As an Amazon Associate, Dressage Today may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our site. Yet Rolf’s willingness to work her horses without a bit has earned her a reputation as an outlier.
The USED Rule Book states that the main contact with the horse’s mouth must be through the snaffle bit. After a three-year pilot program, the Royal Dutch Equestrian Federation announced last year that horses may be ridden without bits at the lower levels in recognized shows in the Netherlands.
Suzy Maloney of New South Wales, Australia, started a business called Happy Horses Witless, which promotes the use and acceptance of bitlessbridles. She did this after finding success using cross-under bitlessbridles, a design in which the reins connect to straps that cross beneath the horse’s jaw and slide through rings connected to the nose band, distributing pressure over the bridge of the nose.
“The most common feedback I get from people who transition to witless is, ‘My horse is now so relaxed and calm.’ It’s one of those lightbulb moments when they realize that the way we’ve all been taught to ride in bits may actually be what’s stopping us from controlling them.” In Edmonton, Canada, FEI rider Allegra Ohm prefers a bit for her own training, but she’s seen the turnaround a horse can make going witless.
Anne Ribbons isn’t convinced that a dressage rider can achieve correct contact in a witless bridle. Although she’s ridden her horses in sycamores on occasion, she says, “I missed the feeling that somebody was home at the other end of the reins.
Without a bit, she adds, the half halt is essentially useless as a tool to contain and direct the horse’s energy. “There’s nothing like the feeling of a horse with a great mouth responding to the slightest closing of the hand and a whisper with the leg by immediately engaging his hind leg and coming up under your seat in a power surge that carries you both forward.
Dressage only means ‘training,’ and a good trainer keeps an open mind,” Ribbons adds. Rolf doesn’t disagree with Ribbons’ statement that the bit can be a powerful piece of equipment.
Dressage rider Alien Foment of France has performed witless Grand Prix demonstrations to wide acclaim. “I use it on Mistral before the big competitions because he is always more relaxed, with a bigger canter without a bit,” Foment explains.
The developer of a popular cross-under witless bridle, W. Robert Cook, FR CVS, PhD, argues that bits place enormous pressure per square inch on highly sensitive tissue and, in turn, prevent the horse from breathing normally during exercise. Hilary M. Clayton, VMS, PhD, Diplomat ACV SMR, MR CVS, professor and Mikhail dressage chair emerita, has utilized fluoroscopic studies to explore how bits function and concluded that batting is dependent on individual mouth size and shape, palate shape and tongue size.
When a horse accepts a correctly fitted bit, the tongue muscles relax. Before assuming bitlessbridles are gentler, Clayton suggests riders first examine the mechanics behind their designs.
Jan Lade wig, professor emeritus of domestic animal behavior at the University of Denmark and an honorary fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science (USES), isn’t sure if a witless bridle used incorrectly could do as much physical damage as one with a bit. Rolf found that her gelding, Ovation, liked a witless bridle with a curb.
Developments such as these can’t come fast enough for advocates, who are petitioning their national federations to allow bitlessbridles in the show ring. Others are rejecting traditional shows in favor of submitting a video for online dressage judging.
She feels that BD should review its policies to “reflect current times” and for the “sake of horse welfare.” Paul Graham of BD responded, stating that bitlessbridles have been discussed before but that the board chooses to remain in accordance with FEI rules.
He also pointed out that Russell can seek to ride with a witless bridle in unaffiliated competitions that do not run under BD rules. “It is important that we have a level playing field for all competitors and this includes the tack and equipment permitted,” Paul said.
In eventing competitions run under USED rules, a bridle is compulsory in all phases, but sycamores may be used for cross-country and show jumping (See EV115). The term sycamore is the most historically accurate word for most common forms of witless headgear.
These are often specifically patented and marketed as bitlessbridles “, usually referencing a particular type of headgear known as the cross-under, though other designs are sometimes also given similar names. It is likely that the first domesticated horses were ridden with some type of nose band, made of various materials such as sinew, leather, or rope.
However, because the materials used to make gear other than metal bits disintegrates quickly, archaeological evidence of the earliest use of witless designs has been difficult to find. The earliest artistic evidence of use of some form of witless bridle was found in illustrations of Syrian horsemen, dated approximately 1400 BC.
Thus there is a very high probability that some sort of headgear was used to control horses prior to the development of the bit. Bitlessbridles apply pressure to parts of the horse's face and head, such as the nose, jaw and poll, but not to the mouth.
A classic bosal-style hackamoreWhile the basal sycamore is allowed for “junior” horses (usually under 4–6 years old) in certain western-style events, bitlessbridles and mechanical sycamores are not otherwise allowed in most types of competitions at horse shows other than some speed events. In English disciplines, sycamores and other bitlessbridles are generally not allowed in dressage or English pleasure competition, are considered “unconventional tack” in hunter classes, but sometimes are legal and seen in show jumping and in eventing during the stadium and cross-country segments.
