I am going to be honest. Bitless is not for everyone. I am not one of those horse people that says "my way or the highway" or "this is the way everyone should do something." I am of the belief that a good horse person is constantly growing, changing, and modifying the way they are riding and working with horses in ways that both benefit and create success for both horse and rider. I like to talk about the things that I try or do, because I am excited about it. I am in no way saying "that is what you should do."
That being said, I do like people to keep an open mind. It is people who shut down instantly, "Oh, my trainer would never let me ride bit less" or "my horse would surely never stop without a bit, I'd have no control!" All I ask is to just ponder about the whole concept of riding without a bit. Expand your thinking about it, research it, and read up on it. You never even have to try it. But don't be one of those horse people that won't keep growing or learning. Someday, in your life, you might encounter a wonderful horse that for some reason or another, can not wear or work in a bit. Or maybe you are watching a horse event and see a rider performing freestyle dressage without a bit. Maybe your mind and heart will open a bit. It still doesn't mean you have to ride bit less. But recognizing that many horses do BETTER without a piece of metal in their mouth has been an interesting journey for me. I did not come to ride My Boy bitless out of a vaccum. I've heard about it and have been curious, but what is funny now is that after riding bitless, I now seeing gaping mouths and all kinds of crazy bits and mis-handling and I just cringe at even how I have pulled and ridden with bits in the past!
Enough lecturing. I have found something that works for My Boy and I, and my next horse might very well need to be ridden in a bit, but that's okay. Let me tell you how it came about.
When I got Luna, my intent was to try her bitless. I had read up about Justin Dunn and his Mustang Horsemanship, and how he rides all of his horses in side pulls (which he designed.) The trainers I were considering said they started horses in rope halters (similar to Clinton Anderson style) but that eventually the horse would be ridden in a snaffle. I resigned to this approach because of lack of trainers in my area and my limited funds for training. I wouldn't ask a trainer to attempt bitless training on a horse unless it was their belief, in lines with their philosophy and interest to do so. (After getting to know her better, I do think I could push the trainer I ended up using to try bit less with my next Mustang, as she would honestly tell me at some point in the training that horse was suited for it.)
I gave up on my bitless journey. Then, this past winter, I decided My Boy had been sitting long enough while I learned to be a mama and Luna got all the work and riding as she learned to become a saddle horse. I moved him to a local boarding stable to have use of an indoor arena. I moved him on a Tuesday in time for a teeth float appointment on Wednesday. But the vet had so many horses to do, he didn't get to several horses, including My Boy. We rescheduled for a week out, but then that got moved a month out because they were offering a special. I kept that appointment because it also meant I could share the farm call fee with others and being on a budget, a discount is definitely a necessity!
I could have just ridden My Boy in his snaffle, he had been ridden in it a few times during the summer. However, I felt guilty about it knowing he was overdue for a float and remembering that one of the trainers that borrowed him for a trail ride had told me she could tell he needed his teeth done by the way he was in the bridle. So I decided to just ride him in a double knot rope halter with reins. I had the use of a round pen and indoor arena so it was a great, controlled space to experiment with.
He did well, as I knew he would. I knew this because this horse is 21 years old and broke. That does not mean he gets naughty or silly sometimes- but he is not a bucker or a bolter. As a reining trained horse he pretty much prefers to whoa in most instances and he does not spook. He also moves very well off of leg, seat, neck rein, and verbal cues. So where the rope halter failed is that it was that the fit was a little sloppy on his head and the reins would slide down underneath his chin, making it a little difficult to be as clear in any direct rein cues. After several rides inside, the weather turned spring-like and I was itching to get outside and ride. There is no outdoor arena, but the stable it on a long, winding dirt road in the woods. We did a few hand-walks out and about first, then one day I saddled him up and off we went in the rope halter.
I have never looked back. I got online and ordered a proper bitless bridle because I wasn't happy with the fit of the rope halter. I really wanted to have better lateral flexion and direct rein when and if I needed it. No matter what kind of stretching we've done, even in a bit, My Boy does not have good lateral flexion. He is just stiff in the neck, I don't know if it's his build, age, or what but he can not whip his head all the way around to my ankle like I see some trainer's do with colts.
I had one bad ride on My Boy. I was invited to go on a trail ride with some other ladies at the barn including the head trainer and her assistant. The minute we started out the arena gate My Boy was completely out of whack. He was jigging and generally not listening to me. He had never been out that gate, had never been ridden with these horses, and had never been on those trails. Regardless, he should not have been acting that way. I wanted to chicken out and say, "Um, guys, I think I'm going to stay home!" but sucked it up and went forward. Sensing I was having trouble they had me move him from our place at the back of the line up to the front behind a calmer, older mare. That helped a little. But the whole ride was a bit crazy. Most of the horses were good, albeit "spring fresh." We had three large dogs with us that kept running and bounding through the brush and water and crossing in and out of the woods and the trail. The first part of the ride we were basically trail blazing through overgrown brush. Once we got to the real trail we encountered a lot of marshy areas and water to go through. We flushed about 15 turkeys and had a roaring river down an embankment through the trees on one side of us. All of this- I did on a horse that was edgy, and in a ROPE HALTER. Good lord. When we made it back and posed for a photo, I finally breathed a sign of relief. I wasn't happy about the ride until later that evening, when I began to reflect. I needed to give My Boy some credit. He didn't try to dump me, and at times he was not listening to me, but considering how he handled the dogs, other horses, general ground footing, he was pretty darn good for his first group ride in months. He would have been like that (and has in the past) even if he'd been in a bit. And I was not helping the situation at all, even the assistant trainer suggested to me one point to stop hanging onto the reins so tight, I was completely trapping him in his own anxiety.....well, it did help a bit to relax the reins, for sure.
It wasn't so much about the bridle that day, it was about a variety of dynamics going on, my tension and fear about it, and so on. This horse is a great trail horse and I knew that, but I was not helping him to be his best that day.
I am continually impressed by how responsive and nice My Boy has been in his bitless bridle. We have yet to do any arena work in it, so that will be the next test, to see what kind of softness and collection I can get out of him going in circles in the arena. This is not my favorite thing to do anymore, so I won't be doing it often. I'd prefer to be out riding the lovely country I live in!
There are two great Facebook pages to follow if you are interested in reading about others' journey's with bitless, as well as alternative bridle options, etc: Bitless Believers and Bitless Horse Equitation.