Comparison of the main methods of communication: bridles with various bits and bridles with no bit | Differences between various types of bitless bridles

Table I: A comparative classification of the modes of action of the main methods of communication, together with a subjective grading of each method’s efficiency on a scale from zero to three. The potential for inflicting pain is also graded on the same scale. A figure in parenthesis indicates that although the bit is widely used there are good reasons why it should not be

Comparison of main methods of communication

A classification of the different methods of communication on the basis of their action

The snaffle bit method can be described as one that provides communication primarily with the mouth (lips, tongue, gums and jawbone). Because the mouth is a body cavity, and an extremely sensitive one, an appropriate name for the method would be the oral cavity rod method. Supplementary action is also possible. Depending on the horse’s head position and the angle at which the reins are held, the snaffle will also pull upwards like a lip retractor on the corner of the mouth. If used in conjunction with an auxiliary aid (such as a drop, flash or grackle noseband) there will also be pressure across the bridge of the nose, especially so if the horse is still trying to open its mouth. Jointed snaffles and, to a lesser extent, French link snaffles have a nutcracker action on the side of the bars as well as the top. Three-ring snaffles exert poll pressure, depending on their adjustment.

A double bridle is made up of a small snaffle known as a bradoon, which communicates with the mouth as above and a curb bit, which has a leverage action and also applies pressure on the chin and poll. The port of the curb is designed to relieve pressure on the tongue and to actually encourage bar pressure. For the purposes of description it could be referred to as the jawbone vise (vice) method, as – except in the hands of a master – it squeezes the jawbone between two pieces of steel, the mouthpiece of the curb and the curb chain. Because the curb bit is placed lower in the horse’s mouth than the snaffle, the pressure is applied to the bars at the level of the body of the mandible rather than its branches (see diagram). A snaffle bit is more likely to apply pressure to the bars of the mouth over the branches of the mandible, especially if it is placed ‘high’ in the mouth.

The Western curb is a leverage bit that is used without any accompanying snaffle. It has a long shank and a spade extension of the mouthpiece designed to apply pressure to the hard palate. It is normally introduced after the horse has been fully trained to respond to a bosal, the curb bit being regarded as the finishing touch for a horse that is already well schooled. When used by a master it is not used, in that the rein is slack at all times. The rein is only used for neck reining, as the curb bit is not suitable for steering. If used by any other than a master it is a painful device because of the huge leverage advantages it offers the rider, coupled with the severe pain that can be inflicted on the hard palate (oral cavity rod plus jawbone vice plus roof of mouth prod). A spade bit is sometimes used in the hope of preventing a horse from getting its tongue over the bit.

The mechanical hackamores communicate primarily by pressure across the bridge of the nose and the chin, with some secondary pressure across the poll. For descriptive purposes it could be called the muzzle vise (vice) method, as it squeezes the whole of the muzzle between a firm noseband and a chain in the chin groove.

The English hackamores and the sidepulls rely primarily on nose pressure only. They could be called the bridge-of-nose hoop method.

The Bitless Bridle™, however, communicates by an almost trivial degree of pressure. This pressure, such as it is, is distributed around the whole of the head, i.e. across the bridge of the nose, under the chin, along the side of the cheek, and over the poll (Fig 2).

crossover feature & function of the bitless bridle Dr R W Cook

Fig 2 Showing the crossover feature and function of the Bitless Bridle™

Fig 2  The diagram on the right is a worm’s eye view of the head, illustrating how traction on the right rein (yellow arrow) results in the distribution of pressure to the left side of the head. The red arrows indicate only some of the areas that are squeezed, for pressure is also applied to the poll, the bridge of the nose and under the jaw.

Its action can best be described as a benevolent headlock or a whole-head-hug (Table I). The bridle distributes mild pressure over a large area of relatively insensitive tissue, whereas the oral cavity rod method focuses a high pressure on extremely sensitive tissue.

Furthermore, with the whole-head-hug method whatever pressure is applied at the level of the rider’s hands is dampened before it gets applied to the tissues of the head. Contrast this with the leverage bit method (jawbone vice method) in which whatever pressure is applied to the reins is not only focused on a small area of sensitive tissue in the mouth but is actually magnified three or four times.

The crossover (also called ‘crossunder’ because the straps cross under the horse’s jaw) feature of the whole-head-hug method means that, even when a horse spooks and a rider instinctively hangs onto the reins to regain balance, the amount of pressure is never capable of causing pain. This means that whatever caused the horse to spook in the first instance is not automatically followed by a sudden pain. The result is that the horse recovers from the spook more readily and does not have a further incentive to bolt. Furthermore, the next time it sees the same ‘monster’, it will not associate it with a sudden pain in its mouth and the spook will be less likely to escalate.

[The above is part of one of the three articles by W. Robert Cook FRCVS, PhD ( Professor of Surgery Emeritus, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, USA; Chairman, The Bitless Bridle Inc) in the series “Why Horses Hate the Bit“]

Traditional (Pain-Based) Bitless Bridles

Robert Cook FRCVS, PhD

Question: How does The Bitless Bridle differ from pre-existing bitless bridles?

The short answer is that pre-existing (traditional) bitless bridles depend on their ability to cause pain or the threat of pain, whereas The Bitless Bridle is virtually incapable of causing pain. The Bitless Bridle also provides a more comprehensive method of signaling. Being painless and more effective, it is also safer and more humane.
‘Hackamore’ is a description that is often used for any bridle the action of which depends on nose rather than mouth pressure. But there are actually three distinct categories of such bridles: bosal hackamores, mechanical hackamores, and sidepulls (including rope halters and jumping hackamores).

