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HomeWestern Bits

Horse Bits

by Debora Johnson

My dear friend, Frank Harrell, my daughter, Lindsey, and visitors to have requested an article on bits. It is my hope that the following article will clear up some confusion about the different kinds of bits.

Some Interesting Facts

Many people coming to my site have typed in the search engines "Why does my horse foam at the mouth when bitted?" I just want to add this information to this article. When horses make foam when bitted and ridden, it is a good thing. That generally indicates that the horse is comfortable with the bit, is not fighting it, and the foam makes the bit ride easier in the horse's mouth. This is not a worry! It is considered a plus!

In an article Released April 11, 2008 , LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The role of horse bits in managing horses is often misunderstood by people outside of the horse industry. Steve Jones, extension equine specialist and associate professor with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, mentioned the following in his article:

"The seven pressure points of the horse's head include: the tongue, the bars of the mouth, the lips, the curb groove, the poll, the nose and the roof of the mouth. The horse responds to different areas of applied pressure to determine its rider's objectives.

Using your hands, you can send aids through the reins and the bit to the horse's mouth.

The No. 1 factor in determining bit severity is how the rider uses his or her hands. A good horseman with light hands can turn the most severe bit into an effective communication device. An unskilled horseman with poor hands can make a mild bit seem like an instrument of torture.

Before putting any device into a horse's mouth, it's important to assess its contact area, which is the size of the area that touches the horse to transmit pressure. Thinner bits have smaller contact areas and can exert greater amount of pressure. Thicker bits have greater contact areas and lower pounds of pressure.

A straight bit causes the horse's tongue to absorb some of the pressure so that the horse feels less pressure on the bars. Hinged or grooved bits relieve pressure on the tongue and apply more pressure on the bars of the mouth, providing the horse with more directional guidance.

A third factor, leverage, also determines bit severity. Leverage can be measured by comparing the ratio of two distances - the distance from the mouthpiece to the place where the reins attach and the distance from the mouthpiece to the curb strap. When a curb bit has a standard 3:1 leverage ratio, a rider putting 10 pounds of pull on the reins will cause the horse to feel 30 pounds of pressure squeezing its mouth. Because the horse feels this pressure immediately, it's important that the rider reward desired behavior by softening the applied pressure."

There are so many bits that it is intimidating to try to figure out how to tell the difference between the different kinds of bits and what they do. You will often hear bits referred to snaffle or curb bits. What does that mean? Most people seem to think that a snaffle bit is jointed and that a curb bit is not. They believe that the mouth piece it what determines the bit category. This is not correct. The mouthpiece does NOT determine the category of the bit. A snaffle bit can be a solid mouthpiece as well as a jointed one. The same goes for a curb bit. Try not to think about jointed or solid mouth pieces. Visualize a bit as being a leveraged bit or a non-leveraged bit. This makes the bitting process much more accurate and much easier to understand. How can you determine this? What is meant by leveraged or non-leveraged bit?

It is really very simple. A leveraged bit is any bit that uses a curb strap or curb chain no matter what the mouth piece. The mouth piece can be broken or solid. This curb strap or chain, is attached in such a way as to put pressure on the horse's chin. It most often has a shank, but not always. For example, the Pelham bit can be a broken mouth piece, has a curb chain, and has a tiny shank where a second rein is attached. Because the curb chain exerts pressure on the horse's chin, when the second rein is used, (bottom attachment) it is considered a leveraged bit. In fact, it has good stopping power, and is often seen on horses in the hunt field.

As you can see in the examples: The first Pelham is jointed; the second Pelham has a solid mouth piece. Both have curb chains that exert pressure on the horse's mouth. Both are leveraged bits no matter what the mouth piece! The Pelham is a perfect example to explain the differences between leveraged and non-leveraged bits. It should also be noted that the Pelham is ridden with a double rein and a curb chain. This type of bit can have any type of mouth piece: snaffle, bar, curb, rubber. It is still a leveraged bit because the chain exerts pressure on the horse's chin.

With a curb, the rein attaches to a shank or cheek piece which adds leverage. There is usually a chain that goes under the horse's chin. When the rider takes a contact on the rein, the horse feels a greater amount of contact, depending on the length of the shank. The longer the shank, the greater the leverage. A leveraged bit, or curb, works on the bars of the horse's mouth. A curb chain which is attached to the bit, works on the horse's chin and also places pressure on the horse's poll (where the bridle goes over the head, behind the ears) often causing the horse to bend at the poll. It is often said that curb or leveraged bits are severe. They are only severe in harsh hands. (Hard, or harsh hands, are defined as heavy hands that use to much pressure on the horse's mouth as opposed to light hands, or a light touch)

It should also be noted, here, that the thinner the mouthpiece on a bit, the more severe the bit action on the horse; the higher the port the more severe; the longer the shank the more severe. It is of vital importance to make sure the bit is wide enough to fit your horse's mouth.

