There are so many reasons why riding bitless is the next step for many in our holistic horsemanship awakening
Riding a horse bitless might be seen as the latest fad or fashion in equestrianism. I feel it is more accurate to say it represents our spiritual awakening. It is another manifestation of our growing ability to listen, and to respond to the horses in our lives.
When I started riding ponies, the equipment I was required to use was never in question. I imagine this is true for most of us. The bridle plus bit, and saddle were fetched from the tack room. Maybe a martingale or a breastplate were included, or some other form of extra security. This tack always seemed so cumbersome and uncomfortable, saddle pads and numnahs often caked in dried sweat and grease. In particular the girth might be hard and brittle. Even as a child it felt somehow disappointing to present such wondrous beings with this equipment.
The children who were able to discover a pony in a field with nothing but the two of them, body to body, innocent of rules or traditions, were blessed indeed. How different it becomes to reconsider every step we take, every habit and technique that we employ and see it in a different light.
The Roots of Conventional Horsemanship
I have noticed over the years that the traditions in horsemanship are not necessarily logical or even rational. They are woven out of convenience and defensiveness. And those two motivations work together in a satisfying way. It is convenient to keep the horses in stables and it also makes them easier to manipulate.
Exchanging with horses in a herd demands an awareness of the herd energy and the way every individual aligns with that. Singling each horse out, snipping their attachments to each other, focusing them on to us and our desires, is a powerful control mechanism. As well as being quicker and simpler to get to riding.
Every part of conventional horsemanship has been built in this way. The use of metal shoes to render the feet insensitive to changing terrain. That insensitivity is a bonus if your intention is to ask a horse to take on any surface without concern for dietary issues or even chronic join pain.
The Birth of Holistic Horsemanship
If you study it, each and every tradition has its roots in preserving the shortest and easiest route to making use of the horses. The only reason we change is if the cracks get too difficult to cover up, or we change our mind about what horses mean to us.
At first it is enough to ride horses and compete and make the sacrifices to support that. Over time it becomes clear that the horse is a living being just like ourselves and we no longer feel good about the balance of our relationship. This leads to a heightened awareness of the horses physical and emotional needs and what practices might liberate their happiness.
At some point along this awakening journey it becomes clear that the holistic pathways can intertwine just as successful as the fear-based ones. That in removing the metal shoes, horses can enjoy each others company more safely in the field. Allowing them a forage based diet lets their natural calm resurface. The freedom of living full time in an established herd rekindles their personality, and the dialogue between us.
Comparing Two Systems
When you are responsible for a yard full of horses, they are all relying on you, either right now or very soon, for their continuing survival. At best you can provide some level of contentment, at worst you prevent a breakdown in health. Those horses need exercise, water, food, cleanliness, care. They can’t take care of any of that for themselves, meaning they are also emotionally dependent. You are their guardian and their prison guard at the same time. They need you but they may not want you there. Maybe they feel vulnerable and defensive. This lifestyle makes it hard for them to relax in your company.
Compare this feeling to the ease of knowing your herd is in their home range. The horses have their water source, and perhaps a hay station or two. There is shelter. They don’t need rugs or feeds or even consistent grooming. The herd are moving and stimulated and independent and healthy. You are not the immediate source if their survival, even though you have facilitated it. Instead you represent their freedom and in that they welcome your company. They see you and not what you represent, and when you offer some kind of care, it is often graciously accepted.
The Awakening Process
And yet many of us humans still crave the first situation. The sense of security from carrying the burden of responsibility. The co-dependent relationship with the horses. The need to be needed. Each part of the care and provision for a horse can represent something within us, some attachment we have. Unpicking gently is a deeply therapeutic process that naturally takes time and self knowledge.
This awakening process is a valuable part of the evolution of our relationship together. It takes experience and love… a gentle opening of our heart. Disengaging incrementally from the mutual need and allows the relationship to blossom into a genuine partnership.
The centre of my awakening process has shifted gradually over the years. At first my focus was riding, and all of the other aspects of having horses in my life orbited around that. Going barefoot, establishing the herd and discontinuing the stables were all functions of seeking the perfect relationship inside the arena. Identifying a metal mouthpiece as a source of tension was part of this same galaxy.
As I became more receptive to my influence, and the responses of the horses, the gaps where a different way could be created widened. There needs to be enough presence, enough space, enough listening, to hear what is in potential, and spring it into our physical reality.
