Classical Riding Made Easy

Anne Wilson, Classical Riding Trainer and Author

                                                          TO BIT OR NOT TO BIT?


There are a growing number of riders who prefer not to use bits in the mouths of their horses.  In principle there is often nothing wrong with this, but in practice it can result in the horse slopping along on the forehand, with a sagging back and resultant strain on its back and front legs. Many exponents of ‘natural horsemanship’ may say that this is a natural way of going. It is true that many horses, left to their own devices, will move this way all of their lives whilst roaming free.  However, when we add a rider to the equation, with the added weight of a person sitting upright over the back (as opposed to the weight carried by an in-foal mare which is borne underneath); the balance of the horse is totally changed and a great deal more strain is put upon the back and the forelimbs.

Unless we teach the horse how to lift his forehand, taking some of the weight back onto the haunches and to utilise his back and abdominal muscles, the wear and tear on the horse’s body is immense.  This is one reason why classically trained horses in general live much longer, more active lives, than their poorly trained counterparts.


Some people do seem to be under the misapprehension that they are being kind if they ride their horses from a headcollar, with a rein attached either side, which is allowed to hang in loops, thus abandoning the horse and not giving him any assistance in his way of going.


This is exactly the opposite scenario to that which Susan McBane wrote in the March edition of Equi-Ads (Let Go of Your Horse), I too am completely against the practice of a hard, pulling contact which constantly restricts the horse.  However, there is a happy medium and moderation in all things is good. Sensitive, supportive hands are not at all the same as restrictive ones.


Having said all of this, it is still possible to train a horse well without a bit, but it takes a good deal more skill.  Time and patience are required in abundance whilst correctly training, but in a bitless bridle even more so.


I have recently viewed on the internet some beautiful riding which took place at The 2012 Helsinki Horse Fair - a bitless dressage competition. There is a photo of a classically correct piaffe with the horse sitting back on his haunches and this was achieved in a bitless bridle.  There is also a photo of a very bad riding position with the rider leaning back and pulling mercilessly on the poor horses mouth, which can be very painful in a bitless bridle as well as with a bit.




Sylvia Loch has given demonstrations on her beautiful Iberian horses, riding with ‘reins of silk’. During these demonstrations the horses wear a very soft woven cord in the mouth, with silk thread attached as reins. The horses perform high school movements with complete ease and in self carriage, but they have been trained wearing conventional bits.  I wish I could say that I too can perform such wonders, but most of us have to be thankful if we can achieve a light feeling in self carriage  whilst wearing a bit, and this achievement is not to be underestimated. Collection in complete self carriage, i.e. the horse going more or less on the weight of the rein, takes years of patient training, during which the horse must be prepared mentally and physically.  His back and hind legs joints are strengthened and suppled using the systematic classical training movements which, when carried out correctly and with discretion, serve to strengthen the horse without straining him.


There are times when choosing not to put a bit into your horse’s mouth has to be correct.  He may have a sore mouth, a dental problem, or simply have been terrified by a badly fitting bit and/or crude, bad riding in the past. In circumstances such as these I would definitely think that it is prudent to ride in a bitless bridle, at least for a period of time, until the horse can be persuaded to forget his past experiences or his mouth has healed.


From a strictly classical perspective every serious rider should aim, wherever possible, for the horse to seek the bit of his own volition, relaxing and flexing his jaw; giving the rider a feeling of lightness and submissiveness in the hand.  Submissiveness in riding terms should not mean subservience; so we don’t want to force the horse into any outline with his head and neck, as often is the case with tight crank nosebands, harsh bits or other pieces of equipment which ‘tie the horse down’.


Lightness in front comes from strength behind and cannot be rushed; there are no short cuts. In the interim training years, the horse may need considerable help or support from the rider; including a strong upright rider position, and sensitive, educated hands that know when to support and when to give. Dexterity in the fingers is important and I sometimes feel that stiff gloves can hamper the rider in their quest to ‘feel’ the horse’s mouth.


Here is what the late Col.Podhajsky, former Director of the Spanish Riding School, has to say about contact with the horse’s mouth (From ‘The Complete Training of Horse and Rider’):-

“The young horse should be allowed to adopt that position of the head in which he finds it easiest to contact the bit and carry the rider’s weight quietly and willingly without excitement. As the strength and proficiency increase, the horse’s head and neck will be raised to a position in which a line drawn from the nose to the hip will be parallel to the ground, and the poll will be the highest point of the arched neck. This must not be considered a strict rule, as the amount the neck will be raised will depend on the conformation of the horse, that is to say, the length of his back and the length and shape of his neck. The poll, however, must be the highest point of the horse’s head regardless of his conformation.”

And further on:-

Still greater attention must be paid to correct bitting.  On this will depend the correct contact with the mouth, which is the foundation on which the whole training is based.”


If the horse never has a bit, how can he ever learn the correct contact?


Podhajsky then goes on to say:-

The rider must strive to obtain a quiet and moist mouth which does not show the action of the reins. The moisture comes not so much from chewing the bit, as many people think, but from the action of the gland which produces the moisture when stimulated by the flexion of the gullet. The degree of moisture will vary with the individual and may be as much as a thick lather.  A dry mouth is a bad sign and will be the result of the action of the rein not going through the body.”


Again, how can we expect the horse to flex his jaw correctly to produce a moist mouth without wearing a bit, at least during some of his training?


So, whether you are right to choose to ride your horse in a bit or a bitless bridle, depends on many variables. It may be the right decision for your particular horse, at least for a short period of time. I would implore you not to abandon him to his own devices and encourage him to slop along, or you will be wearing out his body parts long before time.


If you do wish to ride without a bit, then the classical lateral exercises must surely be a God send! Practicing such things as shoulder-in, slowly in walk, will help to encourage the horse to take weight behind, whilst at the same time building up his strength and suppleness in order to do so. You will definitely benefit from the help of a good classical trainer during this process, and reading good books on the subject will help. Sylvia Loch’s ‘Classical Seat’ DVD’s will also be a real boon, giving you a visual ‘feel’ of what to aim for, as well as what can go wrong in the process and how to overcome it. Sylvia’s ‘On The Bit’ DVD is immensely helpful.


COPYRIGHT - ANNE WILSON 2012This article first appeared in Equi-Ads magazine in May 2012