With a snaffle bit the rein attaches directly to the mouth piece. Your hands are a direct line to the horse's mouth. A snaffle, not understood by many, can be a jointed bit or not. Jointed snaffles seem to be more comfortable than non jointed snaffles in the horse's mouth. They seem to lay easier. There is no curb chain or strap. There is no shank. That makes them a non-leveraged bit. To gain a better understanding of how severe or not a bit is, you need to understand the structure of the horse's mouth, and how the bit acts in the mouth. The action of the bit is much like a nutcracker action on the bars of the horse's mouth. The bars are the area of gum between the front and back teeth. The action of the bit also works on the corners of the horse's mouth and the tongue. When the reins are pulled back hard the jointed bit also works on the roof of the horse's mouth and can cause severe discomfort.

Snaffle bits are used in a wide variety of events both English and Western. They are simple, consisting of a mouth piece and bit rings. Designs of the mouth piece and rings vary widely. They use direct pressure on the corners of a horse's mouth. Most horses are started in snaffle bits because the bits are simple. Snaffle bit rings may be loose (allowing the mouth piece to slide) or may be fixed. The simple O-ring snaffle has rings shaped like an O; A D-ring is like it sounds, with D-shaped rings. Full-cheek snaffles feature a spike above and below the ring, to prevent it from slipping through a horse's mouth; Eggbutt snaffle rings are between an O and a D shape.

The following pictures will help in the understanding of leveraged and non-leveraged bits and snaffle or curb bits.

Types of Snaffle


Egg Butt snaffles are the gentlest type of snaffle bit. They are named for their appearance. The connection between the mouthpiece and the bit-ring is egg shaped. This snaffle does not pinch the corners of the horse's mouth.

The D-ring snaffle is so named because of its "D" shape. The "D ring snaffle" is a fixed ring that attaches to the mouthpiece. The reins attach to the "D" and it is still a direct contact from the mouth to the rider's hands. There are several variations in this type of mouth piece. It can be smooth, twisted, or a three piece unit called a "French link". A twisted snaffle can be a mild twist that is just a bit of a bump on the horse's bars or a sharp twist which can actually be fairly painful to the bars. The "French link" is a good modification for a horse with a very low palate, as the center of the link in most snaffles may come up and hit this horse in the palate. This is alleviated with the "French link." As the metal of the snaffle's mouth piece becomes narrower it generally increases the severity. In describing the more severe snaffles, the twisted wire would be commonly assumed as being the most severe as it is narrow and has various twists that would rub on the bars of the mouth.

The loose-ring snaffle has a mouthpiece that is attached to a full round ring. It can slide around allowing the bit to lay in the most natural position.

The Full Cheek Snaffle has cheek mouth pieces which prevent the bit from being pulled through the mouth.

The Bradoon is also a snaffle bit. It is sometimes used along with the Weymouth (a curb bit) to refine the aids in the higher levels of dressage competition, using a double bridle.

These pictures give the idea of a non-leveraged bit. They are all snaffles without a curb chain or a shank. No chin action or poll action!

Types of Curb Bits

Leveraged Bits

The mouth is how wide the mouth piece is. The cheek is the full length of the bit from the top to the bottom. The purchase is the part of the bit that is above the mouth piece, while the shank is the part that extends below. The bars are between the port and the cheeks. The port is the rise in the middle of the bit. A small port is also called "tongue relief" because it takes pressure off of the tongue. A high port (severe) can touch the roof of the mouth and must be used with care.

The design, shape, and size of curb bits vary widely. Some mouth pieces are solid, while others are broken (snaffle, chain mouth, 3-piece, etc.). Curb bits without swiveling cheeks are often used to neck rein horses, versus direct pressure that is used with snaffle bits. Curb bits with swiveling cheeks are like a combination of snaffle and curb, and can be used to direct or neck rein. Such a bit will probably need a bit hobble to keep the cheeks together. Curb bits give more leverage, meaning that less pressure is applied to the reins to give the same cue. This type of bit is used with a chin strap and applies pressure to the poll, chin, and mouth. They are leveraged bits.

A basic Western Curb Bit has a gently ported mouth piece and shanks that vary in length, from eight to nine inches, to which the reins attach. As the rider takes the reins, more leverage is exerted on the horse's mouth and also on the poll (where the bridle goes over the head, behind the ears). By increasing the amount of port on the mouth piece, pressure is applied to the roof of the mouth, also. Since Western horses are ridden on a loose rein, the longer shank allows the rider to utilize the leverage by giving extremely light rein aids and one can attain same result as a rider using a snaffle on a firmer contact.

