A preliminary study into bitted vs bitless bridles
06 Mar 2016
Over the last few years, the popularity of bitless bridles has increased. This has generated alot of debate around whether bitted or bitless is best. Of course bits are compulsory to compete in some disciplines. Both tools can have their place and both can cause pain if used incorrectly.
Researchers at an Australian University undertook a preliminary investigation into the effects of backing horses with bitted or bitless bridles. There was supposed to be six horses in the study, but unfortunately two horses were withdrawn due to unforeseen circumstances, therefore the results cannot be considered statistically significant, as the sample size is too small. However, the results are still interesting and a useful basis for further research.
The four horses used in the study were unbroken two-year-olds of the breeds: Thoroughbred, Australian Stock Horse and Warmblood. All of the animals were well handled and familiar with a lunge roller. Prior to the study all horses were made familiar with the training arena. The study tracked the horses through 3 phases of breaking; introduction to the bridle, long reining and first rides. Two of the horses were trained in a bitless bridle and two of the horses were trained in a bitted bridle for the duration of the study.
The bitted bridle used was the BitlessBridle designed by Dr Robert Cook. This type of bridle crosses over under the chin and rather than a pulling pressure, it creates a pushing pressure on the opposite side of the horses face. Pressure is fairly widely distributed compared to some types of bitless bridle. However, a criticism that some have of this bridle is that it does not provide as much immediate and obvious release as some other bitless bridle types, such as a bosal, hackamore or sidepull.
The bit used with the bitted bridle was a full-cheek snaffle.
Horses were fitted with heart rate monitors throughout the study. The results showed that all horses were relaxed during their introduction to the bridle. There were two sessions (on consecutive days) where each horse was introduced to the bridle.
Next, the horses underwent two sessions of long reining. It was found that horses in the bitted bridle took more steps to respond to the halt aid than horses in the bitless bridle. Horses in the bitted bridle had higher heart rates and heart rate variability, a potential indicator of stress. The horses in the bitless bridle had lower heart rates and spent more time with their heads lowered in a relaxed or stretching frame.
Finally, the horses underwent two sessions with a rider (their first time with a rider). Interestingly, during riding, it was the horses wearing the bitless bridle that showed more head shaking.
Overall, horses in the bitted bridle showed more head raising, head shaking, chewing, opening of the mouth, pawing the ground and tail swishing than horses wearing the bitless bridle. However, the researchers note that these behaviours reduced as the study progressed and the horses became accustomed to the bit.
In conclusion, the researchers believe that this area of research warrants further investigation. Some horsemen start a horse in a bitless bridle and then later introduce a bit for further refinement of the aids. Following on from this study it could be said that, perhaps introducing a bit at a later stage makes sure the horse is responsive to more general pressure first and then this can be refined to the sensitive area of the mouth with light aids.
Introducing a horse without a bit initially may give him more room to make mistakes in a low-stress environment and give him one thing at a time to worry about while he is still getting used to the rider. For instance, if the horse spooks at something he could inadvertently get jabbed in the mouth which may only frighten him even further. Then again, some horsemen break their horses directly in a bit and report no issues. Of course, the experience of the trainer must come into the equation.
What sort of bridle do you use? What sort of bridle are your horses started in?
Quick, J. S., & Warren-Smith, A. K. (2009). Preliminary investigations of horses'(Equus caballus) responses to different bridles during foundation training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4(4), 169-176.