Thoughts on Riding Bitless

(Very horsey post.  Non-horsey readers are excused.  You may return to Candy Crush.)

I learned to ride in a riding school in rural Ireland back in the late sixties/early seventies.  I was taught :

to make the horse go, you kick him, if that doesn’t work you hit him with your whip, if that doesn’t work the instructor chases him with a lunge whip.

to turn right, you pull the right rein.

to turn left, you pull the left rein.

to stop, you pull both reins together.

It never, ever dawned on me that there might be another way.  Even when I saw the word ‘collection’ or the phrase ‘on the bit’ in the horsey books and magazines that I devoured, I dismissed these as irrelevant.  Things like ‘shoulder-in’ and ‘half-pass’ dwelled in the realms of the Spanish Riding School and other fantasy worlds, as far as I was concerned.

Fast forward to my early thirties.  I was a reasonably balanced rider who could jump a course of 90cm (approx 3 foot), negotiate a cross country course and (usually) stay on board for a day’s hunting.  Then I began to train for my British Horse Society’s Assistant Instructor’s Exam and I quickly realised that there was more to riding than the pull, kick and slap method I’d been taught (and that I’d been happily teaching).  I began to have dressage lessons.  Suddenly, I realised that I could make a horse work in an outline!  I finally knew what ‘on the bit’ meant!  Or so I thought…

I had some niggling doubts.  Surely schooling a horse on the flat shouldn’t mean that my arms and shoulders should be aching afterwards?  While training for my Stage Three exam, I was given an ex-eventer that had stiff, choppy gaits and had to have its head held rigidly in place for at least twenty minutes of warm-up.  My hands blistered through my gloves after riding that one and I knew this couldn’t be right.  What about stretching and relaxation?  The books I read spoke about ‘lightness’ yet most of the horses I rode felt anything but light.  I was horrified any time I saw a video of myself – I always seemed to be very much tipped forward, with my hands held low and fixed, to hold the horse’s head down, or niggling at the bit to get them to ‘soften’ and ‘relax.’  I struggled with lateral work, too.  Sure, I could ride a leg yield with an iffy outline until the cows came home, but anything more advanced ended up in a tight, frustrated mess.

My Pony Mum years commenced.  I learned a huge amount from watching my kids ride and have lessons.  I learned that it’s better to have four lessons a year with a top class instructor than one lesson a week with an instructor from the ‘slap and kick’ school of motoring.  I learned to doubt the ‘hold the head rigid’ approach I’d been taught for my exams.  I began to identify methods of riding and teaching that I felt would ultimately lead to a lighter, more balanced horse.

My Pony Mum years ended and Flurry arrived on the scene.  Flurry had been trained as a ‘slap and kick’ horse but I dreamed of a light, balanced, responsive horse.  Our early canters were anything but – think Wall of Death and you get the idea!  I worked with a couple of instructors that I really liked and things improved enormously, but I was carrying a lot of baggage. Too easily I would fall back into my old habits of hauling on the reins with grim determination to hold him in an outline.  I’d find myself wiggling my hands about as I asked him to soften and frequently crossing a hand over his withers as I tried to maintain inside bend.  I would end up with both hands practically in my belly button as I pulled back on the reins, trying to regulate his speed.  I KNEW all this was wrong, but I’d been doing it for so long I just couldn’t stop myself.  “Carry your hands” and “Lift your hands” were phrases I heard again and again throughout my lessons.

I inherited Aero, moved to France and started lessons with Alexandrine, who I suppose could be described as French Classical Dressage meets Natural Horsemanship.  I’m sure I drove her crazy with my ingrained habits, but my balance and seat slowly improved as I became fitter.  I still had the same old ‘hand’ issues, though.

I started messing about riding bitless and ended up riding in the rope halter.  I was blown away by how completely different it feels.  Even having rope reins instead of leather reins feels different.  Niggling at the reins has literally no effect – there is no bit and no mouth at the other end of the reins!  All of a sudden, there was nowhere to put all my baggage!

Because it all feels so different, it’s much easier to drop the old habits.  To ask my horse to lower his head, I raise my hands.  To ask him to work rounder, it’s a combination of raising my hands and a slight wiggle of the fingers which asks him to bring his nose in.  Because I’m no longer trying to pull or hold his head down, I’m sitting taller and straighter.   To turn, I have to use my leg and weight aids before I use my rein aids, otherwise the horse just drops the inside shoulder and cuts in rather than turns in.  Sure, there’s the odd moment when I forget, but I quickly realise my mistake, because nothing works  when I do it wrong!  

When I saw the video the LSH made last weekend, I was delighted with how I’m sitting and with how contented Aero looks.  Yes, there are some blips.  For example, at approx 1’10” , I asked him to start a circle – but I forgot to use my seat and legs before using my inside rein – back to my old ‘pull the right rein to turn right’ issue!  As soon as I felt him ducking through the inside shoulder I realised my mistake, and the rest of the circle improved.  Then there was the serpentine near the end… I am confessing here that I didn’t include the worst of that footage!  Changing diagonal on Mr Super-Bouncy Aero is still not easy for me!  Overall, the video really helped me to see what I need to work on – keeping my hands steady through transitions; not twisting and tilting when I ask for lateral work; remembering to let go from time to time…. sigh…

So, why am I trying to do dressage bitless?  Lots of reasons :

First of all, I wanted to see if I could!

It is finally helping me to lose the ‘pull the right rein to turn right, pull the left rein to turn left’ habit of a lifetime.

It’s helping me carry my hands and hold them more forward which in turn opens my collar bones and makes me sit straighter.

have to use my legs, seat and weight to ride turns and circles.  This has made both horses become lighter, more attentive and more responsive.

Most importantly, both horses absolutely love working in the halter.  I really feel that Flurry is now the same bitless as he is with a bridle.  I can walk/trot/canter circles and serpentines fairly accurately and with some class of an inside bend.  I can even ride a 10M circle in trot with him, although I’ll admit they’re sometimes a funny shape!  His outline is a little different with the halter – lower, but I’m going to keep him there for a while.  I have a suspicion his head will come up when he gets a bit stronger through the back.  Aero was more difficult to steer than Flurry initially, but once he realised that there weren’t going to be any signals coming through a bit, he started to pay more attention to what my body was doing.  He’s much happier and more relaxed bitless, so that there are no mouth-open-tension moments, no head-tossing and, strangely, no fighting the reins when I ask him to slow down or turn, even when we’re cantering flat out towards the arena gate!

Am I going to throw away my bridles?

No, I don’t think so.  First of all, I do plan to compete in the local dressage competitions, so I will have to use a bridle for that.  Secondly, I have approximately 45 years of conditioning to overcome before I would be certain of being able to control my horse with a halter, in an open space or a very exciting environment.  I’m just not brave enough to throw away my brakes.  Which leads me to a deep, soul-searching question :

Do I truly believe that the only way I would be able to control my horse in an emergency situation (like our Ride to Remember) is by being able to haul on his mouth i.e. by inflicting pain on him?

I am ashamed to admit that my answer is yes.



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