Many people ask me why I ride in a halter. (Many people just stare at me with a look of confusion, but that’s ok!). There are a few reasons why I do it, and I’d like to share them with you because I think it’s an important topic and more people should know about it.
Natural horsemanship and bitless riding go hand in hand. Natural Horsemanship is based on the horse’s own natural instincts and behaviors, and focuses on a pain-free, fear-free method of teaching horses. Because the bit can, and often does, cause pain, it is a contradictory method of training to NH. Now of course not all bits are created equal, just as not all people hurt their horses with them (at least, not intentionally), but from what I have learned, even just the presence of the bit in the mouth can be detrimental to the horse, both physically and mentally.
Horses’ mouths are designed for eating, swallowing, and breathing, and when a bit is present, it interferes with these basic processes. In some horses the effect is more profound, but all horses are affected by this to some degree. Problems with bits can often be seen with behaviors like running away, head tossing, rearing, and many other negative behaviors. I highly recommend Dr. Robert Cook and Dr. Hiltrud Strasser’s book “Metal in the Mouth” for a more detailed explaination.
So, if we remove the bit, and the horse is more comfortable, he is also calmer and more willing to learn. Remember that horses don’t learn when they’re in pain. I have noticed such a difference in my horses’ attitudes that I now ride bitless all the time. Now that doesn’t mean I am “anti-bit,” or that I never use a bit…. I still do, more often on horses I know I’m going to sell. I realize not everyone rides bitless, so I teach my ‘for sale’ horses to go both ways.
So for those who think that you can’t achieve a certain level of learning without a bit, check out this video.
Let me ask you this: If horse A can perform at a certain level without a bit, and horse B preforms at the same level with a bit, which horse is better trained? If your horse is getting better trained (pardon the grammar), the bit should get milder and milder — the logical extension of which is: at a certain point, no bit is needed at all.
For those of you who think it’s the bit that stops the horse, have a peek at this video:
I used to work in a tack store, and many many times, people would come in and ask me for a ‘better’ or ‘bigger’ bit. “My horse just isn’t going the way he used to, and I need something with a little more [bite/leverage/control/whatever].” Obviously if the horse is getting worse, or responding less, it is a rider/trainer error, not a bit error. The majority of people who ride with bits think that a stronger bit equals more control, but that’s not true. The proof is in the pudding. All you need to do is look at some of the bits people use when “control” is an issue, like in foxhunting and eventing. Some of these horses look like they are running away with the rider, or completely out of control, even with that big bit in their mouths. Then, look at some of the NH riders and trainers… working with precision and control with only a string around the horse’s neck, or nothing at all!
For many years now I have foxhunted in a rope halter and rope reins. People think I’m nuts. I won’t rule that out, but in this case, it was reasonable, since I had trained my horse to be ridden in this way. Some people said that my horse was unusual, that most horses couldn’t do what my horse did. Hogwash! She is just an off-the-track thoroughbred like half the hunt horses out there. Any horse can learn to do what mine does. It’s a matter of taking the time to teach them. Obviously I wouldn’t just put a halter on some horse and go hunting without ‘proper prior preparation’ as Pat Parelli would say. Taking the time to train the horse properly will reap great rewards in the end.
For those who think you can’t acheive collection or execute upper-level movements without a bit, watch this video:
There are many ways to ride bitless: a bitless bridle, for example, a Dr. Cook Bitless Bridle, is very good for those just trying bitless riding for the first time. Switching from a bitted bridle to a Dr. Cook’s Bitless Bridle is probably the easiest transition to bitless riding as you use it the same way you would use a bitted bridle; it requires very little additional training in order to use it. Dr. Cook’s website also has some very good information about the benefits of riding without a bit. You can also ride in a halter of course, or nothing at all! (This techinique is a little more advanced…. more on this later). I have tried practically every bitless bridle and halter out there, and I have found that a plain old rope halter works best for me…. but it is up to you to find the one you are most comfortable with.