1. Bosal Hackamore

Strictly speaking, the word ‘bosal’ is the name for the nosepiece of this hackamore. Its correct fitting requires expertise. The nosepiece is generally made of a rawhide tube which may or may not contain a metal insert. The bosal surrounds the muzzle and has a large knob on the chin side called the heel butt, to which the mecate or bosal reins are attached. The mecate is usually made of horsehair and is deliberately rough, to encourage the horse to move away from the pressure and irritation. The bosal causes irritation (pain) to the jaw and nose, whereas the mecate causes irritation to the neck. Indirect reining (neck reining) is normally used to provide the signal for steering. A good quality bosal will have a balanced heel butt that rests in a neutral position until the reins are used. For slowing and stopping both reins are lifted. The back of the bosal will rub the chin and the front will press down on the nose. This, in conjunction with a backward shift of the rider’s body weight, signals the horse to flex at the poll and to slow or stop. When the bosal is used with intermittent (give and take) pressure, the horse learns to move correctly and to flex and be light in the bridle. Pressure with the resultant pain is only used when necessary, otherwise the horse learns to correct himself. If ridden with constant pressure control is lost as the horse is unable to find a comfort zone.

2. Mechanical Hackamore (also known as a German Hackamore)

As with the bosal, the mechanical hackamore acts like a curb bit. It uses leverage on the nose and, in addition, a curb chain presses behind the chin. Poll pressure is also added. The shorter the shanks the less severe is the pressure. Shanks that curve back are less severe than straight shanks. As with the bosal, the ‘wider/thicker’ nosepiece is less severe than the ‘narrower/thinner’ nosepiece. While the hackamore fails to provide a good lateral signal for steering, it does provide a vertical signal for slowing or stopping. It does this by encouraging the horse to lower his head and flex, the same as a curb. If used incorrectly, it is capable of choking a horse or even fracturing its nasal bone or jaw. Some authorities recommend, ill advisedly in my opinion, that it be fitted in such a way that the nosepiece, when under rein pressure, obstructs the nasal passages.

3. Sidepull (including rope halters and jumping hackamores)

The sidepull acts much like a snaffle, as it applies no leverage. It provides a better lateral signal for steering than a bosal or a mechanical hackamore, but a less effective flexing signal for stopping. Also, in a sidepull a horse will most likely carry its head higher. The bridle forms of sidepull may or may not have a metal insert in the nosepiece. Apart from this, the nosepiece varies considerably in material, shape and texture, with according variation in its ability to cause pain.

The Jumping hackamore (also known as the English Hackamore) acts more like a sidepull than a leverage hackamore, though it does have short shanks. Nevertheless, the noseband is padded and the curb is leather. It is generally classified among the sidepulls and is considered to be less severe than most sidepulls (see Jessica Jahiel’s Newsletter)

Another form of sidepull is made out of rope, not strap work, and is known as a rope halter, though it is used as a bridle. The rope may be thick and soft or thin and hard, with the ability to cause, or potentially to cause, varying degrees of pain – depending also, of course, on the way it is used. In addition, rope halters may be plain or knotted. Those with knots at one or more points have a greater capacity for causing pain than the plain halters. One of the most popular forms of rope halter is made out of 3/16” hard rope, which is a thin rope and, therefore, a material with considerable ‘tooth’ or bite. The reason it is severe is because, as when talking bits and nosepieces, the narrower the circumference the more severe the effect. Such a rope halter is considered more severe than most sidepulls. A Natural Horsemanship trainer who had routinely used a rope halter for starting young horses before she became familiar with the Bitless Bridle, continues to use the rope halter for the very first stages of schooling and then transitions to the Bitless Bridle. Another well-respected trainer (Pat Parelli) uses a rope halter until schooling is complete, and then transitions to a curb bit.


All three of the above traditional bitless bridles depend for their effectiveness on their capacity for causing pain, which is why I have classified them in the title of this article as pain-based bitless bridles. This is not to say that pain is necessarily caused every time they are used, any more than the same applies to bits, all of which are also pain-based. For example, in the hands of a master horseman who has learned to ride with seat and legs and who does not actually use the reins when riding a fully-trained horse, the most severe of bits may be completely pain-free. Conversely, a supposedly simple snaffle in the untutored hands of a novice can become an instrument of torture. The same applies to the bosal, mechanical hackamore and all the sidepulls. Depending on how they are used they may or may not cause pain. The point is, however, that the design of each of these bridles provides for the possibility of causing pain. This feature constitutes a fundamental weakness of design. Any method of communication that, in certain hands or under certain conditions, might – albeit unintentionally – cause unnecessary pain and trigger serious or even fatal accidents for both horse and rider has to be considered a less than ideal method.

By contrast, the design of The Bitless Bridle is such that it is virtually impossible for it to cause pain. It could justifiably be claimed that, by comparison with those described above, it is the only bitless bridle without a bite (the biteless bitless bridle). Yet at the same time it provides fully comprehensive rein-signaling for steering, slowing and stopping, at all stages of a horse‘s training, for all disciplines, for all types and temperaments of horse, and for all ages and experience of rider. A horse can feel a fly landing on a hair of its head and will respond accordingly. It doesn’t need a painful signal to persuade it to comply with a rider’s request. As painful signals can result in quite unintended responses from a horse, a method of communication that automatically rules out the possibility of such signals ever being accidentally transmitted represents an invaluable safety factor.

Using the Bitless Bridle, even the greenest novices are, as it were, saved from themselves. They are unable to get into trouble as a result of inadvertently hurting their horse and thereby triggering the hundred and one potentially alarming responses that evolution has endowed the horse with by way of avoiding pain. From the horse’s point of view, all these responses are no more than natural defenses. But from the rider’s point of view, such responses reduce the pleasure of riding, make riding more complicated and much more dangerous.