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What is a bitless bridle?
The bridle is a means to communicate pace and direction to a horse. Most people are probably used to seeing horses in bitted bridles, since this is the type in general use today. The bit is placed in the horse's mouth and held there by means of the bridle. Reins are attached to the bit rings in order for the rider to control the horse. You only need to watch the horse-racing to see a range of differing bits in use.
However, bitless bridles are becoming increasingly popular with riders looking for a different way to control their horses. Bitless bridles have existed in one form or another since humans first domesticated the horse, and there are several different types available with varying degrees of severity, from the simple side-pull bridle to the hackamore (more info on different bridles can be found here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridle). The type being reviewed here is known as a cross-under bridle, and although there are now a few makes to choose from (I also have a Barefoot) the most well-known is probably the Dr Cooks.
The original design of this bridle came from a horse trainer named Allan Buck, of Ramona California. Dr Robert Cook FRCVS, an equine vet, tested the bridle and has subsequently written numerous articles about why it is better than a bitted bridle. Whilst not claiming credit for the original design, Dr Cook is now the patent holder, which is worth bearing in mind when reading through his articles. While I found them interesting reading, I think that any piece of tack is only as severe as the hands holding it, and this applies to bitless as well as bitted bridles. As I have said in a previous review, any rider/owner should go with whatever they and their horse are comfortable and happy with.
*edit* I have received some correspondence from Dr Cook, and will quote it here for you.
"I understand that readers may have some reservations about my articles, as I can but declare a conflict of interest and leave it for readers to decide how they interpret my findings. However, I do like to point out that I have been a surgeon, teacher and research worker for 57 years and a salesman for only ten. The anatomical and physiological principles that support use of the BitlessBridle were principles
Pictures of Dr. Cook Bitless Bridle
Rosie the Poser modelling the Dr Cooks Bitless Bridle
that I learned long before applying them to this particular topic."
There you have it, from the horses mouth, so to speak!
The Dr Cooks Bridle differs from a traditional bridle in that the cheek pieces, rather than being there to hang the bit from, attach to two long straps. These then cross over each other under the horse's jaw and pass through rings on each side of the noseband where they are then attached to the reins. The effect of this is that when one rein is pulled, the horse feels pressure on the opposite side of its face and is thus pushed, rather than pulled, in the direction you want to go. Pulling both reins together has the effect of hugging the whole head of the horse and results in slowing down, stopping, or rein back. The Dr Cooks Bitless bridle head office has kindly given permission for me to use their pictures in the review, so there is a diagram showing how it works below.
Materials, Styles and Prices
The Dr Cooks is available in three different materials - washable webbing (£55), washable beta, which is vinyl covered nylon, giving a leather-look effect (£66 for standard sizes, £89 for extra large draft size) and leather (Western style £89, English style £129, padded English style £155). A driving bridle is also available in beta material complete with blinkers (£95 mini, £105 standard, £115 draft). It is possible to order the parts of the bridle separately for horses with non-standard fittings, or to replace worn out parts.
Although these bridles are expensive, they compare well with other, high-end traditional bridles, plus you can try one with the 30 day trial. Basically, you buy a bridle, try it out, and if you don't get on with it return it to the Bitless Bridle shop (details below) in good condition, and they will refund your payment in full.
When bought from the website, the bridles come with comprehensive fitting instructions. If you have lost these, or bought second-hand (like me) they are available to download as a pdf file.
Why I Chose Bitless
If you have read some of my other reviews, you will already know my pony, Rosie, along with some of the problems I've encountered getting her saddle to fit. It isn't quite the same story with the bridle, but she's never been entirely happy with a bit in her mouth. Not going into too much detail, I tried quite a few bits before I found one she was happy with, but she's never been entirely comfortable with having a bit in her mouth. The symptoms of this showed through her raising her head, tensing her neck and setting her jaw against the bit with the ultimate result that her halts were drawn out affairs, and not very tidy at all. She was also prone to ignoring the bit altogether, or getting her tongue over it, making for some very interesting rides!
I had been eyeing the Dr Cooks for quite some time, hoping to try it on Rosie, and it was when I found one on good old eBay for £40 that I decided to buy one. It is a pony-sized Beta version, and is in excellent condition despite being second hand. I don't know if this is testament to how durable the material is, or if the previous owner didn't get much use out of it, but as I am using it all the time now I'm sure I'll find out soon enough! There is plenty of adjustment on the noseband and cheeks of the bridle, so it could be altered to fit a good range of ponies.
The Beta manages to do a good impression of leather, so much so that my friend thought it was leather. It is very supple and extremely easy care - I have dunked it in a bucket to get it clean and it came out none the worse (I believe I've already expressed my preference for easy care tack). The stitching and metal fittings are of a high standard, as is the finish, and overall I'm very happy with the quality (especially since I got mine cheap!).
The only issue I have with this bridle is the lack of padding on the noseband and headpiece, although it is possible to buy sheepskin pads for these. It seems that without padding, Rosie always ends up with a dirty sweat mark on her nose, and I constantly worry that she will get rubbed.
Rosie seemed very surprised the first time I put this bridle on her. I think she was ready for the bit, because she opened her mouth! I found the bridle was easy to fit, and very similar to fitting a standard bridle. All you need to do is make sure the cross-under straps are wide enough for your horses head to slip into the bridle. The noseband is fitted quite low when compared with a bitted bridle, more in the position of a drop noseband, and it is fastened slightly tighter too, allowing one fingers width between the noseband and the nose. This is because it will provide more control and more stability when fitted like this.
Our first ride was restricted to the school, always recommended when trying new tack, and Rosie responded very well to the bridle. As a rider, it feels very much like riding with a bit, but I've noticed she is easier to control, more relaxed and more responsive now. Turns and circles are easier, and she no longer gets tense through her neck and jaw. We have even reined back with consummate ease!
The acid test was using the bridle out hacking, and this has also been passed with flying colours. The couple of little hairy moments we had due to speeding traffic were nowhere near as bad as they have been in the past. Previously, when Rosie bolted she would just run for cover and not listen to anything, even the emergency brakes (which is me panicking and hauling on my reins - an evil sin in every sense). Now, she doesn't really bolt, just trots for a few paces and then stops. Rosie is definitely happier bitless, and I'm hoping to save up for a leather version of this bridle (and also hoping one will come up on eBay!).
The Dr Cooks Bitless Bridle has worked very well for Rosie and I am very happy with it. Most of my friends hold the firm belief that a horse can't be controlled without a bit, but much to their amazement I believe we have proved them wrong. One of them said she had never seen a horse ridden without a bit before, and that it was very impressive. Despite my positive results, I've been unable to convert any of them, even to the idea of trying it out, but I shall continue to lead by example! Anything that helps Rosie to be happier in her work is fine by me.
I would recommend putting pre-conceptions aside and trying one of these out. They are available second-hand on eBay sometimes, and the Bitless Bridle UK people also have an eBay shop here: http://shop.ebay.co.uk/merchant/bitlessbridleuk_W0QQ_nkwZQQ_armrsZ1QQ_fromZQQ_ipgZ
Alternatively, just pay a visit to the online shop, which can be found at http://www.bitlessbridle.co.uk/index.php (the articles are very interesting too)
***Here is a link to a bit vs bitless experiment that Dr Cook sent me: http://www.bitlessbridle.com/dbID/420.html***