Thursday, June 18, 2015

Can You Do a Half-Halt in a Bitless Bridle?

I'm not sure how many of you are regular readers of the magazine, Dressage Today, but if you are, you may have seen an article called, "The Bitless Bridle Debate," in the June issue.  I knew about the article because I'd seen a couple of references pop-up in my Facebook newsfeed, but I had decided against even caring that much about the article.  I knew the bitless dressage community wasn't that happy about the content of the article and I wasn't in the mood to be irritated, so I forgot about the article.

Then, I happened to see an issue of Dressage Today at the Tractor Supply store.  While I'm not a regular reader of the magazine anymore, I picked up the issue to see if there was anything of interest.  And I saw the article listed on the cover.  I sighed in resignation, and added the magazine to my ever-growing pile of merchandise.

When I got home, I took a few days to get around to reading the issue, but when I did, I remembered why I no longer subscribe.  Articles like "Find Your Dream Horse: Part 1, The European Shopping Adventure" are just not relevant to my life.  It is, quite frankly, unbelievable to me that a person couldn't find a decent dressage horse (or a horse for any discipline) in this country, and it seems like such a waste to go spend $100,000 on a European horse when you can waste that kind of money on an equally neurotic animal here.  (I'm being a little sarcastic - I know there are good horses in Europe and in the U.S., but anyone I know who has one of the "fancier" dressage horses, whether imported or not, owns a basketcase.)

Anyway, eventually I worked my way to the bitless article.  I was quite underwhelmed, with the exception of one excerpt which I'll share with you below, when I read it.  If you have never heard of riding without a bit, the article may have provided some useful information, but it was this statement that sent me over the edge. The article is quoting Anne Gribbons on her experience riding bitless.

"I missed the feeling that somebody was home at the other end of the reins.  If I had to pick one key ingredient in dressage riding and training, the connection that the horse gives you - or does not- is the most critical.  If the relationship between your hand and seat and the horse's mouth is disturbed, you cannot access his hindquarters.  There is no 'transmission.'"

The article continues to cite Ms. Gribbons.  "Without a bit, she adds, the half halt is essentially useless as a tool to contain and direct the horse's energy.  'There's nothing like the feeling of a horse with a great mouth responding to the slightest closing of the hand and a whisper with the leg by immediately engaging his hind leg and coming up under your seat in a power surge that carries you both forward.  The thrill of real throughness is hard to imagine without a bit because there's nothing live on the other end,' she says." (see pp. 52-52)

WHAT???  So the horse's nose is dead and if I ride in a bitless bridle, I can't communicate effectively with my horse and achieve the nirvana of dressage (and any other equestrian discipline, really), which is an engaged and connected horse and rider?  And even worse, I can't use a half halt, which is possibly the most used word by dressage trainers and the most attempted action by dressage riders.  Dear God, however have I been getting my horse around the arena in a hackamore?  Am I so clueless a rider that I didn't notice I was attempting to communicate with his dead nose instead of his live mouth for the last 9 months?  Even worse, is my dressage trainer so stupid that she's been telling me to use half halts in my lessons?  Doesn't she know it can't be done?

Deep breath.  In the event that some of my readers don't know what a half halt is because you have better things to do with your lives than attempt the unnecessarily convoluted discipline of dressage, I will enlighten you based on my (now) clearly uneducated perspective.  A half halt is simply a way that dressage riders use to rebalance their horses.  There is this complicated sequence of instructions which intimidates all but the most advanced riders and it goes something like this:  Apply gentle leg pressure at the girth with both legs and a nanosecond later, engage your seat to drive the horse toward the bit, while a nanosecond later harnessing the forward surge of power from your horse with your hands.  I used to be quite the student of the half halt and I've seen variations of those instructions from a variety of sources.  There are, of course, different types of half halts, depending on your objective.  For example, my trainer will often tell me to half halt on the outside rein, which basically means that I need to get a better connection on my outside rein, so it that case, I might just use my inside leg, seat, and outside rein for the half halt sequence.

