Dear Jessica: I have been an appreciative follower (and contributor) to your newsletter for years, and have eagerly recommended it to all sincere horse-owners. As a riding instructor (and instructor training other instructors) I am responsible for the mental and physical well-being of 6-8 lesson horses giving 65 or more lessons a week, (5 instructors) mostly to "city-people" beginners who want to learn more about horses and riding. (Most of them do not have their own horses to practice on.) These adults and children all come with very rough hands and during the weeks it takes to help them with that, we end up with frustrated horses. I heard of the bitless bridle a while back, but don't understand how it works, and whether it would be a safe addition to our riding facility for students until they are able to achieve quieter hands. I am an ARIA instructor and want to do the safe and correct procedures for these new riders, but I also have very great sympathy for these patient horses they ride. Would the use of a bitless bridle be an improvement to our tack use in beginner lessons? Once riders get good, quiet hands, we could then switch them back to the kimberwick bit we often use, which the horses seem to prefer over snaffle or others. Since our beginners and just above beginners use the same horses, the horses would stay used to both. Do you think a bit-less bridle would work? And where are they available for purchase? Thank you for your time in considering my question. Darleen
You've touched on a subject very dear to my heart - the protection of horses during beginner lessons. School horses ridden by beginners are all candidates for sainthood. They put up with an immense amount of pulling and pushing and thumping, and do their best to keep their unbalanced riders in the saddle. It's every riding instructor's obligation to look after the horses in the lesson program, and using bridles without bits is a grand way to remove one source of pain and confusion. Beginner riders are terribly hard on horses. They don't mean to be abusive, but they grab at the reins when they feel insecure, try to balance themselves on the reins when they're learning to post, and invariably think that they are supposed to PULL on the reins to turn or stop the horse. You are absolutely right to be looking for ways to keep the horses from being made miserable whilst the riders are learning the basics of balance.
There are various forms of bridles without bits. The best and most effective one, IMO, is the Bitless Bridle (www.bitlessbridle.com). If you'll visit the website, you'll find a great deal of information about how the bridle works, how it should be adjusted, etc. It is made in various materials - Beta would, I think, be the best for a riding school - and the price for a headstall and reins is comparable to that of a reasonably good-quality conventional schooling bridle; that is, around $140. I know that it's often possible to find good schooling bridles at lower prices, sometimes even under $100, but with a conventional bridle you also have to figure in the cost of the bit, which adds at least another $30-50 and so takes you right back up to the cost of a Bitless Bridle.
If you want a less costly option for absolute beginners on reliable schoolies, you can remove the bit and cavesson from the schooling bridles you already own, and substitute a simple English hackamore noseband (sometimes called a jumping hackamore noseband). This is a thick, leather-covered rope noseband and flat leather chinstrap. The noseband ends (at the level of the horse's mouth or a little below) in two rings for the reins, and has two attachment points for the bridle's cheekpieces. Don't confuse this with the sort of "hackamore noseband" that is actually a small mechanical hackamore, complete with curb chain and shanks for leverage - that one doesn't belong in anyone's lesson program. The kind of hackamore noseband you want can be found in most tack catalogues, for prices that usually range between $20 (e.g., State Line) and $30 (e.g., Dover) depending on the quality of the leather.
By the way, the reason your horses seem to prefer a kimblewick to a snaffle is almost certainly because the snaffles you've been using are single-joint bits and thus - in the hands of less than expert riders - quite harsh. Even though a kimblewick is a curb, the shanks are so short that the action is extremely mild, and the usual mouthpiece is solid, with a port that provides some tongue room. You might consider buying a few French-link snaffles (much milder than single-joint snaffles) for the horses that are ridden in bridles with bits. Otherwise, for the horses' sakes, I would definitely continue to use the kimblewicks in preference to single-joint snaffles.
I think that rider safety is enhanced when the horses are more comfortable, and when an inept or unbalanced rider jerking the reins can't tear a horse's mouth to pieces. School horses (and other horses!) are in constant danger from novice riders who imagine that the bit is there to "control" the horse or - heaven forfend - to serve as brakes.
I commend you on your responsible attitude and on your desire to make life better for the horses in your care. If you're coming to the ARIA National Convention in October, please come up and introduce yourself. I would be delighted to discuss this matter with you in person.
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