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TO BIT, OR NOT TO BIT? By Kate Farmer.


I’ve had a real eye-opener in the last few months, and it’s made me think much more carefully about what we put on our horse’s faces, and more importantly, how we use the thing we choose.  

It all came about while taking courses in the use of the bosal, and the “old Californian” style of riding with the Jean-Claude Dysli trainer, Kurt Murauer.

The Bosal/Hackamore.

Eco modelling a correctly fitted bosal hackamore

The bosal, if you’re not familiar with it, is a rawhide loop which fits over the horse’s nose and is held up by a “hanger” strap. The reins (the “mecate”) are attached under the chin. See the photo to get the idea of what it looks like – but with just 3 days of specialist instruction under my belt, I’m not going to get into any detailed discussions about the fine details of different types and constructions.  

What is very important to understand is that this is nothing al all to do with the “mechanical hackamore” which has shanks, causing a closing, or crushing, around the nose.

The bosal hackamore looks like a very gentle piece of equipment, and indeed it is, if used correctly. However, don’t forget that the top of the horse’s nose is a very sensitive place, and as the highly respected Centered Riding instructor, Sue Leffler, pointed out on Facebook, if used incorrectly, the bosal can be as severe as any piece of metal in the mouth.  

The workings and benefits of the bosal are many and complicated, and I will leave it to the experts to explain that – that point here is the issue of whether bitless is necessarily better for the horse.

Don’t just change the bridle, change the technique

In the search for better and gentler ways to handle and ride our horses, many people are turning to bitless alternatives, but are often not taking into account that a bitless bridle may require a completely different riding technique if it is to be gentle and effective.

For example, I learned to ride in a bitted bridle, and have done the vast majority of riding with a bit. My hands automatically go to the “thumbs on top, heavy elbows, light hands, hands level and elastic with thumbs pointing at the opposite ear” position.  Kurt told me that’s a big no-no when it comes to riding with the bosal. With the bosal, the hand rolls over with the back of the hand upwards. This seemed very odd at first – but when you think about it – it’s logical. With a bit, you are acting on the corners of the horse’s mouth, so you want the maximum flexibility in the vertical plane. With the bosal, you are acting on the opposite side of the nose, so you want maximum flexibility in the horizontal plane.  

It felt really strange to turn my hand over into the position I’m always telling people
NOT to have when using a bit!

I’ve been riding my new horse in a side-pull, which initially I used in much the same way as a regular bridle, but with no bit. However, when you think about how the side pull works on the horse’s face, the rolled over “bosal” technique is more suitable – and when I tried that, the difference was amazing.

That’s just one example, and there are dozens more, of how techniques need to be adjusted according to the equipment.

Bitted or bitless?

Whichever piece of equipment we use, at the end of the day, it’s just a means of communicating with the horse – and we want that to be as light and subtle as possible. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having the horse trained to several different styles of bridle. Now that I am discovering the bosal, I’m not about to throw away my snaffle or side-pull – it’s another alternative – and the challenge to me is to learn to use each of them kindly but effectively.

Learning a new technique takes a lot of concentration and practice, and persuading my body to try somethine new wasn’t easy, even when my brain understood the principles! Although the bosal hackamore is typically used by western riders, there is no reason why you can’t learn to use it from an English saddle.  

So, if you’re thinking of going bitless, give careful consideration to the type of bitless you choose, and make sure you get some specialist instruction in how to use it. If you ask your instructor and they say there’s no difference, look for an instructor who can explain the difference and show you how to adapt your technique. Once you take the bit out of the mouth, you’re no longer acting on the corners of the mouth – so there is bound to be at least SOME difference!

A word of warning

On a final note, if you are going bitless, check whether it affects your insurance. In Austria, for example, if you are riding on the road in a halter or bitless bridle, the insurance might refuse to pay if you are involved in an accident. I’m sure it varies from country to country, and maybe insurance company to insurance company – but it’s definitely worth checking!

The old saying goes that it’s not the type of bit that matters, but the hands at the end of the reins. Maybe we need extend this to say that it’s not what you put on the horse’s head that matters, it’s whether you know how you use it!

*Photos by Manuela Murauer

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