Probably two of the most common curbs used in Western riding are the "grazing" curb and the "Tom Thumb Snaffle" (which acts like a nut-cracker). These bits can be harsh with harsh hands!

The Grazing Curb is so named because the shanks curve back toward the horse's chest. This allows the horse to graze while wearing this bit. The following are variations of the grazing bit:

All of these bits are leveraged bits. The shanks apply pressure to the poll or top of the horse's head when pressure is applied to the reins. The length and straightness of the shanks from the mouth piece to the reins, and the length of the shank from where it attaches to the headstall to the mouth piece, all affect the amount of pressure on the poll. The curb strap applies pressure to the horse's chin. The jointed mouth piece which is considered mild as a snaffle, however, not true with the shanks and curb strap added. As stated previously, this causes a nutcracker effect. Curb bits tend to have a gentle upward curve of the mouth piece without being extreme. This allows room for the tongue without moving up into the palate as pressure is applied by the reins. The longer and straighter the shanks, the less pressure it takes from the rider to apply a lot of pressure to the various areas of the mouth and head.

Imagine this: With a 5 inch shank below the mouth piece, and a 1 inch shank above the mouth piece, if you apply 3 pounds of pressure to your reins, you are applying 12 pounds of pressure to the bars of his mouth, 4 pounds to his poll, 6 pounds to his chin, and about 3 pounds to each corner of his mouth. That's a total of four cues, and 28 pounds of pressure on his head. Please have light hands.

In the English Curb Bit the port can also vary in severity. The shanks on English bits are generally shorter than on Western or gaited bits - four to five inches on an English bit as opposed to up to eight or nine inches on a Western or gaited horse bit. The English Curb bit is often used in a double bridle. In the double bridle, two bits are actually used. One is the curb, called the Weymouth and one is the snaffle, called the Bradoon. Both of these bits are used together to refine the aids in the higher levels of dressage competition.

Gaited Horse Bits

Most of the gaited horse community use leveraged bits. The bits may have a jointed mouth piece or a curb, solid mouth piece. However, most of the time there will be shanks of varying length and a curb chain. This type of bit takes the horse off of his forehand and helps him drive (move) from his hindquarters. It makes the horse bend at the pole. It also tends to make the horse have a higher head carriage. If you are showing your gaited horse in Western Pleasure Classes the horse does not have to bend at the pole and can have a more natural head carriage. The horse is also neck reined, not English reined. Not true if shown in other classes. This may make a difference in the type of bit used. I have two gaited horses. (They are both 5-gaited: They walk, trot, canter, do a flat walk, a running walk and, of course, they gallop.) I trained them in a leveraged bit. The mouth piece was jointed. I have used solid or curb mouth pieces in the past, as well. There were 6 inch shanks and a curb chain attached. My husband's horse preferred a Tom Thumb. We have trained our horse's to verbal commands and our body movements. (For example, with the gently lifting of the horse's head and a more reclining seat by us, cues a faster gait) We use verbal commands such as walk on, trot, canter, step (flat walk), pick it up (running walk), gallop, whoa. My horse now goes very happily on a bitless bridle. On the trail his gaits are more natural, relaxed and fluid. His head carriage is more natural. He does not bend at the poll as much. His canter is not quite as collected since the bend at the poll is less. I do not mind this on the trail. In time I will get the bending at the poll and the desired collection with the bitless bridle as well. At this point I could ride him with a lead rope and halter with no problem.

As with every type of riding, what you use depends on what you are doing with your horse. It also depends on how your horse responds. The following are examples of some gaited horse bits. It should also be noted here, that often "donuts" are used on gaited horse bits. Donuts are pieces of rubber that are molded in the shape of a donut and fit on the mouth piece. They are used to protect the horse from being pinched in the corners of his mouth if the cheek pieces of the bit swivel. Many of these bits have interchangeable mouth pieces. Some of the bits are one fixed piece.

The following are examples of gaited horse bits:

Many of the leveraged Western bits work well on gaited horses, too. The Tom Thumb bit, the first on the left, is an example of that.


Hackamores are not really "bits" as they do not use a mouthpiece, and instead work on the horse's nose, chin, and poll. Some horses prefer hackamores to bits (and some dislike them). The hackamore's nose piece may be a leather strap, leather-covered chain, or rope. There are many different types and styles of hackamores. The cheek length and style may vary. The bit hobble keeps the cheeks together, preventing them from bending too far outwards.

