You have decided to pursue bitless riding, the new bridle has been bought and you’re ready to go. Or are you? What are the first steps to consider in training your horse bitless?
Can we rely on history?
Evidence exists that in the sixteenth century bitless techniques were employed in the training of the young horse; a fact quoted by bitless aficionados in support for bitless riding in modern times. Salomon de la Broue is said to have, by non-other than de la Guérinière (French master and developer of shoulder-in), used the ‘caveçon’ to hold, lift, make light, turn and to soften the shoulders.
The caveçon of those times bore little resemblance to the softer and lighter cavesson that we now know. It appears that the principle was to save the mouth of the horse during early training and its use would have been quite barbaric by today’s standards. According to Frazer’s translation * of Guérinière, the sharp toothed metal nosebands bloodied noses whilst they ‘made mouths’. In other words obedience to the human will was deeply ingrained before a bit was introduced.
Most historical horse training is likely to make unpleasant reading for those following classical training principles; bitless training is no different. Throughout the horse world we have developed kinder, ethologically sounder principles and the same is, thankfully, true in bitless training.
From clarity comes clear communication
Whether you and your equine partner strive to be confident hackers, excel at dressage, jumping or agility (or other chosen path) the basic principles of classical training are worth consideration. Teaching in-hand basics will help forge a relationship based on trust if they are introduced with tact and in tiny logical steps. Think ahead by choosing cues for behaviours that will later transfer to the saddle; verbal and touch cues will cross over to riding more easily than directional cues like pointing.
The aim of training is to develop a system of clear communication; simply replacing a bit with a noseband is unlikely to do this. The first step is to find a bitless bridle that your horse is comfortable wearing. Pressure on the face or head is equally as uncomfortable as pressure in the mouth; your choice of bridle needs to be based on your horse’s preference rather than the look. From a simple headcollar to a side indicator or crossover style there are many varieties and makes to try. Before you begin training in your chosen bridle check that rein aids can be applied softly with an instant release.
The hand on the rein
Introducing rein cues with positive reinforcement or tactful pressure and release relies on cues being lightly applied and instantly removed; this is the only path to lightness. Before teaching cues the horse must be entirely comfortable with putting on and wearing the bridle. Introducing a gentle hand on the rein as nothing to fear takes longer with some horses but is a step not to miss. Familiarisation (habituation, desensitisation and counter conditioning describe this is in more scientific detail) and a soft response to the hand picking up the rein is the goal; fear of the rein is not.
The first level of balance in ridden work will allow the horse to express themselves whilst learning to balance with the rider - without reliance on the rein for support.
Rein aids are just a small part of training without a bit; seat and leg cues can be transferred to a new bitless system. With a young or green horse unaccustomed to any cues then it really is a case of training ‘access to all areas’. Teaching cues from the ground for stop, start, back and turn combined with moving hips and shoulders will allow training of the utmost lightness. A horse that is light and in its own balance does not rely on a bit but on an ability to mobilise the shoulders and engage the hindlegs for which a bit is not necessary.
Image 2. Up and open frame in canter
Underlying this education to your cues/aids will be an ability to keep the neck soft and supple. I don’t support the common belief that jaw tension only comes from carrying the weight of a bit. Tension can be triggered by many emotional as well as physical factors. Monitoring and releasing tension in the jaw, poll or neck is important and can signal physical or emotional imbalances.
Your horse has chosen the bridle and you have considered the many steps you will take to create a path of clear communication. Classical principles without a bit are not just a dream and are certainly not just for dressage.
*Ecole de cavalerie. F. Robichon de La Guérinière (translation Frazer)
Photographs all show a novice horse able to carry the rider in a natural posture
1. Natural frame without force
2. Up and open posture in canter
3. Halt in balance
Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer and Behaviourist
You can find Trudi's website here: equinetrainingandbehaviourist.com
And her Facebook page here: Trudi Dempsey: Equine Trainer and Behaviour Consultant
Image 3. Halt in balance