Bitless & Bareback

When it comes to comfort, tack has a lot to answer for! While saddle fitters do a great job helping us to get the right fit, when it comes to bridle fitting or choosing bits, such expert advice is not always sought and problems can arise.

In recent decades, it would be unusual to see a horse ridden bareback or in a bitless bridle, because it just isn’t the norm. However, bareback pads and bitless bridles are on the rise and can offer a level of comfort that some other types of tack might not. Plus, they can help you to develop a better bond with your horse, as listening and sensing become even more important and apparent.

A future of bitless

Did you know that bits have been used as a way to control horses since the Bronze Age? Bitless bridles don’t have quite such a history (4,000 years is a heck of a long time), but they have been around longer than you may have thought – for hundreds of years, actually. Yet they’re still not widely used in the equestrian community; bitless bridles are probably more widely used on horses with mouth issues, so as a necessity rather than preference.

This is changing, as more manufacturers and designs come to market and the growing interest in natural horsemanship continues. Bitless riding has attracted lots of attention in the equestrian media over the last couple of years too. At the start of July, it was announced that the World Bitless Association (WBA) will meet with the FEI for the first time later this year; an important move following a campaign by the WBA in 2019 against the ban on competitors using bitless bridles in the cross country phase of FEI eventing competitions.

Sandra Hurley is a researcher from the University of Limerick in Ireland who has been looking at the impact and welfare issues surrounding bitted horses. Sandra says that bits apply pressure to several different points in the oral cavity, which can lead to trauma such as lesions and ulcers in soft tissues; problems that are just not found in wild horses. She has also looked into the effect on breathing, as the bit can obstruct the upper airway.

The Gentil Bitless Bridle

Gentil bitless bridle close up

We sell a few carefully-selected bitless bridles here at Comfy Horse. One we love is the Gentil designed by Jenny Rolfe, a well-respected classical dressage trainer and author, with advice from her cranial osteopath Hans Carpani.

The bridle targets all the areas of common discomfort in a bitted bridle. It has a padded headpiece for minimal pressure around sensitive cranial nerves and a padded noseband to allow natural breathing. The side pieces lie away from the cheekbone, so no rubbing here, while buckles are distanced away from the sensitive eye areas and comfy leather pads sit under all the metal rings.

It’s a great choice whether your horse is going bitless for the first time or he’s a seasoned pro!

Going bitless for the first time

If you are going bitless for the first time, make sure you give yourselves time to get used to it. Some horses are quicker than others to feel comfortable in one. Here are a few tips:

  • Introduce the bridle through groundwork in an enclosed space so that your horse has a chance to get used to the feel and action of it.
  • Get your horse used to the lateral action of the bridle before you hop on board. Stand by his side and ask him to gently flex to the right and left.
  • You could also try long reining him in the new bridle with lots of turns and transitions to help make him really confident.
  • When you do start riding, do so in an enclosed space to make sure you’re both happy before getting back to what you do best.
  • Always ask an instructor for help and advice. There are also bitless specialists who can help.

The magic of bareback

Think ‘bareback’ and what comes to mind? John Wayne stealing the nearest horse and making a swift exit across the desert? A group of celebrity riders jumping a Puissance wall to raise money for charity (rather them than us!)? Or maybe those torturous lunge lessons where your instructor would whip away the whole saddle, not just the stirrups?!

Happily, there is so much more to it than this! Just like bitless, bareback riding has well and truly made its way into the 21st century with some fantastic bareback pads on the market, dispelling any concerns of discomfort and pressure points. And let’s not forget that wonderful feeling of your horse moving underneath you – the warmth and closeness between you both is magical.

Under pressure

Various studies have been carried out on pressure points while riding bareback. In one, a computerised saddle pad was used to evaluate the weight distribution of a bareback rider compared to that of a rider in a saddle. Science would say that the large surface area of a saddle would distribute the weight more evenly then sitting directly on their back. However it was found that the bareback rider created fewer pressure points because the horse’s back and rider’s thighs are both moving together and do not sit rigid like a saddle.

Other studies, however, have shown high levels of pressure in bareback riding, especially around the seat bones, but this just goes to show why a good bareback pad is essential.

The Christ Lammfelle bareback pad

This bareback pad is a Comfy Horse favourite. Tests carried out by independent expert riders and riding therapists have confirmed the positive qualities and the effect of this bareback pad on both horse and rider.

Most bareback pads are designed for occasional riding and short sessions, but due to the double layer of lambskin and composite foam padding, this one ensures pressure and weight are evenly distributed and your horse’s back protected from pressure from your seat bones. The lambskin is also an excellent shock absorber for your spine.

Riders often comment on the fluidity of their horse when using the pad and improved muscle tone. One Comfy Horse customer loved it so much she sold her saddle! Bareback all the way – we love that!

Going bareback – are you ready?

Of course, riding on a pad will not give you the same security in the saddle, so make sure you’re comfortable on your horse and can maintain a good riding position without your stirrups and saddle for support. This will keep you balanced and support your horse’s movement in a positive way. As with going bitless, seek the help of an instructor if needed, and perhaps have a few lunge lessons to secure your position before you make the leap (no pun intended!). 

Remember too that your horse will feel your movements more in a pad than a saddle, so always be aware of how your legs and seat are influencing him. You can browse all of our bareback and bitless products at: https://www.comfyhorse.co.uk/product-category/bitless-and-bareback/ If you need any help or advice, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.