I recently found myself discussing whether the horse is capable of learning collection and high school movements entirely bitless with a relative traditionalist. After several minutes, I must have mentioned the bitless bridle, for the opposing party was suddenly surprised and conceded that yes, these things could be achieved bitless, just not bridleless.
So what are the differences between riding bitless and riding bridleless? This might seem quite straightforward to the seasoned bitless enthusiast, but this recent experience tells me that to some, the two are virtually interchangeable. Perhaps even equally unlikely.
Just as it says on the tin, bitless simply means that the horse is ridden without the use of a bit. This could well mean that there is no bridle involved at all, however in most cases, some kind of bitless bridle is used. Meanwhile, riding bridleless involves no equipment on the horse’s head. Instead, a rope around the neck (often called a cordeo) might be used, one or two schooling whips to wave beside or tap the neck or shoulders, or no equipment at all.
Contrary to some beliefs, all types of riding can be performed using either of these methods. The approach to them or to their training might just be a little different. When using a bitless bridle, it is much easier to stick to traditional training methods. You still have two reins, which apply pressure, and can be used to help ask the horse for flexion, softness, collection, and connection. Much as I would prefer for it not to be the case, examples can even be found of horses ridden in hyperflexion in a bitless bridle. No blue tongue, perhaps, but still unnecessary and unfair strain on the horse’s body. As such, the correctly trained horse can respond to the bitless bridle in exactly the same way as a bitted one.
Things become more complicated when riding with no bridle or reins. Showjumping, cross country, reining, dressage, and more can all be seen performed with no bridle at all. In most cases, the horse has been schooled in a bitted or bitless bridle in advance of bridleless training. This means that the horse will be able to transfer movements and cues over to when there is no bridle, with minimal (or at least less) training required. Training bridleless movements from scratch is another challenge entirely, which is where we come back to that discussion about collection.
In order for the horse to develop high school movements, he needs to understand and work in collection. While this is developed “back to front”, with impulsion from the hind end being of utmost importance, there does need to be some connection at the front end (the hand/reins) to complete the circuit. Somewhat paradoxically, the horse also needs to be capable of work in self-carriage, not relying on the hand to hold itself up in the movement. This is where I (now) argue that this schooling is possible with no bridle. Using techniques such as targeting, it is possible to put the horse’s head where we want it without equipment or force. Capturing movements with a marker signal (such as a clicker) can teach the horse how to use his body in the way we ask him. So with patience, carrots, and good timing, it would be possible to train collection with no reins at all. Whether it is as efficient is not the point at this moment in time!