All right, who am I kidding?  I've only managed a handful of truly amazing half halts in my riding career, and those were probably by accident.  Part of the issue is that I am uncoordinated.  Another part is that I have a tendency to overthink the whole process and take too long to get through the sequence of aids.  A third part is that I have a horse whose ability to sense that there might be the opportunity to slow down is off the charts.  I have determined that if I want to execute a half halt, I have to sort of think about but not focus on slowing down, otherwise, Nimo will literally stop dead in the middle of whatever we're doing because he's so excited to stop working.  He's actually not a lazy horse, but he is so attuned to halting that even when I want to actually halt, I still need quite a bit of leg and seat to keep him from falling apart as he stops.

But there's another reason I have trouble with half halts.  It is because I really got my initial riding education in western pleasure. The whole concept of western riding in general, and western pleasure in particular is effortless communication with the horse.  Not something that looks like effortless communication (dressage), but something that actually is effortless.  A good western rider on a good western horse will work cattle or perform patterns in an arena and the audience will see no movement from the rider.  No yanking on reins, no shifting of weight, no moving of the legs.  But how is this accomplished?  The western horse learns to stop from day one.  Before anyone ever gets on, that horse is taught to "whoa" immediately from a verbal cue.  And I'm not talking about a gradual stop, either.  No matter what speed that horse is going, when he hears the word "whoa," he needs to be completely stopped within 1 second.  There are, regrettably, some abusive methods of achieving that whoa, but it is perfectly possible to teach the stop kindly, it just takes more time.

Anyway, western riders don't use a half halt when they start training young horses.  They use an actual halt.  Your horse out of control?  Stop.  Walk doesn't seem right?  Stop.  Horse trotting too fast or too strung out?  Stop.  Then, once the young horse can do that under saddle, a back (or reinback for dressage) is added.  So a typical training sequence might look like trot, lope, stop, back, lope, walk, trot, stop, back.  The horse learns to engage his hindquarters and rebalance through the repetitive stop and back movements.  Because it isn't possible for a horse to stop and back without using himself to some degree, adding the forward motion and using quick transitions really focuses the horse.  I don't mean to imply that this method works quickly, because it doesn't.  It takes just as long to create a beautifully trained western horse as it does a horse of any other discipline, but it is the background I came from into dressage.

The other component of the stop in western riding is called the "spur stop."  This may sound cruel or make no sense to some, but western riders don't want to use their reins.  They are working cattle or opening gates or focused on looking fabulous for a judge.  They don't want to be using their hands to tell the horse what to do.  So they use the spur stop.  Which doesn't have to be done with spurs, actually.  Any gentle leg pressure will do.  Western horses are trained to stop with pressure from their riders' legs.  And spurs actually make it work even better.  Not because the rider needs to gouge the horse's sides with them, but because they extend the rider's leg and allow the least movement to make contact with the horse.  If you watch really good reining horses, you should not see any movement from the rider telling the horse to stop.  Instead that rider is using his legs/spurs (or maybe an aid from his seat if they are higher level competitors) to produce a spectacular sliding stop.

Another important thing to know about western riding is that there is an expectation that the horse will continue to perform whatever gait at whatever speed in whatever manner (low, swinging head or higher, more collected frame) until he is told to change by the rider.  While the horse is performing, the rider DOES NOT interfere with the horse.  There is no nagging with the legs or the seat.  There is no slight movement of the hand.  There is just stillness.  Obviously, young horses need guidance, but a well-trained older horse will not.  He will do his job just fine without his rider messing with him.

So I was indoctrinated with this objective of a beautifully moving, balanced horse that does not need constant communication from his rider. What he needs is for his rider to shut up and sit there, so he can do his job.  When I moved to Virginia, there was a serious lack of western anything, and I admit that the idea of cross-country jumping and soon dressage started to appeal to me.  I'd seen quite a bit of abuse in the western show barns I'd been at, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.  So I was looking for a way to try something new that didn't involve doing something that I thought would hurt my horse.