There are several kinds of hackamores with a bosal. The smaller nose band will be under one-half inch. Larger bosals are over one-half inch. Some have a cable core, rawhide core, or a bosal "knot" that varies in size from small to large. They are placed just below the end of the nose bone. It is important to not interfere with the horse's nostrils. I like to say put the hackamore about 1 1/2 to 2 inches above the corners of the horse's mouth. Hackamores are considered good for encouraging a horse to get his head down. They tend to allow the horse to have a natural way of going. Hackamores a good for teaching a horse to turn on a direct rein. Most horses do not buck with a hackamore. There are several drawbacks. They do not stop a horse well. You must do ground work first to teach a horse to stop to whoa. They are not good on green horses, horses who tend to run away with the rider, or not good for horses who charge. Horses do not back well with hackamores. Again, preliminary ground work should be done for backing. DO NOT over-pull a hackamore. That makes a horse "star gaze" or bring his nose up. Hackamores do not work well in teaching neck reining. A two-handed technique is better-such as an English rein. Hackamores are wonderful to develop natural balance in your horse. They also promote good hock action.

Mechanical Hackamore:

Mechanical Hackamores are not really hackamores, contrary to general belief. They work completely opposite to the bosal. They can be really severe. The curb chain and the shanks leverage the band that goes across the horse's nose. Pressure is put on the nose, the chin, and the poll. The nerves in the chin are very sensitive and the pressure put on this area by a mechanical hackamore causes tremendous pain to the horse. Horses tend to toss their heads and have an unnatural head carriage. I do not like them.

English hackamores:

Many horses go well on an English hackamore. Usually they do not have curb chains. However, they do have shanks. The shanks are shorter than the mechanical hackamore shanks.

Gag Bits

I have never used a gag bit. I do not know much about them. I have seen horse's being ridden with gag bits. The horse tends to hollow his back and have a high head carriage instead of round his back and have a more natural head carriage. If a horse tends to take the bit and run off the higher head carriage could be useful. Sometimes they are used if a horse is a puller. Gag bits are most often seen in polo, eventing, cross country, show jumping, and hacking. They are used to give the rider more control of the horse. Although a gag bit has a jointed mouth piece and no curb chain it is not a snaffle. It works on the horse's lips by pulling up on the horse's mouth. Gag bits use leverage on the horse's cheeks. If shanks are added, it works like a curb as well as a gag, pulling up on the lips and putting pressure on the jaw, bars, and poll.

Gag bits are not permitted at any level of dressage. Dressage riders are trying to get the horse to come down onto the bit. The horse is encouraged to accept contact. The horse is supposed to be completely submissive in dressage. A gag bit gives the impression that the horse is not. Gags are not seen in the hunter arena. Hunters wish to portray that the horse is an easy ride. They want a long, relaxed frame with the neck stretched out, rather than a high neck and head carriage.

Gag bits are seen occassionally in Western competitions. The gags have a sliding mouthpiece on a shanked curb-style bit (similar to the American gag).

Gag Bit Examples

An American gag bit. A rein is attached only to the snaffle ring of the bit. Therefore, the bit will not have any gag action. It will act like a snaffle. Gag Snaffle: similar in shape to a snaffle, with a mouth piece and a ring on either side. Each bit ring has two holes: one on the top and one on the bottom. Gag cheek pieces, made of rounded leather or of rope, are run through these holes. The end on these cheek pieces, after passing through both holes, have a metal ring to which the reins are attached. When rein pressure is applied, the bit slides upward and rotates slightly in the mouth. Severity is determined by the ring size: the larger the rings, the more severe the gag. The gag snaffle includes the Balding gag which has a loose-ring design, and Cheltenham gags which have an eggbutt design. NOTE: The "gag snaffle" is not a snaffle bit (although it has the option of acting like one if the rider only attaches a rein to the bit rings, and not to the sliding gag cheek pieces).

Elevator: consists of a snaffle mouthpiece with cheeks or shanks attached to the side. The upper shank has a hole to attach the cheek piece, and the lower shank has several holes to attach the rein. The lower the rein is placed on the shank, the more severe the leverage. When rein pressure is applied, the bit rotates in the mouth and places pressure on the poll, as the upper shank moves forward, as well as on the lips.

Dutch/Continental/Three-Ring/Four-ring/Pessoa gag: Similar to the elevator, except the cheek pieces consist of stacked rings. There is usually only one ring above the mouth piece, to which the cheek piece is attached. The ring below that is attached straight to the mouth piece, and acts similarly to a snaffle. The lower ring(s), of which there are usually two, are for a second rein to be attached, and they provide the gag action. The lower the second rein is placed on the stack, the more "leverage" (raising of the mouth piece up along the cheek piece) is applied. Dutch gags are useful because they provide options for the severity of the bit. The bridle cheek pieces are attached to the top rings to produce pressure. The lower the reins are fitted, the stronger the leverage action on the horses mouth.