Discovering Riding Bitless
When I think back to when my shift came, and I began riding bitless, I remember that the moment of introducing a bit to a young horse was simply too jarring! We had been working gently together for months. The vast majority of the interaction being soft and calm. Introducing balance through straightness in circles and straight lines. Building up the core strength to transition within the walk and into trot and within the trot etc..
All of this starter training was being done in an ergonomic cavesson which was soft and giving around the horses nose. And so the day to insert a mouthpiece into this peaceful scenario just never came. It was too much of a reverse back into force. And then the idea of riding bitless was born in its own right, and began to gain momentum.
What if the other horses could be ridden in this way? Experiments were begun, and over time the cracks that had been covered up by the metal bit were exposed. Both the compensations and the corruptions became apparent as one dynamic. Startlingly similar to the shoeing dynamic we uncovered years before.
Physiological Engagement in Horse and Rider
To understand the relevance of a metal bit, it is important to know how engagement works with a horse. Engagement is a broad term for the specific physiological process that happens in a horse when they engage their postural ring of muscles. This raises their back, connects through the abdominal muscles, telescopes the neck and softens the jaw. When a horse engages in this way without encountering a physical block, their paces will elevate and their balance is refined.
A horse engages correctly as a direct result of their rider engaging correctly within their own body. Including if possible, completing the leverage system with the lower leg. This dynamic brings the horse and rider into a mutual centre of gravity and there is the sensation for the rider (and I believe for the horse) of becoming one being. It is a blissful, liberating connection, and a pinnacle of the riding experience.
‘On The Bit’ Is A Misnomer
A rider will use the metal bit to imitate the appearance of engagement by inducing relaxation of the horse’s jaw. As soon as I engage myself when riding a horse without a metal bit, the horse will respond directly through their physiological pathways. This is not a behaviourally conditioned training. The horse will come into the posture we have named ‘on the bit’.
’On the bit’ has nothing to do with the bit in reality. It is simply that a horse in the process of engaging will carry their neck, mobilise their temporomandibular joint, soften their jaw and flex at the poll. A horse will even produce some light foam at their lips when they are engaging without a bit, as you can see here with Gorrion.
There is much confusion with authentic engagement and forcing a horse to flex with a bit. It may appear similar to less experienced eyes, but has nothing of the whole body transmission. A rider has to learn how to engage their own core. Achieving this through straightening and maintaining their own weight correctly on the horse’s back. This initiates the physiological engagement dynamic in the horse, unless the horse is damaged or compromised physically.
Physical Obstructions Preventing the Horse from Engaging
Ironically, it is often the damage sustained from forceful use the bit, that prevents a horse from being able to respond :
- Spinal damage such as kissing spines caused by being ridden in a hollow posture or from saddle induced pain. This will make it difficult for a horse to raise their back and telescope their neck. They may also tug down on the reins.
- Leaning on the reins is most commonly a sore or tired neck and a result of going on for too long. Frequent resting and encouraging the horse to stretch all the way out on the longest rein possible is an imperative for beneficial training.
- Pain in the front feet, or all four, from laminitis or other foot conditions. This is a common reason for a horse not to be able to go forward enough to engage.
- Joint issues in stifles and hocks from whiplash injury. This can happen from forcing a false engagement and will require patient and gentle introduction to the authentic engagement.
If it is approached as a therapy for both horse and rider, engagement can be a fantastic harmoniser of body and mind. Part of the point of this is to do it without attachment to the success of the engagement itself. The intention is to understand the physiology of the partnership and present a framework which encourages progress towards greater flexibility and health.
Clearly the more sensitive a rider can be, using their awareness to facilitate and allow, the more actual progress there will be. For example, a horse with damage in their spine will benefit greatly when they are very gently presented with the sense of engagement, and then allowed to rest and process. Even five minutes of this at a time will be deeply therapeutic over time.
It is essential to listen to the horse’s own sense of their body. Horses can be so tolerant and generous that they will allow themselves to be damaged. Riders habitually go so far beyond horses’ limitations that our idea of what they can cope with is deeply flawed.
Why Ride With a Bit?
There are several reasons a rider will use a bit:
- Many riders don’t know they could be riding bitless instead. This lack of perspective is common in all areas of horsemanship. There is nothing to be gained in judging anyone for their practices because we haven’t lived their life. This is one reason I am so inspired to share the concepts of holistic and spiritual horsemanship far and wide. The traditions run so deep, and many people haven’t had a chance to study in depth. They will follow their nearest instructor, who in turn has not necessarily had the means to study in depth, and so on.