Soon I was taking dressage lessons and I felt like an idiot who didn't know how to ride, and I still feel that way sometimes.  Especially when it comes to half halts.  While I don't dismiss the idea of needing to rebalance the horse at certain times, I struggle with the implementation under dressage rules.  If I was riding my trusty Arabian mare from my youth or my young horse from my 20s and I needed to rebalance them, I would use only my seat and legs.  Not my hands.  At all.  So the idea of harnessing energy with my hands is weird, because in my mind the horse should have done that part himself.  But Nimo isn't a western horse.  So he doesn't know that he's supposed to do something on his own.

Anyway, the point of this post isn't to convince anyone that western is better than dressage, just explain a little bit about where I'm coming from.

Now that I'm riding Nimo with a hackamore, theoretically I have to relearn or reteach some communication methods.  But I haven't found that to be true at all.  I ride pretty much like I rode in a bit.  The only exception is that I don't use a direct rein much anymore.  The type of hackamore I ride in (a Zilco flower hackamore) doesn't work well if only one rein is applying pressure.  Instead, there needs to be a balance, so I use both hands for every aid, which is quite honestly how I should have been riding in the first place, but riding with a bit allowed me to get away with some bad habits (like twitching my little finger to get more jaw engagement instead of actually generating more energy to give Nimo the ability to engage his jaw from his own energy instead of me sort of forcing it on him).

As for the half halts, I have to disagree with Ms. Gribbons and state that she doesn't know what she's talking about.  I am as capable of performing a half halt in a hackamore as I was in a bit (which you now know is hit or miss).  However, what if Ms. Gribbons is right?  After all, what do I know?  Nobody interviews me for horse articles:)  I would say, so what?  Bitless riders could learn how to do what western riders do, which is communicate with their seat and legs.  Western horses DO NOT need a bit to be balanced and engaged.  They may carry one in their mouths, but their riders don't use it to keep them collected.  I would argue that the whole concept of the half halt is simply a rebalancing of the horse.  That rebalancing can be achieved without anything on the horse's head at all.

And of course, this gets to the root of bitless dressage and why it is controversial in the first place.  There are apparently trainers and riders out there who believe that it is anathema to ride without a bit.  That a horse and rider cannot properly communicate without it.  Yet, there are probably thousands and thousands of equestrian performances that show fluid, balanced horses under saddle with hackamores or even nothing at all.  You might say, well those horses are really advanced in their training or it's some kind of a trick.  I would argue, then, that FEI level dressage horses should be shown bridleless.  If advanced training is all you need for riding without a bridle, then there should be no place better to look for advanced training than upper level dressage.  And yet, those horses are shown with TWO bits.  That makes no sense.  (And yes, I am aware of the general argument about using the snaffle bit to communicate certain things and using the curb bit to communicate other things.  I just don't buy it.)

I'd also like to address the point about the horse's nose being dead as compared to the horse's mouth being alive.  I admit the horse's nose doesn't move like a mouth.  It's a static object.  And you know what?  That makes it way easier to communicate!  When I rode with a bit, I had to deal with Nimo chewing and yawning, which made my attempts to communicate inconsistent while I tried to equalize the pressure on my reins due to his movements.  Now, I have a nice solid nose to communicate with.  If I want to gently squeeze my outside rein to transition downward, guess what?  Nimo feels it immediately and responds immediately.  No more wondering if I got through, no more pulling to make the aid stronger.  I'm not an expert, but that seems better to me.

The point of this post isn't to convince you to switch to bitless riding, just to address what I think are some misconceptions about riding without a bit that are now in print in a national magazine.  The fact is, we have a lot of options for our horses in terms of tack, and good riders will keep looking until they find what works best for their horses.  So if you are thinking about bitless dressage, please know 2 things:  1) Riding without a bit isn't going to make you a better rider instantly - the same issues you had when you rode with a bit will be there without it.  2) If your horse is more comfortable without a bit, you may experience some advances you wouldn't have otherwise simply because your horse can listen to you better without the pain or irritation that was caused by the bit.

