As an equestrian who does not check any boxes regarding what I do (or don’t do) with my horses, I often receive a lot of questions about what I actually think about [insert stuff]. So let me tell you about life with a 1200kg (2650lbs) horse and what I think about riding without a bit.
Seeing as liberty, freedom and bitless bridles is the main equestrian trend on Instagram (along with being vegan, and doing crossfit and yoga *cough, stereotypes, sorry!*), my comment section has since day one been filled with “why don’t you ride Lillen bitless?” and “you are hurting him with a bit like that”.
The first typical comment is a totally fair question to ask, which I am happy to answer! The second typical comment is one of those I really want to answer as sarcastic as I can, because it shows how brainwashed and/or uneducated people are when it comes to the horse’s mouth.
I also get this slightly bad taste in my mouth if I see someone comment “bitless! thank god you’ve seen the light!” on a post where Lillen is pictures with a bitless bridle, because I’m pretty sure my next picture will be of him wearing a snaffle or a pretty massive curb. The only light I have seen is the one who tells me to not close off any options. I know I was going to talk about bitless bridles, but let me just make one thing clear about bits:
A bit cannot hurt a horse.
A human can.
If we go with the “bits hurt horses”-thing, I’m pretty sure we also can claim that spoons make people fat and that cars drive drunk.
Sure, a bit can create a lot of pain if used without care or by hands who do not know what to do. Just like a gun is the best and probably easiest way to murder anyone. But it won’t do so on its own.
So if you feel uncomfortable walking around with a gun, you probably shouldn’t. Just as you should ditch the bit if you feel uncomfortable with it. I love my bits, and have probably 52 different ones hanging in my stable, so I can hand pick whatever fits the mood of the day and the horse I am riding.
But I love bitless alternatives too.
To answer the question ‘why don’t you ride Lillen bitless?’, it’s all very simple:
You don’t get one his size.
For real; we can’t even find a fitting halter. How on earth should we find a well made bitless bridle?
Trotting bitless in the snow…
Baby Lillen had a gigantic hackamore which we barely managed to squeeze around his nose. He outgrew that after a few months. And then we were back to “uhm, and where do we find something bigger?”, and the regular bridle with a bit.
His halter has never been secure enough to ride in, as he is a strong horse and a halter will act wobbly. We do not have a death wish. We also believe that wobblyness is no good way to communicate (hence why I don’t like most gag bits).
And in all honesty, we have never had enough money to get one custom made. That price doubles once the horse is the size of an elephant, and you know; we’d rather have gas for our car, or food to fill Lillen’s stomach.
A fat baby Lillen with his poorly fitted barely-fitting hackamore.
So one of the first things I made when I started crafting my own equipment, was a sidepull for Lillen.
All my horses have had a bitless bridle, so that we can choose whatever communciation tool we want to, and whatever fits the best for whatever we’re doing. Brego was started in a sidepull and just recently advanced to the bit, and all my other horses have been “forced” into the bitless alternatives because I think it is important. Lillen enjoyed his hackamore, but doesn’t mind bits.
Now he enjoys his sidepull, and still doesn’t mind bits.
Riding a large horse bitless is no different from riding them with a bit, unless you choose to canter on the way back to the stable after a long hack. With a bit you can stop him if you needed to. With a sidepull, you just have to grab his mane and hang on and hope his stamina runs out before you meet something.
Lillen is a very sensitive horse who care about his rider. If we say something, he usually says “okay”. It’s also worth taking into consideration that we communicate mostly with our seat and legs, so what the reins are attached to is less important for the horse. This applies to all the horses we’ve ridden bitless, and seeing as Lillen is “just another” horse (alright, he is a tad special, but still a horse), he acts no different. If you want to try your horse bitless, start safe inside the arena and with someone keeping an eye out for you. I’m not saying you are going to die just becasue you are trying something new, but to many horses the messages they recieve through a bitless bridle is unknown to them and you might find yourself with less control than usual.
We do however ride bitless mainly inside the riding arena with Lillen, due to his strength. If a smaller horse bolts bitless whilst hacking, you will have a saying because your strength as a rider can pull the horse out of balance, turn him around or apply enough force to make him stop/slow down. If Lillen bolts, we will NOT be able to get the same message across bitless. If he bolts, he bolts, and sadly that might be the end of him (and maybe us) and whatever he runs into.
With a curb we are able to stop an emergency from happening. With a sidepull, we have no chance. And sure; we trust him to not bolt, and he doesn’t usually bolt. But that is not a risk we’re willing to take. We trust him to be kind and responsive, but we also trust him to be a horse. Horses can spook, and horses can bolt.
Throwing in a little picture of baby Brego too!
I don’t think riding with a bit makes you a bad person, nor do I believe you are morally superior by choosing bitless only. One of my previous trainers permanently damaged my 6 y/o horse with a sidepull, and if you saw her riding you’d never have thought the outcome would be what it was. It wasn’t ugly to look at, yet her nose was swollen and sore when we came back into the stable. The problem will always be the rider and his/her hands, and the lack of proper guidence and education of the horse.
I choose to do a bit of all; bitless in different shapes and sizes, bits, both snaffles and curbs, and a bitless/bit-combination. I think that having many tools in your toolbox and the ability to adapt, is a strength a rider can have and something that will benefit the horse 🙂 Lillen seems happy with that choice, and so do my other horses!