A Bitless-Bit for Dressage/High School Riders
by Yvonne Welz ©2014-2015 (updated April 2015)
Yvonne riding her 10 yo warmblood mare, Belle, in a bitless-bit.
"Bitless-bit" -- isn't that an oxymoron?!
Yes, it technically is, but after giving this style of bitless bridle a try, we think you might just be singing the praises of a bitless-bit, too!
Please refer to My Bitless Story for my personal details, but the point of this article is to introduce the bitless-bit concept to riders already well-educated in riding in snaffles and/or double bridles. I’d like to explain why I think the bitless-bit design might just be one of the most significant improvements in riding equipment to come along in recent times.
What is a "bitless-bit"?
A bitless-bit is basically a mild mechanical hackamore based around a wagon wheel style design (or similar). With stainless steel rings, a bitless-bit looks like a regular snaffle bit from a distance, but up close, it is obvious that there is no metal in the horse’s mouth. It is different than a bitless bridle, which relies on the headstall as a key part of its effects; a bitless-bit attaches to any headstall and reins, and is purchased as a separate piece – just a like a bit!
Close-up of the LG Zaum bitless-bit. Note the "lipstick" foam.
Close-up of the Star Wheel Hackamore.
Close-up of the Zilco Flower Hackamore.
What makes the bitless-bit different than a regular mechanical hackamore is that there are no shanks (yes, there is a tiny shank on the Flower, but it has minimal effect). A very gentle leverage effect is created when attaching the reins in front of the curb strap (i.e. closer to the muzzle of the horse). Set up in that standard way, pressure on the reins creates a pressure quite evenly distributed between 1) the chin groove; 2) the noseband; and 3) the poll. In addition, the bitless-bit wheels stabilize the entire bridle upon the head, creating a channel for energy to flow quite easily through. The metal wheels also create a gentle secondary aid for lateral bending, much like the long metal pieces on a full cheek snaffle.
All the drawbacks of a typical mechanical hackamore are completely nullified by this design: it is far milder without the leverage of a shank, readily accepted by a wide variety of horses, fully adjustable through the flexible attachments, AND most importantly of all, the lateral control (severely lacking in mechanical hackamores) is as good as a snaffle bridle, and possibly even BETTER than a snaffle, in my experiments thus far.
If you've previously tried other designs of bitless bridles, and have been unsatisfied with the results or the "feel," understand that this bridle is a whole new world! While other designs of bitless bridles might involve leverage that pulls the head downwards (useful for beginners or green horses), the bitless-bit pressure (like a bit) is genuinely on or off. When you release, all pressure is instantly released. Application of both reins does not pull the head in any direction. Unlike a sidepull style design, the bitless-bit gives much more control over vertical flexion and encourages longitudinal suppleness. Unlike a cross-under style design, the bitless-bit gives far greater control over lifting the heads upwards, adjusting it downwards, creating very slight lateral flexions at the poll left and right, and releasing into a light elastic contact that, quite seriously, feels nearly identical to riding in a bit.
Yes, I know this is hard to believe. Riding in this wheel style bitless-bit feels exactly like riding in a bit. After 28 years of riding in snaffle and double bridles, I've ridden in nothing but a bitless-bit for 1 1/2 years now, and every day impresses me. Most of the time, out of habit, I assume I am using a bit! Everything is the same: you can half-halt on the outside rein. You can use all the rein effects just like with a bit. You can ask the horse to stretch down and "chew" the reins out of your hand (but without their mouth involved). You can ask for flexion, and reinback, and do lateral work, pirouettes, piaffe and passage. While riding correctly off your seat and legs, you can receive your horse’s energy through your hands in connection. No bit necessary.
There is one very minor difference. You cannot "play" with the mouth, or twinkle the reins, or jiggle the reins to soften the jaw. Ridden flexions of the jaw are simply not possible without a device touching the jaw (mouth). The bitless-bit is most conducive to methods that involve riding the horse from back to front; addressing any head and neck stiffness by working on the horse’s hindquarters, using bending and lateral work. Yes – as in, correct classical dressage!!
It is worth noting that my horses develop the same lipstick foam when ridden in the bitless-bit. Although some bitless advocates have stated that mouth foam is created by a foreign object in the mouth, that is not the case. I found an explanation in Dr. Gerd Heuschmann book, Balancing Act: "A back that is working well allows the antagonists (inner lumbar and abdominal muscles) to work rhythmically. This lower muscle chain activates the temporomandibular joint and the horse begins to chew. This effect is the same regardless of whether the horse wears a bitless or a conventionally-bitted bridle, which allows the lower jaw to move when the reins are taken up. When the mouth is active, there is always suppleness of the poll, which is critical to the quality of the contact."
I believe the bitless-bit design is highly effective because it simply provides the necessary fulcrum point (similar to a snaffle) for the well-ridden horse to be able to easily lift the base of its neck. The aids are communicated in a way that is extremely clear to the horse, with instant release.
Yvonne riding Belle in a canter pirouette - bitless!