I'd love to hear about your experiences with bitless bridles (good or bad), so feel free to leave a comment!


  1. And I do dressage in a curb bit, because that is the bit he goes best in. I can't (yet) ride him in a bitless bridle because he fights the pressure on his nose as much or more than he does the bit. We are still looking . . . .

    It's pretty amusingly ironic to me to consider that most dressage riders have bands around their horse's mouths, keeping them closed, to the point on some of them where the horse can't open his mouth at all. And why? The one's that I watch ride are using their hands so much that the horse is trying to get away from the pain of the bit, so instead of changing their riding methods, they tie their mouths closed to stop the "evasion". (And I am not really amused . . . that is sarcasm.)

    1. I hear you, Karen. I've worked with more than one dressage trainer who wanted me to tighten Nimo's noseband or insisted I must use a flash. It seems like dressage riders should beore sensitive to their horses but they typically are not. It's very disappointing to me. I'm glad you found a bit that works for Ashke, especially if he doesn't like pressure on his nose. Maybe you can eventually skip the bridle altogether and just use a neck strap:)

  2. So many things to comment on here!

    Starting to read, my first thought was, "If I can ever get Lily to Nimo's level dressage-wise, Gail and I should do a bitless pas-de-deux and post it on Youtube just to prove a point..." Hahaha...

    I LOVED reading about your perspective of the minimalist aspect of correct Western riding; thank you so much for sharing that! And your explanation of the spur stop was the first time its purpose has been explained in a way that makes sense to me, especially when put into the context of the way the horses should be ridden: minimal cues, most of them from seat and legs.

    Lily has always hated having her face messed with while riding. She is a funny horse in that she has never been clear on her own preferences in terms of sport: she has always been happy to do whatever makes me happy. If I'm happy, she's happy. So in the beginning of our relationship, dressage made me happy and lateral movement was astoundingly easy for her, so we dressaged.

    We just struggled with the contact thing. A lot. I grew up riding OTTBs who accelerate if you cling to their mouths so I learned to ride off of seat and leg more than anything because it kept them calm. I always rode with a small amount of slack in the reins. Lily did not enjoy bit pressure, even after having a chiro check her and having her teeth done, and between that and my own ingrained habit of using less contact to instill trust in a horse, we were kind of a hot mess. Lily actually threw my trainer the one time I let her get on because Lily was not coming onto the contact with me. Lily stood on her hind legs and did a lovely step and twirl like a ballerina and my trainer went splat. It was a very graceful, "Eff you and your contact!" After that, I discovered classical dressage, where the goal is exactly like Western, and to quote you word for word: "there is an expectation that the horse will continue to perform whatever gait at whatever speed in whatever manner until he is told to change by the rider. While the horse is performing, the rider DOES NOT interfere with the horse. There is no nagging with the legs or the seat. There is no slight movement of the hand. There is just stillness."

    Exactly. Exactly, exactly.

    And Lily thrived on this: I left her face alone and she worked beautifully. She is so sensitive that she welcomed the lack of constant nagging with huge relief. It gave her so much more confidence to be left alone to do as I asked without constant tweaking and correcting. But competitive dressage wants contact, wants the horse "on the bit," and once I realized how much happier LIly was without the style of riding that usually wins at shows, I turned away from competitive dressage and looked towards working equitation...and when I couldn't find that up here in MD, I turned to endurance instead! Where the horse is allowed to move out freely on the trail and is expected to "continue to perform whatever gait at whatever speed in whatever manner until he is told to change by the rider."

  3. And that has been the common denominator in what Lily and I do.

    So of course it was just a matter of time before we played with bitless. :)

    She was great with the S-hack in the arena but I honestly didn't trust her that much with it on trail. Until I was sort of forced to use it if I wanted to ride out when she developed a small abscess on the corner of her mouth over the winter (vet thought it was from sticking herself with a twig in the hay: common occurrence with horses on round bales.) And she was great! A little more timid on trail than with the bit but she was much more willing to drink and eat right away.

