Thursday, August 12, 2010

Science VS tradition: Not all bitless are equal

I have got the request for explaining and comparing bitless bridles. It may surprise you to know what I do not endorse all bitless bridles as a "good" alternative to a bit. Some can be worse than a very severe bit.

When I look at a bitless bridle I see it as a way to train and enjoy your horse without intentionally (pulling back on the reins with a bit in the horses mouth to stop him) or unintentionally (the horse getting loose and stepping on a rein, causing pain from the bit without the rider in the picture at all) causing pain to the mouth, which is the most sensitive part of his body. I know the horse is responding to my commands, not the pain the bit can create when I am bitless. So basically when I look at bitless I am looking for a bridle without a bit that creates communication and understanding; not pain.

However not all bitless bridles are equal, better than a bit or kinder than a bit.

Today we talk about mechanical hackamores. They are one of the most common types of bitless bridles. Hackamores consist of a usually rigid or textured noseband, shanks of some sort that the reins attach to lower than the noseband and a curb chain or strap.

To clarify: A bitless that does not have shanks or a curb chain that tightens on the mandible (lower jaw) when the rider tightens the reins IS NOT a hackamore. This is a side-pull or bosal. You often have "english" hackamores but really they are just a nose band with rings on the caveson. They act on direct pressure on the nose and face, therefore they are a sidepull. A bosal is a rawhide, leather or metal teardrop shaped noseband that works off pressure of the nose in a similar way as a sidepull but the reins are placed on a knot at the bottom of the teardrop. A bosal also works on poll pressure along with nose. Rope halters and nosebands made of rope are not hackamores. They either attach the reins with rings at the noseband and are sidepulls or attach the reins on the lead loop and have the same stopping action as a sidepull but the steering of a bosal. See the difference between these commonly mislabeled bridles?

Back to hackamores.
There are two reasons why a hackamore can be worse than a bit.
First the shanks. The shanks give a rider leverage. On a direct rein bit/bitless which attaches at the mouthpiece/nosepiece you are communicating pounds for pounds of pressure. When you have a shank you are amplifying that pressure on two sensitive areas of the horses body. Depending on the shank's length and curve you can be pulling on your horses, nose, poll and pressing on what is referred to as the mental nerve, amplifying many more times the pounds of pressure that you are actually pulling.Which brings me to the next reason; the curb strap or chain. There is a very sensitive nerve under the horses jaw that is part of the trigeminal nerve branch called the mental nerve. The trigeminal nerve branch runs all through the horses face having a few more sensitive nerves stand out from the rest. The mental nerve is one of them. When pressed upon it creates pressure and pain, every time it does not matter if your curb is padded with cloudy memory foam, it's still pressing on the mental nerve. A lot of horses ridden in a curb bit for the first time (a curb bit is any bit that the reins attach lower than the mouthpiece) will toss their heads, shake them and even rear right up. The same can be said about hackamores. This is because of the curb strap on the sensitive nerve. Horses learn they can avoid the pressure or seek it's release by a) tossing their heads as commonly seen with mechanical hackamores b) stopping fast and quick. c) rearing, bucking, headshaking etc.

If you put a rigid noseband with a medium shank or bent shank and the most common type of curb, a chain with leather buckles on each end you are setting your horse up for a painful experience in inexperienced hands. If you should not be riding in a bit with shanks and a curb you should not be riding in a mechanical hackamore. The same pain can come from a "bitless" hackamore as a shanked bit, if not more because a lot of hackamores are commonly misplaced very low on the nose, thinking the lower the noseband the more leverage they will have over the horse. They are right, but the nasal bone is very thin there and it is common knowledge a horses nose can be broken by a mechanical hackamore.

With the right training a mechanical hackamore can be a decent tool but I would say a good majority of people who use them did not take the time to teach their horse to woah off very little rein pressure or flex at the poll when pressure was applied so they are going to have head tossing, a lot of curb chain action and possibly even a hurting horse.

