You’ve decided to try a bitless bridle, either because your horse needs a tack change or you want to try a gentler approach. Maybe you’re just curious if a bitless bridle will make a difference in your ride. But what is the best bitless bridle? The decision is as nuanced as finding any new tack. It’s important to understand what a bitless bridle is before you buy, as well as the difference between a bitless bridle and a hackamore.

What is a bitless bridle

What is a Bitless Bridle?

It’s exactly how it sounds: a bridle that doesn’t use a bit to control the horse. Bridles with bits generally apply pressure to the tongue, roof, and corners of the mouth. Bitless bridles apply pressure to the poll, nose, jawline, and/or chin. There are many different types of bitless bridles to choose from. For brevity, we’ll go over the most common ones: the side-pull, cross-under, and bosal.

  • Side Pull: This is a traditional bridle with a neckpiece attached to side straps and a leather noseband with buckles attached to the reins on either side of the mouth. It puts pressure on the horse’s nose when the reins are pulled.
  • Cross Under: A newer bitless bridle, having been around 20 years or so, and it has two straps running under the horse’s cheek and jaw, which allows for pressure to be distributed over the horse’s face.
  • Bosal: This is one of the oldest types of bitless bridle. Made of leather or rope, the bridle derives its name from the teardrop-shaped noseband that goes around the horse’s nose and applies pressure to the chin and nose.

What is a hackamore

What is a Hackamore? Isn’t it too a Bitless Bridle?

While it’s true a Hackamore doesn’t have a bit, the biggest difference is that a bitless bridle places pressure all over the head versus the hackamore, where pressure is located in the nose, poll, and chin. There are several types of hackamores, the most common being mechanical. The others are:

  • True hackamore
  • English hackamore
  • Western hackamore
  • Flower hackamore
  • Rope halter hackamore
  • Non-mechanical hackamores
Since the mechanical hackamore is the most popular, we’ll focus on that here. The mechanical hackamore contains a curb strap or curb chain and shanks. The severity of the hackamore depends upon the length of the shanks and is seen to have wider control over the horse versus the bitless bridle. This bridle is seen as a close relative to bridles with bits, as they work similarly.

Why use a bitless bridle?

There are many different reasons a rider may choose these types of bridles. The most common reason riders use these bridles is that there is a belief that these bridles are gentler than traditional bit bridles. In addition to these reasons, some riders choose these bridles for horses that respond negatively to the bit. Others choose these bridles to give their horses a break from the bit or when they are healing from a mouth injury.

Can I just put on a Bitless Bridle and hit the trail?

Whether your horse is learning to be a riding horse or has plenty of miles under tack, any time you change tack you need to transition slowly. Choose a quiet day in a familiar place. Bring your trainer or a good riding friend along. Let your horse get used to the bit slowly, and make sure they understand what you are asking. Once you are confident your horse knows what you are asking (and that they understand stop along with go!) you are ready to hit the trails.

The Bitless Bridle vs Hackamore: Pros vs Cons

So what’s the good, bad and ugly about hackamores and bitless bridles? Here are a few things to know when choosing which bridle sans bit to go with.

Hackamore Pros:

  • Easier to control a horse with
  • Easier to work horses in a frame
  • More communication with the seat instead of the reins
  • Many disciplines allow these bridles in the show ring
  • Easy for Western riders as they are used to loose reins

Hackamore Cons:

  • Best for use with experienced riders
  • Harder for English riders not used to loose reins
  • Lateral work may be harder to do
  • Can be harsh and lead to a head-hard horse
  • May limit a horse's breathing if not used properly
  • Not great for trails as the shanks can get caught in the ground brush

Bitless Bridle Pros:

  • Very gentle on the horse
  • Distributes pressure all over the head
  • User-friendly, even for new riders
  • Great for sensitive horses or horses just learning under tack
  • Good for lateral work, especially the side-pull
  • Best for trail rides, as they allow a horse to get water (or a bit of grass, should you let them!)

Bitless Bridle Cons:

  • Not approved for showing
  • Can be hard to get the horse to stop; not suitable for spooky horses
  • May need groundwork training to use appropriately
Which is better? The short answer is it depends on you and your horse, as well as the type of riding you do. A horse that hates a bit would probably love a bitless bridle or hackamore, while a horse that is a pro with a bit will probably have a learning curve to get used to it. It also depends on your riding style and experience. As with most tack options, you may need to try a few options to find the right bridle for you and your horse.