    The timidity was enough that I switched her back to her low port kimberwick, which I've been using on trail with her for the last 2 years with no issue.

    Enter G-Mare, whom I'd been riding in the rope halter after having some major work done on her teeth. She was so much happier bitless that I just gave her the S-hack and she's been going in it for the last 2 months. During hill sets at the old barn she would gallop far more enthusiastically...and how did I check her responsiveness? By half-halting. I have not taught Gracie to half halt. I just sat up a bit, weighted my seat and squeezed on one rein (I know: not the dressage way, but that was the jumper way I was taught), and Gracie immediately came back down to a canter. I think the photo I recently posted of her on FB says it all: in the gaited world, they think you need big spoon bits to achieve that level of engagement, to make the horse sit down like that and reach that far with their hind legs. You don't. You just need correct training and correct aids, whether with a bit or without!

    One of the big things Gracie stopped doing while bitless was rooting. She used to root a lot while at the walk when wearing a bit, even when she was on the buckle, even after dental work. She doesn't do that anymore.

    For Lily, I recently purchased a different hackamore, a regular English hack, and she is going splendidly in it, whether on trail or in the arena. She seeks the contact and stays there, with no request from me. I forget that she is not wearing a bit! Like you, I find that for dressage work, once I started using both hands for aids (thank you again for that tip!) I have had no issues at all with responsiveness to requests for bend or lateral movements.

    I personally wouldn't go bitless on a horse I don't know well, but I can now say in all honesty that once that horse is attuned to you and you know you are riding effectively for that individual, there should be no reason why that horse can't go without a bit unless it has a particular preference for the bit, has bolting/running away issues that need to be addressed, or if it has bad associations with nose pressure (like a barrel horse might have; I rode an ex-barrel horse once that could not be ridden in anything with leverage because it would make him throw his head to the heavens in fear. He had scars on the bridge of his nose from the hackamore gag bit combos some riders use in that sport.)

    Really awesome post, Gail! Thank you for this!

    1. Thanks, Saiph:) And just so you know, somewhere in the recesses of my house, I think I have an old pas de deux and music. The music is from Pirates of the Caribbean and the movements are training level. I was supposed to perform it with another rider and her Friesian but she moved away before we could do it. So, I'm thinking I should dig it up and maybe we could resuscitate it:)

      I love that you found something for Lily. Most western horses would hate the constant contact of dressage to. I had an Arab mare who was always trying to lower her head when she was on contact for English classes. She'd been taught that contact with her mouth meant she needed to lower her head for the show ring, so she was so confused by constant contact! Had I been more knowledgeable, I would have tried a hackamore to see if that changed her thoughts about contact.

      And Gracie! It's awesome that she goes so well without a bit. But you're right that some horses might prefer a bit or even just a different kind of hackamore. That's why I get so frustrated with dressage and its strict limits. Why insist that only variations of one method (snaffle with noseband) are appropriate when there is evidence that horses are individuals with preferences? Gaaa!

    2. Umm yes! I will happily resuscitate that pas de deux with you! :D And to the Pirates of the Caribbean?! That is AWESOME!

      And I agree: there should be more variation allowed in dressage in terms of bits and bridles. Especially given that for Western Dressage you can use whatever Western bit & bridle you want. I feel like dressage's only allowing snaffles has perpetuated the myth that snaffles are the gentlest bits. And well... we all know that a bit is only as gentle as the hands that use it.

  4. I have so many thoughts on bitless riding! I didn't grow up riding and showing, though, so take my opinion with a grain of salt - I'm not that experienced a horse person.

    In my area, you can't even find mild bits at the local tack shops, but you can find several versions of these:

    Scary. I've restarted a couple of horses for the local rescues. In an effort to negate some of their past training, I use a side-pull or bitless bridle and a treeless saddle. More dangerous for me? Maybe, but I'd rather take pain out of the equation as much as possible. Sometimes I wonder if I'm setting them up for failure though, knowing that their future adopters will probably buy the cheapest saddle they can find (with no concern for saddle fit) and a long-shank, high port bit (because that is what's available). But what to do? I want the horses to at least be comfortable during their retraining, so I can't really think of a better option at this point.

