The Great Debate: Riding With a Bit? or Without?

By Felecia West

Bit or no Bit? Like with a lot of things in the horse world, there are a lot of pro's and cons to either side. Please keep in mind, these are my experiences.

            ::Scrape:: "Dang it!" I thought as I heard that abrasive sound! I had scratched my lesson horse's teeth while bridling...again. "Maybe next time..." I thought as I rushed to the mounting block, not quite knowing how much I was hurting Springer's poor teeth. Eventually we had problems bridling him.

It's no surprise now, but at the time, I didn't understand how every encounter with a person, shapes a horse. Positive or negative. As an amateur rider, I also didn't understand that by pulling on the bit instead of gently squeezing, I was over-correcting and causing more problems.

How do Bits work?

A Bit rests on the bars of the mouth in an interdental region where there are no teeth. When you pull on the reigns it increases tension, which causes the bit to place pressure in a horse’s mouth. Used for more direct communication with the horse.

As time went on I eventually, I got very frustrated with riding. Every time I used my reigns Springer would lurch, throw his head and open his mouth. It was terrible, and pretty clear I wasn't the only one frustrated! I knew something wasn't right. It felt like every lesson was a face-off, and riding shouldn't feel like that. At least not every time. It's a team sport and we definitely weren’t on the same page! Unaware of what was actually causing the problem, I went to a horse forum.

After asking around, I found out it just might be the bit. But could it really be that simple? Being a little skeptical, I did more research. I looked up the bit we were using and found out it wasn't the gentlest. When I asked my instructor if switching out the bit was an option for us, I was informed that we couldn't do that. The reason could have just been we didn't have another bit in his size, but I don't remember. What I do remember is wanting to resolve this issue! So I got creative. Next week, as we were tacking up, I posed my question. "What if we put reigns on the halter?" I asked curiously. The idea of not having as much control without the bit gave me mixed feelings. I trusted Springer a lot, but this felt like a whole new level of trust to me. My instructor looked at me, thinking about how it would work. "Yeah, we can try it." I smiled. Maybe Springer would be happier!

 It was the best lesson I'd had in a long time. I didn't feel like I had lost any kind of control. To my delight, there was also no more head throwing, body swerving, or sudden jolting to a stop. I could finally focus on heels down, back straight, and look exactly where I'm going. One caution I did received while posting my questions on the forums was that when galloping I could potentially break my horse's nose using a halter. I wasn't anywhere near that level yet, so I didn't concern myself with it. 

After about a year or so I ended up switching disciplines from Western to English and was very happy to report we had no further problems with Springer. The bit I rode with is gentler, my hands were steadier, and I was more confident in my abilities.

 Fast forward about five years...

I start volunteering at a therapeutic riding center, and found out my halter-bridle was a low tech side pull. I was kind of excited. My half-baked idea was a real thing in the horse world. It even had its own name. I learned that the reason it's typically more gentle is that it redirects the pressure normally on a bit to the nose band and/or poll (depending on what kind you're using). This is a less sensitive part of the horse’s body. Through volunteering, I got to see more amateur students use side pulls the same way I did. They could focus on their form easier, tack up their own horse without making them bridle-shy or causing damage, and both of those things made the lessons easier on all of us. An extra bonus was that volunteers didn't have to change out bits for each lesson, only adjust the side pull.

While I was in school to become an instructor, I met a gelding that hated the bit. Now you have to understand, this horse was dynamite. He worked well with so many kids and adults, and when you rode him, you could feel that he was trained as more than "just a lesson horse". This horse did flying lead changes for fun. However, He would also display many of the issues I had with Springer if you used a bit. Even in experienced hands. Over the years, I've met a handful of other horses that feel the same way about bits.

Where do we go from here?

In my opinion, and through my experiences, I can see the value in using the side pull. And I think it’s sometime a better option. However, all Bit’s aren’t bad either. It all depends on the horse and the rider. Some horses are more comfortable with a bit and are insecure without one. If it works for you and the horse isn't hurting, no need to rock the boat. Just keep on rowing. However, if you're having issues such as chewing on the bit, backing away while bridling, "running through" the bit when undesired, and stiffening of the neck, you may want to look into a gentle side pull.

What is a side-pull bridle? 

A sidepull is a bitless bridle which allows the reins to be attached to the headstall on the side of the horse's face -thus its "side pull" designation. Most sidepulls have a lariat rope or narrow nylon rope as the over-the-nose piece to give the rider a way to exert some directional and stopping pressure on the horse's nose.

Bit or Bit-less?

When making your decision it's also important to look at the physical characteristics of the horse. Does the horse have a large mouth or small? Wide palette or narrow? Has the horse sustained an injury to the mouth, temporary or permanent? Some horses are just hard to fit bits to, while others such as drafts and miniatures are difficult to find correct sizes. Another consideration could be the horses age; some people don't feel comfortable putting a bit into a young horse’s mouth. This allows the horse to learn directional cues without having to worry about the interference of a bit. Where you're riding can be a factor as well. Are you going on a long trail and want to make drinking and snacking easier? Side pulls are nice for that. If it's cold outside, you may not want to deal with a frozen bit. There are many factors to consider. Both bits and side pulls vary in severity. Some types of both bits and side pulls are dangerous if used incorrectly by the wrong hands. What's best for you and your horse is something we all want. 

Which do you ride in and prefer??