Are Bitless Bridles Better?

A bitless (or ‘nose’) bridle is a very useful item of saddlery to have in a stable yard, and the fact that a horse wears one does not indicate that he is impossible to hit or that the rider is too incompetent to use a bridle with a bit.

A bitless bridle can be the solution to various problems: it can be used on a youngster whose mouth is sore from teething; on a horse which has just had dental treatment or had his teeth rasped, as this can create a certain amount of soreness; on horses with any form of mouth injury or disease which makes having a bit in the mouth painful or uncomfortable; and certainly on those which are difficult to bit comfortably due to some unusual conformation, or even deformity, of the mouth, jaws or head.

Many endurance riders like bitless bridles as they feel (not unreasonably) that it must be more comfortable and pleasant for the horse not to have a bit in his mouth during many hours of riding; furthermore these horses are encouraged to drink en route, and some riders allow the horse to graze or have a small feed at halts, which must be more pleasant and easier without a bit. Many endurance bridles can be made to convert quickly into headcollars, Without having to fiddle about with a bit.

From the rider’s point of view, not having a bit certainly need not mean less control, though this does depend on the horse and the bridle used. It does mean, however, that a horse can still be used when, for one of the above reasons, he otherwise perhaps could not be; and in the case of a mouth injury which is going to take some time to heal, a bitless bridle means that the horse’s work and fitness regime can be continued uninterrupted.

Riders who are rather ‘bit-orientated’, as many seem to be these days, are often surprised at how little difference not having a bit makes to the horse’s performance, and their own. Even so, they would do well to concentrate more on seat, weight, leg and voice aids, and perhaps teach the horse to neck-rein, something which was commonly taught in the past and regarded as a basic skill for a schooled horse, but which receives little attention these days except in Western riding and polo.

The Scawbrig

Probably the simplest and mildest bitless bridle is the Scawbrig: it consists of a headpiece with throat-latch and cheekpieces, as a conventional bridle, but these support a padded noseband (usually of chamois leather, sometimes sheepskin-lined leather) with a strong ring at each side. Another wide padded section rests in the chin groove, its ends tapering into reins which pass through the side rings to the rider’s hands. There may also be a strap passing under the jawbones (not intended to be tight, but snug) which passes through a loop on the top of the chingroove piece; this is simply to stabilise this piece and also to stop the nosepiece sliding around.

The nosepiece is fitted three or four fingers’ width above the nostrils (it must not hamper breathing), and control is obtained by a tightening pressure round the nose and lower jaw when the reins are used. I should imagine it would take real brute force actually to hurt a horse with this bridle, and a lot of pressure is not needed. Horses respond very well and easily to it, and if they have been having mouth or bit problems, seem to acquire a new zest and enthusiasm for their work once they realise that guidance from the rider’s hand will be without pain.

An additional sliphead is also available: this is a head-strap and cheekpiece/s which fits under the headpiece of the bridle proper and loops through the browband to keep it in place. A sliphead such as this is used to support the bridoon in a double bridle, and is an optional part of the Scawbrig; it is intended to support a bit in the horse’s mouth during the mouthing process. Initially the hit just sits in the mouth to give the horse the feel of it, and the rider rides off the bitless rein. Later, reins are added to the bit-rings in the usual way, and, very gradually, the rider uses the bit more than the bitless reins until the Scawbrig can be dispensed with and the horse goes into a normal bridle. The Scawbrig is also usefull for novice riders not yet in control of their hands. It is quite acceptable, in fact, to use any snaffle mouthpiece or a Kimblewick with the Scawbrig, or even a curb without the bridoon for a horse which does not readily accept two bits in his mouth.

Blair’s pattern

More familiarly, but incorrectly, called a hackamore, the Blair’s pattern bitless bridle is quite different from the Scawbrig. It operates on a leverage system with cheeks of varying length, and can exert very strong pressure on the nose and jaw. These bridles need very sensitive, skilled handling from a rider of the standard required to use a double bridle properly.

There are a few types of Blair but they all work on the same principles: there is an ordinary headpiece with cheekpieces and throatlatch, and a normally padded nosepiece fitted to the lower halves of two cheekpieces, as a bit would be, with a backstrap or curbstrap and a fairly long metal cheek at each side up to about a foot or more in length (although many are shorter). The reins are fastened to the bottom of the cheeks, and when they are used a significant pressure is felt on the noseband, and also the curbstrap is drawn forward (like a curb chain on a double bridle) into the back of the jaw (higher than the chin groove). The same type of multiplying factor as described for the use of the curb bit comes into effect with the Blair, and it is easy to see that it would be quite possible to badly bruise the nose and jawbones (padding or no) or even injure the horse more seriously through excessive use of this bridle.

That said, it can also be appreciated that one sharp reminder to a recalcitrant horse from the reins would be enough to assure it that, despite the absence of a bit, the rider still expected to be obeyed. Obviously the Blair does have a stronger effect than the Scawbrig; and it seems to be preferred by show jumpers who can perform round twisting indoor tracks with no difficulty, using this bridle. Lack of control is not a problem!

The WS bitless pelham or Distas pelham

This bitless bridle has been known for generations, and may be described as kinder than the Blair as it is used with two pairs of reins: the ‘snaffle’ reins which exert a direct pressure on the nose, and the ‘curb’ reins which, in conjunction, with a conventional curb chain, employ leverage on the chin groove and, again, the nose. The two reins can, of course, be used independently as with a double bridle. The nosepiece consists of a well padded bar or strap, and the metal cheeks are shorter than most Blair-pattern bitless bridles; moreover each cheek can move independently of its partner, so a fair amount of precision and individuality in use is possible. If you don’t want to use a curb chain, a leather or elastic curb can, of course, be used instead.

This bridle is very versatile, and I should like to see it in wider use; in many instances it might well replace the Blair which I feel is often used rather as, in proportion, a Sledgehammer might be used to bang in a drawing-pin.

The Jumping hackamore

The jumping hackamore is another mild type of bridle popular on the continent of Europe; it employs direct pressure on a slightly padded, rolled and stiffened noseband supported on cheekpieces forked at their ends. The two rear forks are linked under the lower jaw by a leather strap just above the chin groove, and the noseband itself is open under the jaw, each branch ending in a ring to which the reins fasten. Direct rein action produces pressure on the nose, while raising the hand tilts the noseband downwards a little and causes slight pressure under the lower jaw, resulting in the horse bringing his head up and in.

It is an effective, albeit quite mild bridle. The nosepiece should be fitted in the same position as for a Scawbrig.