Disclaimer: I’d like to caution this post by saying that not all horses can smoothly go bitless, just like not all horses do well with a bit. It can take time, patience, and work to get you and your horse comfortable together with new gear. For me, going bitless with my sensitive mare was the best decision I could have made. Only you and your trainer can judge whether you and your horse are ready for that journey and if it is right for you.
Another thing to keep in mind: Any bitless option, in the wrong hands, can be just as harsh as any bit. Don’t think that by going bitless you are necessarily less harsh if you don’t take the time to learn how to use it properly.
Advantages of going bitless
- More relaxed forward horse
- Improved riding with your seat and aids instead of your hands
- Better communication with your horse
- Great alternative if a horse has any problems with the bit, either physical or psychological
Disadvantages of going bitless
- Going bitless can be just as expensive as trying to find the right bit for your horse
- There are inherent dangers in going bitless too quickly or with the wrong foundations
The following steps may take you weeks, months, or years to go through to get your horse to go bitless safely. Take your time and make sure that your horse is calm and connected to you every step of the way. Do not skip a step! Get help if you need it!
This list below is inspired by Caroline Rider’s YouTube video and other sources cited at the end of this blog post. I really loved how Caroline Rider explained how to go bitless. The foundations she teaches and the relaxation required are exactly in line with my own training principles. However, I strongly recommend wearing a helmet at all times when riding a horse and keep in mind that there are other bitless options than then ones she mentioned.
How to train your horse to go bitless
- Find the right bitless option to start and fit it properly.
- Key things to keep in mind, side-pulls, hackamore, cross-under and bosals, all act differently and are fitted differently. Here is a link on how to fit each one.
- Start in a confined area – Round pen or riding ring
- Put on the bitless bridle or solution you’ve chosen without reins and let your horse walk off without you. Notice any signs of discomfort. This is your first queue to know if your horse is comfortable with the bitless solution you chose.
- Add the reins and walk your horse around from the ground.
- Show your horse what if feels like when the reins are used to go left and right. Make sure your horse yields to the pressure in a relaxed manner.
- Show your horse what pulling up to a stop looks like using the reins.
- Check your foundations
- Mounting block – Your horse should be calm and responsive. You should be able to mount without having to hold back your horse or worry about it walking off without you. If your horse does this with a bit, you may want to start there and then work it again with your bitless option.
- Contact – At a walk, work your horse within the appropriate contact for your bitless option. You may need a lot less contact than you are used to, so take your time. Make sure to maintain your horse’s attention while checking whether you can move forward and stop within a relaxed and calm frame.
- Vertical – Put tension on the reins and release as soon as your horse relaxes calmly.
- Lateral – Work left and right carefully. Make sure to release as soon as your horse relaxes.
- Back up – Much the same as the flexions. Ensure that your horse is again calm and relaxed.
- Disengage the hind end – This is like disengaging your horse’s engine. It will keep you safe and ensure that you have brakes. Caroline Rider shows very well how to do this in her video. It’s important to drill this training aid into your horse and yourself so that if you ever have to stop quickly, you have that option.
- Increase the pace very gradually. Only once you are both 100% comfortable with a gait should you progress to the next.
- Enjoy a relaxing trail ride with your horse! Keep it short a few times without too much excitement.
In short, as much as I love bitless, it isn’t for everyone. Make sure to transition to bitless slowly and carefully to ensure your safety and your horse’s calm and relaxed connection to you. Most of all, enjoy it!
- Caroline Rider from Rider Horsemanship at Building Blocks for Riding Bitless
- Riding bitless video from CRK Horse Training, Callie Rae King
- Getting Started by Happy Horses Bitless
- Bitless Riding Tips by Cynthia Cooper published at LightRider Bitless Bridles
- Advice on bitless bridles by Allison Lowther published at Your Horse Magazine
- All About Bitless Bridles For Your Horse by Nancy Ambrosiano published by Equus Magazine