American Gag: has the shape of an "H". It has one ring on the upper shank, to attach the cheek piece of the bridle. There is a lower shank, for the gag rein, and a middle loop to which it is possible to attach a snaffle rein. The mouth piece has the ability to slide up the curved sides of the bit as the reins are taken up, putting pressure on the corners of the mouth and encouraging the horse to raise his head. Unlike the Dutch gag, the American gag does not offer options for the height the reins may be attached.

Half-ring/Duncan gag: This is a particularly severe type of gag. It is similar to the snaffle gag, except it has a half ring. The ring ends have holes, through which the cheek pieces run. Unlike the snaffle gag, however, there is no connection between these two holes to the outside of the bit, so only the gag rein can be used . (If two were used, the snaffle rein would have to attach to the rounded cheek pieces)

Bitless Bridle

"It is likely that the first domesticated horses were ridden with some type of noseband, made of various materials such as sinew, leather, or rope. However, because the materials used to make gear other than metal bits disintegrates quickly, archaeological evidence of the earliest use of bitless designs has been difficult to find. The earliest artistic evidence of use of some form of bitless bridle was found in illustrations of Synian horseman, dated approximately 1400 BC. However, there is evidence that the horse itself was domesticated between 4500 and 3500 BC. ...Domestication of the horse occurred between 4500 and 3500 BC, while earliest evidence of the use of bits, located in two sites of the Botai culture, dates to about 3500-3000 BC. Thus, there is a very high probability that some sort of headgear was used to control horses prior to the development of the bit.

Ancient Mesopotamian forms of bitless headgear were refined into the hakma, a design featuring a heavy braided noseband which dates to the reign of Darius in Ancient Persia, approximately 500 BC. It is the predecessor to the modern bosal-style hackamore as well as the French cavesson, particularly the modern longeing cavesson.

Some modern styles of "bitless bridle" date to a "bitless safety bridle" patented in 1893, with refinements patented in 1912 and 1915...."

Note: "...The advantages of bitless over bitted headgear is hotly disputed. Hackamores and other bitless headgear are commonly used to start young horses, particularly if the horse is started at a time when a young horse's permanent teeth are emerging and the animal may therefore have issues with a bit in its mouth. However most traditional schools of horse training transition a young horse into a bit after a year or so. However, some promoters of bitless bridles encourage their use for the life of the horse, and a few go so far as to suggest that a bit may cause physical as well as mental problems in the horse. However, advocates of traditional bridles note that like any piece of horse headgear, a bitless bridle in the wrong hands can also inflict pain. Another significant problem with a bitless bridle is that collection and being "on the bit", such as is required in dressage, is more difficult, if not impossible. Another problem is that any movement of the horse's head laterally has to be done by unsophisticated "plow reining", or large hand or arm movements." (Bitless Bridle)

I want to say upfront that I do not push or recommend any type of equipment. I am new to the bitless bridle arena. It has worked well for both of our horses. For years we used the gaited bits, shanks, curb chains, etc. There is no one bit that is right for every horse. Every horse is unique. It is also important to know that many competitions will not allow a bitless bridle to be used in the ring. That is something to check if you are into any type of competitions or shows. I trail ride so this is not an issue.

Recently my daughter, Lindsey, gave me a bitless bridle for my birthday. I love it and so does my Spotted Mountain Horse. It seems to work much like a non-leveraged hackamore. However, from the information on this particular bitless bridle provided below, the differences are explained. There is a band that goes around the horse's nose about 1 1/2 to 2 inches above his mouth. It is tightened to one flat finger length away from the horse's chin and the leather fitting buckles. There are two leather pieces that come down either side of his face and criss-cross under his throat area. The action of the bride gives the rider a sort of head lock on the horse. Unless pressure is applied to the reins there is no action on the horse's breathing area nor is there any head lock action. The wisdom is "He who controls the horse's head controls the horse."

I have provided, below, Dr.Cook's web information. He is the one who invented this particular bit. I do know a number of people who have used it on their horses and had the horses rear. Also, it is difficult to get your horse to bend at the pole when first using the bitless bridle. It is not without its issues. This is meant only to make information easily accessible--NOT a bias! On HorseHints I do not accept any advertisements nor do I push any products. I only research and share my own personal experiences.

In an article, "A New Breed of Bridle (Bitless)," by Marcia King, August 1, 1007, Article #10242, A New Breed of Bridle the following appears:

"The Bitless Bridle is a cross-under bridle developed and patented in the United States by W. Robert Cook, FRCVS, PhD. It consists of rein straps that loop over the poll, cross beneath the horse's jaw and pass through rings connected to a noseband, distributing gentle pressure from flat straps over a larger and less-sensitive area.

