Rightly or otherwise, there is a certain stigma surrounding riders who choose bitless bridles. I have heard the “three Bs” (bitless, barefoot, bareback) mentioned often in conjunction with some criticism of the hippies using them, but do all bitless advocates really come from natural horsemanship backgrounds, denounce saddles, and keep their horses completely metal-free? Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.
The other two Bs
Some might say that bitless riders in general are disillusioned with the traditional. Of course, there are many riders for whom this is not the case, perhaps using bridles such as hackamores in the showjumping ring, along with other conventional tack and shoes. Some are quite the opposite, choosing to keep and work with the horse in the most ‘natural’ way possible, which can mean no shoes and minimal tack.
Now comes the science part:
Bareback riding is not necessarily of benefit to the horse. A well-fitting saddle will distribute the weight of the rider over a larger surface area, minimising the pressure put on any one point. It also notably leaves the spine completely clear. Bareback riding meanwhile places the rider’s weight onto a smaller surface area over the horse’s back, including directly onto the spine. Bitless might often be associated with bareback, but this depends entirely upon the individual rider’s views and their goals with their horse. Of course, bareback riding can be of use to most horses and riders at times, improving the rider’s seat, helping both to relax, and simply for the fun of it.
Many horses are kept barefoot simply because they do not need shoes – native breeds, for example, tend to have strong and hardy hooves that do not easily break or become sore. Shoes are traditionally used to protect the hooves under stress such as heavy or frequent roadwork. They can also help the horse’s grip when working on grass, especially if used in conjunction with studs. This is contended by barefoot advocates, many claiming that all horses can and should be barefoot, with correct trimming. My own thoughts here again relate to science. The hoof has evolved with the horse to absorb impact and carry the body weight of the horse. It is more flexible than a metal shoe, meaning that less of the shock from each footfall is carried up the leg. If the horse does need extra protection from hard footing, there are now many types of hoof boot or temporary, flexible shoe now available that do not damage the integrity of the hoof wall as nails do. Regardless, plenty of natural horsemanship advocates, bitless riders, and users of other alternative methods do not necessarily default to barefoot.
Brought into the public eye primarily by horse whisperer Monty Roberts, natural horsemanship tends to involve ditching some or all of the usual tack and gadgets associated with conventional horsemanship. This suits many riders, but for some there are issues associated with this, such as difficulty competing in certain disciplines or even training for them. Some horses and some people simply get on with natural horsemanship better than others, and this does not necessarily relate to whether they prefer bitless bridles or not.
A strong theme among all of the brands of natural horsemanship that I have come into contact with is the condemnation of punishment as a training method, and use instead of negative reinforcement. Now, to the uninitiated, that might sound like a harsh or even completely false statement. “Negative” in this instance means that something is taken away, while “reinforcement” means that the behaviour is more likely to happen as a result. So the popular method known as “pressure and release” is in fact negative reinforcement. Pressure is applied until the horse performs the desired behaviour, when it is released. The horse learns that the desired behaviour equals release of pressure, so is more likely to do it again either when the pressure is applied, or when a cue becomes associated with the behaviour. The popular round pen method of sending the horse away at liberty until he wants to join you in the centre of the pen can actually be boiled down to this one principle. Pressure is applied in the form of chasing or sending the horse around the pen (this is true regardless of equipment or lack thereof), until he shows signs of wanting to join the handler. At this point, the pressure is released, and the horse learns to follow the human (or remote control car, or chicken).
I could write an entire post on this alone, but will leave it there for now! Keep an eye out for part two in what might become a series, and in the meantime, keep bossing it.