A bitless bridle is a general term describing a wide range of headgear for a horses or other animals that controls the animal without placing a bit in the animal's mouth, usually by means of some sort of noseband or cavesson.
It is likely that the first domesticated horses were ridden with some type of noseband, either made of sinew, leather, or rope. Because the materials used to make gear other than bits disintegrates quickly, clues to the earliest use of bitless designs have been difficult to find.
Ancient Mesopotamian forms of bitless headgear were refined into the hakma, a design featuring a heavy braided noseband which dates to the reign of Darius in Ancient Persia, approximately 500 BC. It is the predecessor to the modern bosal-style hackamore as well as the French cavesson. Some modern styles of "bitless bridle" date to a "bitless safety bridle" patented in 1893, with refinements patented in 1912 and 1915.
The bosal hackamore is a type of bitless headgear with the most ancient roots. The hackamore and its modern variants use a noseband of a set diameter, using pressure and release to provide control.
The first true cross-under jaw poll pressure bitless bridle [U.S.Patent Office] was invented in 1988 by Rev. Edward Allan Buck [DragonHarte]. The Dr. Cook bitless bridle is the original design from 1988. The current operationally correct version of the cross-under jaw poll pressur bitless bridle is called the Spirit Bridle.
In a cross-under (United States, United Kingdom) bitless bridle, the reins connect to a strap that passes through rings on either side of a noseband, crosses under the horse's jaw, and passes behind the ears. Thus, pressure is applied to the horse's nose, jaw, and poll joint.
In a scawbrig (United Kingdom) or Meroth (Germany) bitless bridle, the reins connect to a strap that passes through a ring on one side of a noseband, under the jaw, and attaches to the opposite ring. Thus, pressure is applied to the horse's nose and jaw.
In a mechanical hackamore, also known as a hackamore bit, brockamore, and English hackamore, the reins attach to shanks (like bit shanks on a curb bit) that are attached between a noseband and a curb chain. As in a curb bit, the shanks apply pressure with leverage to the nose, jaw, and poll joint.
A riding halter is any type of halter, usually made of yacht rope, specifically designed to be used for riding horses. It can be considered a type of bitless bridle.
The riding halter differs from its cousin, the rope halter, and the flat halter in several ways. Traditional flat halters were not intended to be used for riding, but rather for controlling the animal from the ground. Riding halters are designed to be used in place of a bridle.
Many riding halters act in a similar manner to a sidepull. Control is achieved by direct pressure on the nose. As it does not use leverage nor any type of clamping or restrictive action, it is considered one of the mildest types of bitless bridle. Riding halters sometimes differ from the side-pull in that the reins attach low on the noseband, whereas on a side-pull, the reins attach on the side of the noseband.
Some prior training is required in order for the horse to remain controllable by the rider. They are also not allowed in recognized competitions, save for competitive trail riding and endurance riding.
Some people also ride horses with an ordinary halter.
A variant on the bosal design that is sometimes called a bitless bridle, but is also sometimes placed within the hackamore family, is called a sidepull.  It has a noseband, usually of rope, rawhide or heavy leather, with reins that attach at the cheekpieces. It offers significant lateral control but limited stopping control.
The Jumping Cavesson, or Jumping Hackamore, seen in English riding, is a heavy noseband made of a cable covered with leather. It differs slightly from a sidepull in that the reins attach farther back, on either side of the jaw, rather than at the cheeks. It allows greater control of speed, but has less lateral control than a sidepull. A related piece of equipment, called the longeing cavesson or lungeing cavesson, is not used for riding, but rather for longeing (US) (lungeing (UK)), long-lining the horse from the ground, and vaulting. It consists of a heavy noseband 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 cavesson utilized by European masters such as William Cavendish, can be dated to the 17th Century, and probably earlier.
Simple rope bridles
A simple bridle can be made of a thin rope in several styles. Used more in the past than today, these are sometimes described as emergency bridles. Some styles have the rope in the horse's mouth; it is debatable whether these are bitted or bitless.