"The pressure, such as it is, is greatest over the bridge of the nose, less under the chin and across the side of the face, and least over the poll," explains Cook, professor of surgery emeritus at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "Essentially, it gives the rider an inoffensive and benevolent method of communication by applying a nudge to one half of the head (for steering) or a hug to the whole of the head (for stopping). It's painless, but persuasive."

"Jahiel, who is a clinician, consultant, and teacher of eventing and classical dressage, further explains: "When the rider applies pressure on the left rein, for example, instead of a bit pulling against the left side of the horse's mouth, the left rein acts on a strap that puts pressure against the right side of the horse's cheek and jaw. This allows the horse to bend and turn quickly and quietly in response to the rider's use of the rein, without any of the head-tossing associated with mechanical hackamores, and without the need for the rider to use a strong leading rein, as is necessary with a sidepull, jumping hackamore, or halter. Without strong restriction and forced flexion, the horses ridden in The Bitless Bridle do not lock their polls, and because there is no mouth pain from the bit, the horses have no reason to brace their jaws or necks against the reins."

The following is taken directly from the following web site: Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle

A quiet revolution is now taking place that transforms the art and science of horsemanship. The Bitless Bridle provides a humane alternative to the Bronze Age technology of the bit. Unlike the bit, no pain is inflicted. Your horse is free from fear, listens more attentively, breathes more freely, and moves more gracefully. With a calm, less spooky horse, communication is enhanced, trust established, performance improved, and harmony achieved. Riding and driving becomes simpler, safer and more satisfying. Both you and your horse can relax and enjoy yourselves.

Although The Bitless Bridle (BB) is indisputably a bitless bridle it bears no other resemblance to the pre-existing and traditional bitless bridles, i.e., the hackamores, bosals, and sidepulls. In common with all bitted bridles, the traditional bitless bridles are pain-based in their mechanism. The BB is the only bridle that ensures a pain-free rein aid. It works on an entirely new and different concept compared with all previous bridles. The BB provides, as it were, full service communication, whereas the traditional bitless bridles all have limitations in their ability to provide for rider/horse communication. The hackamores and bosals, for example, make some provision for stopping (though with similar inherent problems to the bit method) but are weak on steering, whereas the sidepulls provide for steering but are weak on stopping. Furthermore, whereas the BB is applicable to all disciplines, the traditional bitless bridles are not. For a more comprehensive differentiation of the BB from the traditional bitless bridles.


Brief pressure on one rein (yellow arrow) pushes painlessly but persuasively on the opposite half of the head (red arrows). Horses respond better to being pushed painlessly (nudged) with the Bitless Bridle (over a large surface area) than being pulled painfully by a bit (with highly focused pressure on the sensitive tissues of the mouth). Where the head goes the horse follows. Unlike the effect of a bit, that tends to twist a horse's head, the head stays upright and the turn is more natural and physiologically correct. By comparison with either bits or other bitless bridles (hackamores, bosals and sidepulls), more effective steering is one of the first benefits that riders notice. The Bitless Bridle "works" with both direct and neck reining.


Brief pressure on both reins or alternate pressure on each rein applies a gentle squeeze to the whole of the head and triggers a "submit" response. Braking is probably attributable to a combination of the calming effect of a whole-head-hug; to initiation of a balancing reflex at the poll; to the stimulation of areas of special sensitivity behind the ears; and to painless pressure across the bridge of the nose. The "brakes" are more reliable than those provided by the bit. First, bit-induced pain causes many a horse to bolt rather than brake. Secondly, at no time can the horse deprive the rider of all means of communication by gripping the bit between its teeth or under its tongue. Unlike the mechanics of the bit, hackamore, bosal or sidepull, braking is not dependent on pain across the bridge of the nose, poll flexion and obstruction of the airway.

The above advice on steering/stopping, using the nudge/hug approach of the Bitless Bridle should, ideally, be used simply as a back-up, if required, to the more important aids provided by body weight, balance and breathing.


"Aversion to the bit" has been generally understood to be an occasional problem manifested by about half a dozen different signs. But in the last few years, Dr. Cook's research has shown that the bit is the cause of over a hundred behavioral problems. Each one of these problems has been repeatedly solved by removing the bit and using the Bitless Bridle. The bridle's very effectiveness, however, brings with it a dilemma when it comes to providing information about the bridle. Anyone who describes the many problems solved or the huge number of benefits gained from using the bridle runs the risk of sounding like a snake-oil salesman, as the list is so long and - to most horsemen - so surprising. {I edited here}


A bit frightens a horse. It causes pain or the fear of pain. Fear is expressed by one or more of the five F's; fright, flight, fight, freeze or facial neuralgia (the head shaking syndrome). Each one of these main categories has its own list of symptoms (see below). Collectively, there are over a hundred symptoms and they interfere with just about every bodily system. Interference with those systems that are vital to athletic performance (the nervous, respiratory, musculoskeletal, and cardiovascular systems) means that the horse is not only in pain and feeling mentally distressed but is additionally handicapped as an athlete. For example, the presence of a bit in the mouth leads to obstruction of the airway in the throat. As striding is synchronized with breathing and as normal striding depends on normal breathing, anything that interferes with breathing also interferes with striding. A horse that is unable to breathe and stride properly cannot run and jump to its full potential. A horse that is in pain and mentally distressed cannot learn in the first instance and neither can it perform with confidence and safety.