There are many styles of witless headgear originating from fitted bridle and halter designs as well as from the ancient Persian Hakka. The sycamore and its modern variants use a nose band of a set diameter, using pressure and release to provide control.
It has a nose band, usually of rope, rawhide or heavy leather, with reins that attach at the cheek pieces. It differs slightly from a side pull in that the reins attach farther back, on either side of the jaw, rather than at the cheeks.
It consists of a heavy nose band with rings at the top and cheeks, held on by a sturdy headstall that will not slip when pressure from the line is applied. Both designs have antecedents in the classic caves son utilized by European masters such as William Cavendish, and can be dated to the 17th century, and probably earlier.
Evidence of the concept of creating leverage by crossing the reins under a horse's jaw dates back just over 100 years. The first record of a cross-under witless design that utilized nose, jaw, cheek and poll pressure, dates to the 1950s, about the same time that patents for the mechanical sycamore began to proliferate.
It was developed by an individual with the last name of Grisly, allegedly designed for a group of rodeobulldoggers in New Jersey. In 1980, the cross under principle was part of a design by an individual named Woodruff, who obtained a patent for a halter.
Designs applying poll pressure In a cross-underbitless bridle, each rein connects to a strap that passes through a ring on the left side of the nose band and subsequently crosses under the horse's jaw and up the cheek on the opposite side, goes behind the ear and join the opposite rein at the poll. Thus, pressure is applied to the bridge of the nose as well as to the branches of the lower jaw, cheek and poll joint.
Designs lacking poll pressure On the Scarring (United Kingdom) or Zeroth (Germany) bitlessbridles, the reins connect to a strap that passes through a ring on one side of a nose band, under the chin, and attaches to the opposite ring. Thus, pressure is applied only to the bridge of the nose and the chin but not to the branches of the lower jaw, cheek or poll.
As in a curb bit, the shanks apply pressure with leverage to the nose, jaw, and poll joint. A European design, known as a “Gluecksrad” or “LG bridle,” uses metal loops from the headstall to the reins to add leverage, though with less force than the shanks of a mechanical sycamore.
It uses a metal wheel with six spokes, on which the headstall, nose band and chin strap are attached. The wheel turns slightly when the reins are drawn and creates some leverage, which makes it work like a mild mechanical sycamore.
Blackfeet warrior riding with a ghost cord, illustration c. 1840–1843A simple sycamore or bridle can be made of a thin rope in several styles. A ghost cord, Cherokee bridle is a rope passed through the mouth and tied in a slip knot or half hitch under the chin groove.
One authority describes this bridle as “in competent hands, an instrument of either mental diversion or extreme cruelty,” historical illustrations and early photographs show it in wide use among Native Americans in the United States. A third style has the rope run over the poll and through the mouth, tying with a square knot to serve as a type of bit, and leaving the ends as reins.
Some rope halters, usually made of yacht rope, are designed to be used for riding horses by the addition of various design elements, such as knots on the top of the nose, rings for reins so that it acts like a side pull, or a heavy bottom knot akin to that of a basal. Some people also ride horses with an ordinary halter, though this is generally viewed as unsafe due to the lack of control inherent in the design.
Specialized training is required in order for the horse to remain controllable by the rider in a riding halter. Another significant problem with a witless bridle is that collection and being “on the bit,” such as is required in dressage, is more difficult, if not impossible.
“New methods for the identification of evidence for batting on horse remains from archaeological sites”. Archived November 20, 2008, at the Payback Machine Website accessed February 27, 2008 ^ a b Edwards, Selwyn Hartley The Complete Book of Bits and Batting Newton Abbot, Devonshire:David & Charles 2004 ISBN 0-7153-1163-8 p. 101 ^ “Archived copy” (PDF).
CS1 main: archived copy as title (link) ^ USED website, rule book is extensive and outlines batting rules for various disciplines. The Whole Horse Catalog: Revised and Updated New York:Fireside 1998 ISBN 0-684-83995-4 p. 158-159 ^ Bennett, p. 122 Singer, M.E.
Horses and Horsemanship, The Interstate Publishers, Inc., Fourth Ed., 1969 (First Ed., 1951) ^ Inspiration, Perspiration and Imitation The Witless Bridle by Dr. Robert Cook, FR CVS, Ph.D. Archived May 15, 2008, at the Payback Machine ^ The German “Merothisches Reithalfter,” invented by Erwin Zeroth, who died in 2000. Vendor website ^ Rollins (1922), page 152 ^ “Diana Thompson Side Pull Bridle”.
(2005) Revolution in Horsemanship Lyons Press ISBN 1-59228-387-X Miller, Robert W. (1974) Horse Behavior and Training. (1922) The Cowboy: His Character, Equipment and His Part in the Development of the West, C. Scribner's sons.