To help guide you to a deeper relationship with your horse.


Bitless Riding
New discovery or long-standing tradition?

Have you wondered why your horse tosses his head, leans on the bit, rears, gapes his mouth, goes above or below the bit, refuses to perform, runs away with you, rears, bucks, refuses to be bridled, or switches from sweet to monster once you are mounted? Have you resorted to stronger bits, flash nosebands, martingales, spurs and whips to control his movements or behavior?

Does your horse toss his head, lean on the bit, rear, gape his mouth, go above or below the bit, refuse to perform, bolt, rear, buck, refuse to be bridled, or switch from sweet on the ground to monster once you are mounted? Have you resorted to stronger bits, flash nosebands, martingales, spurs and whips to control his movements or behavior? Your horse may simply be reacting to his bit!

A number of studies published in the last 15 years, indicate that bits have caused a host of serious equine physical and behavioral problems. In spite of the harm caused by bits, they are the standard tool for providing horses with information regarding head placement, direction, gait, extension, collection, and halting. However, contrary to common lore, bits cannot stop or control an out-of-control horse. A frightened horse or one who is in pain cannot respond to anything. The best one can do is pull the horse’s head far enough around to throw him off balance.

Many equestrian are unaware that horses, like newborn human infants, rabbits, and rodents can only breathe through their noses. To breathe efficiently, horses must seal their mouth closed. Bits break that seal and diminish air-flow. Bit-use is a leading cause of bleeding lungs in race horses, as capillaries burst when the lungs strain to suck in air. Also, bits allow saliva and food particles to be inhaled into the airway which leads to irritation and infections.

Most riders know that bits often create dental, gum, tongue and other mouth injuries including throbbing, cracked, and chipped teeth; and mouth sores. The pressure of bits on the bars of the mouth can create painful bone spurs. Even bits that are created to be relatively pain free, like a stone in a human’s shoe, can distract a horse from listening to his rider’s aids.

Archeological evidence indicates that horses were domesticated approximately six thousand years ago. Although they were originally hunted for food, humans began using them to herd, carry belongings, and plow fields. These relaxed, non-threatening activities do not require the use of bits. In many countries today, horses continue to be used without employing bits.

The oldest traces of bit-wear etched into the teeth of a horse are about four thousand-years old. History suggests that bits made of leather and bone came into existence in areas where man turned to hunting by horseback. In those fear-arousing environments, bits were needed to keep horses directed at prey animals rather than turning toward home.

Metal bits became popular during the Bronze Age as a means of preventing horses from running away from battle by inducing pain when the horse turned his head. The ability to change direction and speed through the use of weight aids was mastered so that the rider could use their hands to wield weaponry. The bronze bits cast off during the expeditions of the military-minded Romans have been uncovered in Europe, Africa, and Asia. They look the same as bits used today. Some check pieces were beautifully cast to represent mythological creatures. Other check pieces had barbs pointing inward toward the mouth to further encourage horses to keep “their heads on straight.” Later, even during peace-time, noblemen continued using bits and military methods on their horses to train their horses to perform the same acrobatic exercises that were useful on the battlefield. These traditional “Haute Ecole” movements are still performed to entertain horse enthusiasts worldwide.

Ironically, bits are so instilled in our equestrian culture that few riders question their use, even though there is nothing about pleasure or competitive riding that is so frightening that one is compelled to use painful control methods that once were intended for hunting and war. In the upper levels of dressage and Haute Ecole, bits are still used solely to place horses’ heads at particular angles. They are not used for controlling speed, direction, or gaits. Unfortunately, many riders are taught to pull on the bit to change direction and to halt rather than controlling their horses by their weight aids and keeping their horses’ heads straight.

Once riders are taught how to use their weight aids they can ride any horse comfortably without a bit. Besides pleasure riding, most competitive disciplines allow bitless riding. When horses are not distracted by bits they are more able to relax and focus on their riders. Without bits, horses’ mouths are comfortable, their airway is unobstructed, and they can eat and drink freely. There are a number of bitless bridles and nosebands available for both Western and English style riding, including jumping and mechanical hackamores, bosals, side-pulls, rope halters, and cross-under bridles. Depending upon the type, they deliver slight to severe pressure on various parts of the horse’s head. When one learns to use weight aids bitless bridles that cause discomfort are unnecessary.

If you are thinking about going bitless, there are a few things to consider. First, the feel through the reins is very different for both you and your horse. Be patient as you adjust. Before spending a lot of money, you might ride your horse in a halter.

Learn how to ride by your weight aids rather than by pulling on the bridle. Ground-drive your horse in his bitless bridle so that you both can get the feel of it. In an enclosed area, make sure you and your horse can transition from a walk or trot into a halt every third stride, and can transition from a canter to a trot every fifth stride, before you venture out in the open. When you ride bitless while using your weight aids your movements will be effortless and your horse will thank you!

Chris Forté is the owner of the Equine Behavioral Health Resource Center. This article was first printed in the Equestrian Connection: the Pacific Horse Advertiser, April, 2013.


Bitless horse-rider teams practice ground & flat work, trail-riding, and traversing obstacles. An action-packed two-day experience!.

  • August 8 - 9 (Sat-Sun) Orangevale, CA
  • August 22 - 23 (Sat-Sun) Orangevale, CA
  • September 12 - 13 (Sat-Sun) Orangevale, CA
  • September 26 - 27 (Sat-Sun) Orangevale, CA
  • October 10 - 11 (Sat-Sun) Orangevale, CA
  • November 7 - 8 (Sat-Sun) Orangevale, CA

NEW! An optional third day of group practice with a half-hour private session will be offered at the end of each clinic. Space is limited! Auditors: $50 Riders: $200

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