    Anyways, back to the bitless debate. When I first brought Ruby home, I tried to find a bit she would like and was totally unsuccessful. I wasn't opposed to bitless though, because I'd had the same issue with my previous horse. Most people assume that bit = control but that's not always the case. Ruby is extremely forward, so I could see where someone might assume that she needs a powerful bit to get her to stop. When we started trail riding, I had to spend a lot of time walking, stopping, and redirecting her focus - which is why it took me so long to actually start conditioning. I don't think it would have taken less training time if I'd tried a more severe bit - I think we would have had a lot more fights, lol. Bitless works well for her and has, so far, been appreciated by the horses I've been retraining.

    I believe a big part of the bit/bitless debate is what a person is comfortable with. A lot of the upper-level riders have only ever ridden with a bit, so they assume that a hackamore/bitless bridle would mean less communication/control. I would be very interested to see a horse performing upper-level dressage movements bitless that been taught in a bitless bridle or hackamore. I'm sure it can be done, it probably wouldn't be any more difficult than teaching with a bit; the question is whether someone is willing to put in the time and effort to retrain themselves so they can train the horse.

    I hope this disjointed post is somewhat coherent.

    1. PS. I'm not trying to imply that all bits cause pain, btw. However, all horses have distinct preferences regarding bits, so it's safe to assume that certain bits cause some level of discomfort for certain horses. I don't have a bit arsenal at my disposal to find what the rescues prefer, unfortunately, so I just go bitless.

    2. I think what you do with rescues is amazing, Melissa! You are giving these horses another chance at finding a human partner and that's a wonderful thing to do:) Regarding your bit versus bitless choices, I think that bitless makes a lot of sense. Bits are crazy expensive and to have a big enough variety would be so expensive and might not improve your training outcomes anyway.

      As for upper-level movements in a hackamore, stay tuned - that's one of my goals with Nimo!

  5. I await the day bitless is allowed in dressage. It has to happen, right? The rules do evolve a little, right? When I did dressage a french link was not allowed, but I think it is now.

    1. I hope you're right, Lytha. Right now, the division between bitted and bitless dressage concerns me. I don't think the separation is necessary and my hope is that someday very soon, riders who want to compete will be able to choose from any type of bit or hackamore,
      according to their horse's preference.

  6. First time reader of your blog, and I love this conversation! Lately, I've been rejecting a lot of old nonsense picked up in my childhood of showing western, then dressage. I took 20 years off from horses, now have a big old Standardbred who was a squirmy monster in every bit I tried. A Dr. Cooks gave him steering, brakes, and a relaxed and happy attitude. It's really his response to bitless that got me rethinking the idea of contact and collection. It's seeming more and more like a strange hobby (dressage) and less like the necessary foundation I was taught to believe in. Thanks for your thoughts on this!

    1. Welcome, Julia:) I'm glad you enjoyed the post and also glad you found something that works for your horse. I've also had the experience where changing one significant thing with my horse led to questioning a whole bunch of other things I was doing. It's so freeing to start thinking critically about what we do with our horses and break with tradition to do what works best.

  7. Q is so much happier bitless and more apt to do a wealth of things. I think you nailed it with "If your horse is more comfortable without a bit, you may experience some advances you wouldn't have otherwise simply because your horse can listen to you better without the pain or irritation that was caused by the bit." Q goes well in a bit, but she is definitely better without. I think some of this may be because it is something only I have done with her - the slate is blank. The bit slate is tainted by the cowboy where all of her issues stem from. Regardless the specific reason, she's much happier and more confident in her hack!

  8. Great post! I switched to a Dr. Cooks bittless, and our rides have improved! My horse isn't particularly forward, I felt the bit got in her way. Tried it on another horse, same great results!

  9. Great post! I switched to a Dr. Cooks bittless, and our rides have improved! My horse isn't particularly forward, I felt the bit got in her way. Tried it on another horse, same great results!