HERE ARE SOME OF THE PROBLEMS THAT THE BITLESS BRIDLE HAS SOLVED or, to put it a different way, here are some of the distresses, discomforts, uneases and dis-eases that removal of the bit has banished:

Fright: Difficult to catch in the paddock; unfriendly in the stable; resistant to being bridled and unbridled; difficult to mount. At exercise, anxious, unpredictable, hot, nervous, or highly-strung; fearful, shy, spooky, and inclined to panic; tense and stressed; sweats excessively; unfocussed on the job in hand; a restless eye or shows the white of its eye; slow to learn or complete lack of orogress with training

Flight: Difficult to slow or stop; running through the bit and bolting; puts the bit between its teeth and deprives the rider of control; jigging, prancing, rushing; fidgeting when at rest and when on the move; hair-trigger response to the hand aids; runs wild on the lunge rein

Fight: Bucking; rearing; spinning; aggressive, argumentative, confrontational, resistant, bossy, cranky, surly, resentful, adversarial, and angry; hard-mouthed heavy on the forehand and a puller; difficult to steer in one or both directions; refusal to rein back; pig rooting, yawing, and crossing the jaws; reluctance to maintain canter; stiff-necked; refusal to lead on the correct leg

Freeze: These are responses to pain or fear that, for evolutionary reasons, are particularly likely to occur in donkeys and mules, but they also occur in horses. For example, refusal to leave the herd; refusal to go forward (napping); backing-up; lack of courage and confidence, including random, last-minute refusal at jumps; lack of hind-end impulsion; and a tendency to develop muscle cramps (tying-up, azoturia, exertional rhabdomyolysis)

Facial Neuralgia (the head shaking syndrome): At exercise an open mouth; head tossing or flipping the nose; above the bit and star-gazing; behind the bit and over bent; rubbing muzzle or face on foreleg; striking at muzzle with foreleg; rapid and sometimes noisy blinking; hypersensitive to bright light, wind or rain; sneezing and snorting; grazing on the fly; attempts to bite horses alongside, grabs the shank of the bit or the rider's boots; watery eyes and nasal discharge; grinds teeth; tilts head; twitching of the cheek muscles. At rest may exhibit a general head shyness or be difficult to handle specifically around the mouth or ears; difficult to clip or hose around the head; When being led in hand after exercise, rubs its head vigorously against the handler.

General unhappiness: Lack of finesse in control; 'lazy,' dull, and subdued (i.e., phlegmatically resigned to chronic pain); 'ring sour'; a slow walker; tires prematurely; ears pinned at exercise; heads for the stable at every opportunity; tail swishing

Breathing difficulties (asphyxia and suffocation): Excessive poll flexion; retracts its tongue behind the bit, swallows its tongue (elevation and dorsal displacement of the soft palate); thick-winded or an obvious roarer; gurgling or choking-up; tongue over the bit; epiglottal entrapment; collapse and deformity of the windpipe (scabbard trachea); asphyxia-induced pulmonary edema (bleeding or exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage); coughing at exercise; small airway disease (bronchitis, bronchiolitis, or recurrent airway disease)

Interference with stride, gait, and motion: Tense neck; stiff or choppy stride; short stride; incoordination (sometimes diagnose as equine protozoal myelitis or EPM); stumbling; heavy on the forehand; interfering or forging (striking foreleg with hind hoof); inverted frame (high head carriage, hollow back); toe scuffing; refusal to maintain canter; false collection; lack of self-carriage. Shortage of oxygen (asphyxia) initiates a cascade of events that are particularly likely to occur in racehorses but are by no means limited to this sport. One event leads to another. For example, premature fatigue leads to false steps; false steps lead to breakdowns; fatigue and loss of muscle tone leads to chip fractures, damaged joints and strained tendons. Fatigue also leads to falls, falls to major long bone fractures, and these to unavoidable euthanasia.