A ghost cord is a rope passed through the mouth and tied in a slip knot or half hitch under the chin groove. The ends of the rope serve as one or sometimes two reins. One authority describes this bridle as "in competent hands, an instrument of either mental diversion or extreme cruelty", but historical illustrations and early photographs show it in wide use among Native Americans in the United States.
Another style uses a single piece of rope that goes over the poll and is placed around the nose with a slipknot attachment, in some cases tightening when a rein is pulled.
A third style has the rope 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.
These bridles are sometimes called "war bridles", but see below.
A modern war bridle is a thin cord run over the poll and then either through the mouth or under the upper lip, against the gumline of the upper incisors. In some cases, the lower loop goes around the horse's muzzle rather than under the lip. A loop is used so that it tightens on the horse's head when the end of the line is pulled. Sometimes a pulley is used to provide mechanical advantage. All designs tightens on both the poll and the lip or jaw. The war bridle is not intended for riding; it is used on the ground for management of an animal. The use of a war bridle is considered by some to be a last resort for handling an uncontrollable animal, but others claim its use constitutes animal cruelty.
Bitless bridles apply pressure to parts of the horse's face and head, such as the nose, jaw and poll, but not to the mouth.
Uses of a bitless bridle vary, but may include the training green horses, use when a horse has a mouth injury or is otherwise unable or unwilling to carry a bitted bridle, and by personal preference of horse owners. Bitless designs are most often seen in endurance riding, trail riding, and some types of natural horsemanship, they are sometimes seen in other disciplines.
Use in competition
While the bosal hackamore is allowed for "junior" horses (usually under 4-6 years old) in certain western-style events, bitless bridles and mechanical hackamores are not otherwise allowed in most types of competitions at horse shows. In English disciplines, bitless bridles are not allowed in dressage competition, and are considered "unconventional tack" in hunter classes, although they are sometimes seen in show jumping and eventing during the stadium and cross country events. They are also allowed in endurance riding, competitive trail riding, rodeos, and Gymkhana or "O-Mok-See" events. While advocates of bitless bridles are beginning to petition the USEF and other governing bodies to allow bitless bridles in USEF-sanctioned competition, these efforts have not resulted in rule changes.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Howling, Kelly. "Bitless Reveolution." Reprinted with permission of Equine Wellness Magazine, © 2007. Web site accessed February 26, 2008
- ↑ MIller, Robert W. Horse Behavior and Training. Big Sky Books, Montana State University, 1974
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 Bennett, pages 54-55
- ↑ Wainwright, Wendy "The Bitless Horse Part 1: A History of the Bitless Bridle." Web site accessed February 27, 2008
- ↑ Bennett, p. 123
- ↑ Inspiration, Perspiration and Imitation [2007 The Bitless Bridle by Dr. Robert Cook, FRCVS, Ph.D]
- ↑ The German "Merothisches Reithalfter", invented by Erwin Meroth, who died in 2000. Vendor website
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 Price, Steven D. (ed.) The Whole Horse Catalog: Revised and Updated New York:Fireside 1998 ISBN 0-684-83995-4 p. 158-159
- ↑ Diana Thompson Side Pull Bridle
- ↑ Bennett, p. 122
- ↑ Rollins (1922), page 152
- ↑ Edwards, Elwyn Hartley The Complete Book of Bits and Bitting Newton Abbot, Devonshire:David & Charles 2004 ISBN 0-7153-1163-8 p. 101
- ↑ http://www.bitlesshorse.co.uk/Files/Developments%20in%20Design.pdf
- ↑ USEF web site, rulebook is extensive and outlines bitting rules for various disciplines.
- ↑ Charles Wilson Natural Horsemanship Trainer - BITLESS BRIDLES
- Bennett, Deb (1998) Conquerors: The Roots of New World Horsemanship. Amigo Publications Inc; 1st edition. ISBN 0-9658533-0-6
- Miller, Robert M. and Rick Lamb. (2005) Revolution in Horsemanship Lyons Press ISBN 1-59228-387-X
- Rollins, Philip A. (1922) The Cowboy: His Character, Equipment and His Part in the Development of the West, C. Scribner's sons, 353 pages.