‘discover’ something new I go back to the books, to find out; what do the classical masters say about this? And then I found the cavesson, whether a soft one or not, everywhere! From Francois Robichon de la Guérinière to William Cavendish, and all for the same reason of Stellung and lateral bend, in the educating process of the horse.

But what hit me most was the 16th century trainer Marco de Pavari, who in 1581 advised the cavesson for horses who present problems forthcoming from being mistreated. Why, what I am doing and found it is not so new afteral! I guess therefore you could say that the soft cavesson is the bitless bridle from the 16th century! Even more so, the classical bitless bridle since the 16th century and probably even before.

Still owning a tack shop until 2011, we began to sell these soft cavessons all around the world. Everywhere I was asked to teach in Europe and even South Africa, I took my cavessons with me and worked horses in them or have students working in them. Almost everyone was convinced to at least add the cavesson to their equipment or add it to a bit.

I am even more happy to see that the soft cavesson is back in fashion all around the world. I see it everywhere now and even in many tack shops, even the refreshing boring ones. This article was originally written by Jospeha for the German magazine 'Hofreitschule'. You can find more information about Josepha on her website here:

If you’d like to know more about the cavesson or bitless classical dressage in general, please look out for Josepha's book 'Problemlos Gebissloss' published by Cadmos.

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