Last Updated on February 23, 2022 by Allison Price
It was an amazing idea to create the original remote control device. Suspend a bar of metal in your horse’s mouth and use the rigid mouthpiece via some reins to control speed and direction. Although it is brilliant, it is far from perfect.
Horses have not always responded to man’s requests for bit inserts and opening mouths over the past 6,000 years. They have valid objections, given that wrong bits, bits in the wrong places or in the wrong hands can cause pain to a sensitive area of the anatomy. Bitless bridles with equally ancient roots offer an alternative method of controlling the speed and direction horses take without causing pain or resistances.
Headgear that is not bit-free, including bosals, mechanical hackamores, and sidepulls, is standard in certain disciplines but banned in others. This gear can be used in all situations, regardless of rules or fashion.
While Western trainers rely heavily on bitless bridles when starting young horses, English trainers, who train youngsters in halterlike devices, bypass the mouth and instill basic speed and directional controls. Hackamores are a great option for horses and riders who are stressed, overly sensitive, or injured, and can help them relax, recover, and get back to their best.
Bitless work has its benefits, but only if the headgear is suitable for the individual and his problem. For bitless bridles operate on many mechanical principles and can be quite cruel. They can also end up on the wrong horse or in the wrong hands and they can be just as harmful as metal in your mouth.
Principles of Practice
Hackamore, a corruption from the Spanish jaquima (“bridle”) has become a common term for anything that can be put on horses’ faces. It operates on the muzzle rather than the mouth. Although the hackamore is also known as the bosal, a Spanish term that means “noseband”), it works on the same principle: expecting the horse’s comfort and moving away from pressure. The sidepull is a third type of bitless harness, also known as the bosal. It acts more like the reins on a nose bit and causes the horse to move towards the tension.
Bosals A bosal, which is a loop of braided or other leather that loosely surrounds the muzzle, is closed by the heelbutt, a knot behind the jaw. The bosal hangs from a simple, flat headstall. It may be fitted with an ear slot or a band to keep it in place. To limit the seesaw movement in the bosal, a rope known as a fiador connects to the poll and the heel butt. The mecate is a 18- to 20-foot braided horsehair rope that wraps around the heel butt. Reins made from it can be used to activate the bosal or provide indirect aids.
The principal action of the bosal is irritation. This causes the horse’s to move away from contact in the direction, speed or posture desired. The signals are neutral when a well-fitted, comfortable bosal is placed lightly on the horse’s forehead with the heel knot below the lower jaw. The horse adjusts his head carriage and forward motions to keep the position of the bosal in a neutral manner.
The heavy mecate behind the chin raises the heel butt a little and causes the bosal pivot on the headstall. The bosal’s back rubs against the lower jawbone and the nosepiece shifts down to press on the cartilage. This encourages the horse to seek comfort and neutrality by flexing his poll, turning his head in the opposite direction to the signaling rein, and thereby allowing him to feel comfortable and at ease. To slow down or stop the horse, you can “bump” his nose with intermittent pressure and release rather than a constant pull.
To increase friction on the neck, the mecate is deliberately stiffened and prickly. This makes the horse more attentive to any rein movements. This contact not only signals the horse that he must reposition his head as the heel butt rises and the bosal pivots, but also encourages him to neck-rein in an effort to relieve the irritation.
The bosal’s ability to train effectively is lost if the line between comfort and annoyance zones blurs. A perfect fit and meticulous craftsmanship are crucial. Otherwise, the braided surface can rub and annoy even when the horse is in the right place.
A bosal measuring 11-12 inches in length is ideal for a horse of average size. It will hang straight from the headstall and be straight. The heel knot will drag down the bosal and the nose section will ride high on the head if it is too long. The bosal can pinch the horse’s jaws or rub his face if it is too small. It should be loose enough for the horse to clearly communicate rein movements to him, but not too loose that the bosal rockes and swings with each movement.
According to Gail Hought (professional hackamore braider) from McKinleyville in California, a bosal should be made of high-quality leather that has been well-trimmed. The lines should taper from the thickened area above the nose back towards the knot. The knot must be large enough not to catch between the lower jaw branches and heavy enough that it can fall back in place once rein tension has ended.
Bosals can be as small as 11/2 inches to one-quarter of an inch in diameter. The thicker, more powerful types are used on unresponsive horses, while the thinner ones are used on horses that are well-trained and sensitive. The position of the bosal is so that it touches the nasal cartilage and ends of the facial bones, the normal way to place it. It will not contact sensitive areas if it is higher than normal. If it hangs lower it can damage nasal cartilage and limit air intake.
Mechanical Hackamores: These are brakes that control forward movement. However, mechanical hackamores work on the same leverage principle and curb bit. They have the same parts-shanks, except for the missing mouthpiece. They can be either long or short and can also be straight, curved, or S-shaped. A hackamore has a snug, fleece-lined noseband and a chin chain or strap that surround the muzzle. This creates a nutcracker effect when pressure is applied by the reins to the shanks. The headstall also exerts pressure on the poll due to the leverage of the pivoting shanks.
Mechanical hackamores, like curb bits, are not suitable for direct reining. All effective directional signals must be sent via seat, legs, and neck reining. Some designs have a chain or bar connecting the shank ends. This provides constant leverage and prevents independent wobbling or swiveling of shanks. The mechanical hackamore also comes with double reins. This is similar to a Pelham bit. One rein attaches at the shank ends and the other attaches to the nosepiece. This provides a leverage-free, direct rein option.