Mouth and dental problems: Fractured jaws (from falls or other bit-induced accidents); star fractures of the bars of the mouth leading to the shedding of dead bone (rare); bone spur formation on the bars of the mouth (common); severe erosion of the first cheek tooth in the lower jaw (common) as the result of a horse defending itself by gripping the bit between its teeth (common); erosion of the second and third cheek teeth from the same cause (slightly less common); premature loss of the foregoing cheek teeth from the same cause; sore mouth; cut lips; lacerated or amputated tongue; lip sarcoids; sharp enamel edges on cheek teeth in the upper jaw, leading to cheek ulcers; the same on the lower jaw leading to laceration of the side of the tongue; loss of appetite; reluctance to drink on trail rides, leading to dehydration; tongue lolling at exercise.

Effect on the rider:

Use of a bit or bits makes riding unnecessarily difficult, disappointing and dangerous. Because riders are often unaware of the cause of these problems and, therefore, do not know how to treat them, they become discouraged in a number of different ways. They may, for example:

Become convinced that they simply do not have the skills to become good riders.

Instead of blaming their tools (the bits), which they should, they develop a sense of frustration with their apparent inability to master the art of equitation A burgeoning annoyance bordering on anger with the horse

An increasing reluctance to exercise the horse on a regular basis and the generation of displacement activities (excuses)

They despair of ever achieving that harmony between horse and rider that is the pinnacle of equitation They cease to get pleasure from riding

They lose confidence, become afraid of riding, and consider giving it up altogether They decide to sell a horse that appears to have incurable problems and buy another They experience economic embarrassment from doomed attempts to overcome problems by means other than removal of the cause (the only logical approach to treatment) They suffer personal injury (anything from a fractured collar bone to sudden death) SO much for the negative aspects of the bit. Let's now consider the ...


This new approach to equitation enables you to avoid the above and permits you to be kinder to your horse; improve your horse's welfare and its mental and physical balance; avoid confusing your horse by expecting it to eat and exercise simultaneously (the effect of using a bit); have better "brakes" (bits induce bolting); enjoy smoother transitions; lengthen your horse's stride and, therefore, increase its speed; have less fidgeting; a much calmer, more relaxed horse and one that listens better to the aids; reduce the stress of exercise for you and your horse; dispense with tongue-ties and dropped nosebands; enables your horse to get more oxygen and generate more spirit, vigor and stamina; make faster progress with training; obtain better performance; improve your own safety and that of your horse; communicate more effectively and in a manner more acceptable to your horse; avoid so much lathering-up, foaming at the mouth and slobbering; allow your horse to develop a more graceful action, with a more rounded outline and better engagement; reduce the likelihood of lameness and breakdowns (from lack of oxygen, fatigue and heaviness on the forehand); reduce the likelihood of bleeding from the lungs and sudden death at exercise (caused by upper airway obstruction; put a novice on a fully-trained horse without fearing that its mouth may be damaged, and so enable a trained horse to teach an untrained rider; establish a better partnership; obtain more cooperation and have a happier horse.

Hackamores provide longitudinal control--forward and backward movements and halts--but don't allow much finesse in sideways maneuvers, i.e., steering and turning, says Jessica Jahiel, PhD, an author of numerous riding and horsemanship books, including Choosing the Right Bit for Your Horse (Country Wisdom Bulletin, August 2001). Other horsemen and veterinarians believe that a skilled hackamore reinsman with a traditional hackamore can achieve a great deal of refined lateral control using a wider rein hand than is used with other bridles. Conversely, sidepulls provide better lateral signaling for steering and bending than hackamores, but they are less effective for stopping and permit the horse to carry his head higher. Although these bridles spare the mouth, used inappropriately they can cause nose pain and swelling, particularly when constructed of harsh materials such as hard or thin rope or bands.

PETITION FOR RULE CHANGES TO PERMIT COMPETITION USE OF THE BITLESS BRIDLE: The FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) currently mandates use of a bit or bits for dressage and show hunter competitions though, paradoxically, The Bitless Bridle is acceptable for show jumping and the cross country phase of eventing. Most national organizations (eg., the USEF in the USA and the British Horse Society in the UK) follow the FEI and adopt similar rules. Nevertheless, when approached on this matter the FEI have indicated that rule changes should first be negotiated with the national organizations, with the implication that FEI might follow such recommendations.

Dr. Cook has collected signatures in support of a rule change from many riders, in many disciplines but if he submits these himself will probably be regarded by the organizations as having an ax to grind. The better strategy will be for individuals who are members of these various organizations to send their own letters and/or submit their own formal proposals for a rule change. Dr. Cook will be glad to provide individuals with supporting literature on request. Please provide your name, address, telephone number, and the Division in which you are interested. To avoid using a proprietary name in any letters or proposals, it is suggested that petitioners apply for acceptance of the "crossover bitless bridle." It would be useful if petitioners could ask their organizations for the reasons why bits are still mandated. Dr. Cook would be interested in reviewing the responses.

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