- Riders often believe riding with a bit is the most effective means of control. This is fair enough, it seems logical, especially if a rider is used to the bit being their brake. However using the reins like that is as effective as using a handbrake on a car on the motorway. It is a pain-based deterrent which alienates a horse rather than a balance-based connection which will unite the partnership. The true way to control a horse is through one’s own straightness and engagement. This will merge you with your horse, and your speed and direction will become an innate function of that merge.
- More advanced riders often believe that a bit is necessary for fine-tuned engagement. That a horse will be too heavy to manoeuvre without one. This is an extension of the above reasoning, and in this case a mouthpiece is only plastering over the cracks. If your horse ‘needs’ a bit, it means the bit is causing some level of discomfort. They will be flexing defensively, backing off or lifting up. This is not authentic engagement. There are no real short cut because genuine training is a strengthening process. Riding with a bit is akin to using a device to help you perform a yoga pose, when the effects of performing the pose yourself is the whole point of doing it.
- Riding with a bit purely for aesthetic reasons. The mechanics may not be important if a rider wishes to create a certain look, usually for competition. There is no reason to criticise this. It is a one dimensional experience that will eventually lose its charm for.
If your horse can’t engage without a bit, then they can’t engage with one. Be patient and focus on the stage you have reached and how to solve the issues with your own posture.
Why Ride Bitless?
There are several excellent reasons:
- Relieving your horse from the chronic threat of the bit.
- Avoiding any possibility of damaging the horse’s mouth.
- Reducing tension, which is always safer for a rider.
- Clarifying the nature of your biomechanical influence on the horse.
The Sigh of Relief
Neutralising the negative effects of the bit is such a quantum leap that it has to be the main reason to go bitless. When you start to ride this way it is remarkable the difference with many horses who have been bitted before. There is a profound shift in the atmosphere between you, as if a thorn was pulled out of the connection. There is a major sigh of relief.
There is a theory that the presence of the bit is a threat in itself. I felt that even though I did everything possible not to ride clumsily or forcefully before I stopped using a bit, there was still a profound difference without it. There is no way to stay attuned constantly to everything that is happening with the bit. Our minds just don’t work like that, so there is undoubtedly more friction going on than we are aware of.
Something might happen, the horse jumps or spooks and the reins snap. Once that has happened a few times, it makes sense that the horse is watchful and suspicious on the sensory level. The horse now knows that this implement is attached in their mouth. Why even take the risk?
Most riders are not that conscious at all of their rein contact. They haul and tug, fiddle and jab most of the time. Over time this will render a horse’s mouth insensitive and hardened. This is a great pity when you think that a horse is so sentient and so mouth and muzzle orientated.
The Safety Factor
Whether a latent or an active threat, riding with a bit will cause some degree of tension within the horse. This means it is creating an extra element of danger for the rider, and one that is unremovable in the moment! In all of those sessions before the horse ‘desensitises’ literally, there is a greater likelihood of the horse panicking and the rider losing control.
A bit does not make guiding the horse easier, unless again, the rider is unaware of weight control and straightness and is using pain to coerce the horse in the right direction. When a rider can understand how to bring the horse into cooperative balance with their weight, and maintain the integrity of their posture, they will find that directing the horse is as simple as directing their own torso.
Why We Are Ready To Begin Riding Bitless
The bit is not the root of successful or unsuccessful riding. Successful riding comes through our willingness to train our own body and mind. It comes from developing the capacity to engage our postural core, relaxing active muscles we don’t need and improving the flexibility of our joints. When we are able to listen within and gradually let go of our fears, we will be open to dialogue with our horses. Even a gentle shift in this direction will make a profound shift and our riding naturally becomes more therapeutic.
Riding with a metal bit is symbolic of the quick fix mentality that we are ready to move away from now as awakening horse guardians, and most importantly horse lovers. Horses are creatures of freedom, they love to run and to know they can run. They can run inside their minds as well as with their physical bodies. There is no reason why we cannot run together.
Yet riding with a bit is a clear statement that we are not ready for that. That we prefer to curtail and control the very nature of a horse. Part of riding bitless is summoning the faith in ourselves to trust this great being. To allow that we can work with them without force and without fear.