A horse wearing a mechanical hackamore should only be stopped by the rider making the most gentle touch and release contact. The horse senses movement in the neck and shanks when the rider lifts them. If he is well-trained and ridden with consistency, he will often pay attention to this warning sign and slow down or stop before the nutcracker grabs his muzzle. Horses can react violently to pressure from a heavier hand.
The mechanical hackamore’s noseband is designed to rest on the facial bones and not the nasal cartilage. The curb chain or strap should fit comfortably into the chin groove. The mechanical hackamore can be placed incorrectly on the face, just like the bosal. This will reduce its effectiveness and position it’s considerable leverage on the fragile nasal cartilage.
Sidepulls These bitless bridles are known by many names including Scrawbrig, Lindell, Lindell, cavesson and Lindell. They work directly on the horse’s muzzle. Pressure on both reins is used to slow down or halt the horse, while pulling on one rein can bend him or turn him in the desired direction.
Sidepulls that produce little leverage and cause very little discomfort are the simplest. These sidepulls may be more comfortable because they are more stable on your face and are made of smooth or padded rolled leather to avoid pinching or rubs.
Variants that produce a stronger effect include a twist or latigo or rawhide, a length or rubber-padded bike chain, a strip or padded hard plastic, or a loop or metal covered with surgical tubing under the noseband. Rein pressure can be used to tighten the chin part of the sidepull. This puts a pinch on your muzzle similar to a halter with a shank under your chin. Sidepulls work best when placed below the facial bones.
Sidepulls, of all headgear, are the most forgiving. However, because they are so benign, horses will ignore the bridle which causes riders to be more ham-fisted in trying to convey their message. The ideal world would see the horse be respectful of any constraint imposed by the sidepull and sensitive to primary aids from the legs and seat of the rider. The same holds true for all forms of bitless bridles.
Why Use a Bitless Bride
The traditional split between bitless riding and bitted riding was between disciplines that require the horse to behave naturally, or those that use the rider to control the horse’s movements and posture through a combination of driving aids (seat, legs, and the hands).
The hackamore-to-curb-bit convention teaches the horse that so long as he maintains the desired head position in relation to the bridle, he won’t feel a thing in his face, and that all the significant rider input comes from seat and leg aids and the touch of a rein on the neck. This communication system is ideal for covering ground quickly for rider and mount and also for horseback activities such as ranch work in which either one or both of their hands can be used to manipulate ropes and other such things.
Bitless work can also be used in situations where the horse must gain or regain confidence in his ability to carry his rider in a relaxed, comfortable, and ground-covering way. The bosal and sidepull both encourage horses to accept rein aids, without anticipating pain in the mouth and resisting accordingly.
With its potential to exert intense leverage on the muzzle, the mechanical hackamore can take horses to relaxed compliance. However, when used with absolute consistency, to just the right degree, it has unmistakable and immediate negative consequences for unwanted head carriage and speed. The horse decides not to go there. The horse is able to work in greater comfort and with less constraint after the initial cause-and effect learning curve.
Keep these basic distinctions in your mind and you will see great returns on bitless work for riders who deal with horses in the following five situations:
Basic training This hackamore is used in reining world hackamore classes for young horses. It serves as a transition tool from the initial snaffle bit training of a just-broke horse to a more refined and responsive “bridle horse” in curb bit. The bosal is often used by Western trainers as a “starter” saddle. This teaches young horses to respond to the bit and to apply rein pressure to their neck and poll.
Sidepulls can be used to introduce rein tension to English riders who plan on using direct reining. If the horse is well-trained and has a good ground manner, he can transfer his halter training to the bitless bridle action and learn the basics of riding before bitting becomes a problem.
A malformation of the mouth: Horses who have suffered from injuries to their mouths or have deformed facial structures might be temporarily or permanently unable to carry a little bit. Bristling can be affected by oral insults such as lesions on the lips, cheeks, tongues, and teeth. In particular reactive horses, permanent resistance can be instilled. A bit that fits comfortably can be difficult if it has a strange facial structure such as parrot lips or a very small mouth cavity.
A bitless headgear can act as a kind gesture to horses with disabilities and a mercy to riders. The smoke of pain will not obscure their communications. The bitless bridle must not cause any injury or other abnormality, but it can provide relief. For example, a bitless bridle can apply pressure to the corners of your lips, causing irritation to the tissues. A curb strap from a mechanical hackamore, which can be painfully applied to the lower jaw of a youngster with permanent cheeks can also cause pain.
Performance rehabilitation Horses that have not learned how to handle and respond to bits or who have lost the ability to accept them can be helped by bitless work. Horses who have had bad experiences with bits or their riders’ handling may be afraid of their bridle resistances. They might forget to wear the correct headgear if they are exposed to negative sensations.
Horses who are “dead-mouthed”, or otherwise unschooled, may not listen to the directional and speed signals. Horses who are extremely “forward” or hyperactive may not be able to take the hackamore’s action. These horses might respond positively to a change from the bridles.
Relieve from bad riding: Lessons horses or hack-strings who are insecure or rough-handed could benefit from being bitless, as long as their headgear is comfortable and does not exert too much leverage. There are also long-suffering riders with a death grip on their reins who believe their safety is guaranteed. Riders who use bitless gear learn that their hands have very little control over how horses move and that the seat has the greatest influence. Even if the rider doesn’t learn that crucial lesson, the horse will be spared some pain if he doesn’t have any in his mouth.
Consideration and convenience: Bitless Headgear is a great option for trail or endurance riders who need little control over their horses while traveling cross-country and would like their horses to have a meal and drink. A shorter-shanked, curved, or S-shanked mechanical hippomore will keep grazers away better than straight, long-shanked models. Horses may enjoy a hackamore or bosal for trail riding or quiet loose-rein work.
I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!