So when searching for a bitless as a kinder, gentler way of communicating with your horse stray away from anything with shanks and a curb chain. I put bitless bridles of the hackamore category with people who resort to the bigger bit because the regular snaffle did not make the horse listen. Time to go back to the training pen and fix why the horse was not light and why we now need something stronger, more severe. Horsemanship should be about communication, not pain. That is what my goal is.


lisa said...

I have a great hackamore, not bit in it and it is made out of soft yaht rope! That is what Parelli natural horsemanship uses. It is just great! We don't even use the normal halters. Ours are made out of the same yaht rope that is soft but yet the knots are where they need to be to give pressure where needed softly!

Breathe said...

Very helpful post - thanks!

juliette said...

Super post, Sydney! Well said. Another commenter brought up a question I often wondered about. What about these rope halters with knots on the pressure points? I use flat leather halters on my ottbs, but I see many people using the rope halters with knots and even riding in the rope halter under the bridle. What are these halters about?

Crystal said...

Im glad you cleared that up about mechanical hackamores and bosals, when i say hackmkore, I mean bosal, but so many people just assume those mechanical ones. I love riding in my bosal and so does my horse.

Sydney_bitless said...

Rope halters with the knots are not hackamores. Like I said, hackamore= stiff noseband, shanks where the reins attach and a curb chain. The rope halters sometimes have rings on the side, these are sidepulls. The ones that the reins attach on the lead loop are in stopping power the same as a sidepull but in steering like a bosal.

allhorsestuff said...

I really got alot out of your research about Bosals & Hackamores.
I sometimes ride with a gal that is uninformed about how to comunicate forward /acceptance of the snaffle in a soft round frame...from her leg and seat. Shr has resorted to "cheating" for a frame of head carriage. I have tried to explain some simple things to her...but it fell on deaf ears. She persists in using a rather large Western, long shanked, curb chained bit,
with two handed contact...she, "likes the way it looks". SADDDDD.
Her little horse will never develope and always be punished.

May I link to this post Sydney?
Plus....Juliette did bring up one of my,"it should be common sense" pet peaves. Rope halters for riding + lunging.
If you want to give that your...reasoning to see what you come up with.

Golden the Pony Girl said...

Great post. I hate all the confusion with the terms. Good job clearing it up for folks. :)

Susan said...

No matter what you use on your horse, it's all in the hands. Almost anything can be severe when used by a heavy handed rider. And the same is true in the reverse. Severe head gear can work wonderfully on a hard mouthed/nosed horse when sensitive hands are on the other end.

I am becoming intrigued with the bitless bridles you use.

Janice said...

So what kind of Bitless do you use or recommend.What is on your horse in the side bar?

trudi said...

Hi Sydney, you say **hackamore= stiff noseband, shanks where the reins attach and a curb chain**
I had a hackamore made with soft padded noseband and chin strap, it still needs careful application in my opinion and I have moved on to other bitless options but it was a good transition from bit to bitless.
Keep up the good work.

Sydney_bitless said...

Trudi- That is the reason I wrote "usually rigid or textured noseband, shanks of some sort that the reins attach to lower than the noseband and a curb chain or strap." I know not all have stiff nosebands but most do. It is very rare to see one that is not stiff.

Hackamores of this type used to be the "only" bitless. People still use them but they are mostly limited to barrel racing and speed events.

Grey Horse Matters said...

I'm learning a lot of good information from your posts. I know my daughter uses a bitless once in a while and she enjoys your posts too. Thanks.

trudi said...

Ah well Sydney, that's a geographical difference then, here in Europe (well my bit) it's more usual to have flexible noseband and rarely ever a chain under the chin. They are used by showjumpers and for hacking (trail rides I guess for you)we don't have barrel or speed racing the way you do and the hackamore is generally used with a litle more finesse; although not always :-(
As always it's the hands that are usually at fault not just the bit.

Beth said...

I am always amazed at people who want to use a "kinder" bridle and use a mechanical hackmore.

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