Why would you want to ride without a bit?
As far as the myriad philosophical, health, and/or humane reasons, I will leave that up to the reader to do their own research and exploration. To start with, there is abundant material available on Dr. Robert Cook’s website: http://www.bitlessbridle.com and in his book "Metal in the Mouth": http://thehorseshoof.com/book_MITM.html
Like most dressage riders, I spent my previous years defending my bit use, because it is simply a tool - as good or as bad as the hands that use it. However, few people these days put in the necessary time to develop good hands, and the potential for abuse in a bitless-bit is miniscule compared to a bit in the mouth. That’s just common sense. It might be useful to sit down and analyze exactly why we use a bit; what it the reason for it, besides "tradition"? If the use of a bit is simply to create a training effect on the horse's body, what if you can create the same effect with something else? If a bit is simply a tool, why not other tools? If there is something readily available that produces results just as good, if not better, than a bit, then why not?
Beyond that, I've experienced improvements while riding in the bitless-bit, which indicates that there is a lot of potential for future exploration of this training aid. My horses are becoming more sensitive. I believe the aids might be clearer than in a bit. My horses seem calmer and more relaxed. My advanced horse blows immediately at the trot; something she has never done in her life (she would blow at the canter, but not typically the trot). I am able to push for more activity without setting her off. Our transitions improved immediately, especially every single downward transition. My horses feel looser and more supple, as though some invisible bracing is completely and suddenly gone. They seem more active through their back and hindquarters. I am able to achieve more impulsion and more willingness. The change away from the bit seems to have created a positive change in their entire bodies. All while there is no loss of form nor quality over the previous work done in a snaffle or double bridle. Rather, we seem to be making quick improvement, and I am excited about that!
Yvonne's husband James riding Swimmer in a bitless-bit: Star Wheel Hackamore.
Now I know the next question from "dressage riders" -- Is it legal to show in?
Yes, if you live in the Netherlands; this country’s people are so sensible, they have legalized bitless riding for all their national level dressage shows. Bravo to the Dutch!
If you live elsewhere, the FEI rules, and most country rules, dictate that bits are required.
However, there is no reason you have to use a bit to school in. If you show a couple times per year, why not simply ride in a bit briefly before the show, and bitless the rest of the time? Treat it as many do the double bridle: they ride daily in the snaffle, then put the double on the week before the big competition. Because the bitless-bit rides and feels exactly like a bit, there is no worry that things need to be changed within your training plan to accommodate the differences.
Meanwhile, we'll wait for the backwards-minded people at the FEI and USEF (or your country’s organization) to change the rules eventually – and they will. But meanwhile, don’t wait for them before you make this positive change in your own riding life! Here’s to bitless-bits!!
Yvonne and Belle in the LG Zaum bitless-bit.
Yvonne and Belle - passage in the Star Wheel Hackamore bitless-bit. Belle has made considerable progress in her passage and piaffe work since going bitless.
Yvonne and Belle in the Zilco Flower Hackamore bitless-bit.
Yvonne and Kendra in the Star Wheel Hackamore bitless-bit.
The bitless-bit designs all feel and ride pretty much the same way! The bitless-bit designs that I am currently using are the Star Wheel Hackamore and the Zilco Flower Hackamore, both which I am now selling in The Horse's Hoof Store. In my tack collection, I also have several of the LG Zaum Bitless Bridle from Germany, which are VERY nice, but run more than twice the price of the Star and Flower.
Here is a list of several bitless-bit designs currently available:
Zilco Flower Hackamore
A mild mechanical hackamore (bitless-bit) - this one available in The Horse's Hoof Store! Also in some USA vet supply catalogs. There are other brands of "Flower Hackamores" in Europe. This one has a small metal ring "shank" for the rein placement, but this creates minimal leverage effect.
Star Wheel Hackamore
A mild mechanical hackamore (bitless-bit) - this one available in The Horse's Hoof Store!
Unique star design is very attractive!
LG Zaum Bitless Bridle
(in German, click on English button)
A mild mechanical hackamore (bitless-bit), with German leather straps, and curb chain option.
A mild mechanical hackamore (bitless-bit). From the United Kingdom, this patented design is very similar to the LG, but with elliptically-shaped rings.
Sensation Ride™ Flotation Hackamore
From Canada, this design is also very similar to the LG. I tested one, but did not care for the placement of the rein attachment, nor the noseband provided. I believe it would be more effective if kept to a simple circle design, without the headstall and rein attachments. The metal is lighter in weight.
There are many various ones available in Europe, mostly marketed as endurance hackamores. They look like they could functionally work the same as the LG.
Marylot Flower Hackamore
Scroll down this page and you’ll see several interesting variations of a wheel bitless-bit - with elaborate designs!
More information on bitless bridles and bitless riding:
Bitless Riding - Our extensive collection of articles and links to bitless information.
A Bitless-Bit for Dressage/High School Riders
My Bitless Story by Yvonne Welz
Directory of Articles by Dr. Robert Cook
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