Saturday, September 19, 2009

More Thoughts About Trying Bitless and Two Rides

Maisie and I have some more thoughts about the Dr. Cook's bitless bridle. We've tried it out some, and Dawn has also tried it on the ground. I think on balance, it's a bridle that has its uses, but for us it has certain limitations. Even though it comes with a 30 day money-back guarantee, I'll be keeping it for the uses I think it may have.

First, let me say that my experience may be consistent with the experience some of you have had, and different from the experience others have had. I think with any piece of equipment this is to be expected, as each horse and rider combination are different in terms of their backgrounds, training, level of experience and most importantly their expectations.

With that said, Maisie says that she found the lack of a bit pleasant, and enjoyed the fact that the rider couldn't, through intention or lack of skill, overcue with the bit. She said it was easy to halt, back and regulate her gait - although if her rider started to "hang" on the reins she felt a little trapped - but then she feels this with the bit, too. She says she didn't really understand the cues involving one rein - she thought they might be meaning her to turn, but she wasn't really sure, and sometimes she felt as though she didn't get a release she should have had. If her rider upped a one-rein cue, she felt frustrated and the distributed pressure confused her.

Now here are my thoughts and comments on Maisie's and my experience. Maisie's right - halting, backing and speed regulation were pretty effortless. Upping the pressure did make her feel a bit "squeezed" and I got a few head shakes, but she did get the point after a bit. Lateral aids were less effective - due to the crossover strap arrangement and the resulting distributed poll, face, jaw and nose pressure, I felt as though my aid was "muddied" and hard for her to understand. I do think that, with training, this issue might very well go away - after all, horses can learn to associate any cue with any behavior - a touch on the withers can mean to turn - but the cue wasn't easy for her to understand. But my biggest issue with lateral aids was a lack I felt in my ability to give very precise, very soft cues and soft "micro-releases" - there was too much "play" and "travel" when giving a one-rein cue. Now this might very well be a lack in my abilities rather than anything inherent in the Dr. Cook's. Due to the crossover connection to the reins, I also found that I wasn't able to do anything with rein weight - I like my horses to be able to feel how I'm holding the rein, and if I pick it up, well before there is any pressure on the bit.

So, for me, this bridle has obvious uses in several specific situation - I think it would be pretty good for ground-driving, especially with a surcingle. I think for Maisie and me, it'll be good on the trails (Maisie says she likes the idea of no bit for extra snacking opportunities!) as long as there's not a lot of speed involved - and even speed may not be an issue once she gets used to it. I think the Dr. Cook's has obvious applications for horses who have issues with a bit due to their prior training or treatment. I also think for school horses ridden by beginners, it might be a good way to introduce use of the reins without risk of bit pain to the horse, although I think a beginner who used it too long could get the bad habit of hanging on the reins (although this can happen with bits too).

The action of a standard side-pull or bosal is more direct, and in fact it's the distributed pressure aspect of the Dr. Cook's that turned out to be its biggest disadvantage for me - I want to be able to be very, very precise and soft with my aids and be able to give an immediate, effective and not "sloppy" release - I found it hard to do this with the Dr. Cook's. We'll be mostly sticking with our bit, but I may also try some of the other bitless options as well.

* * * * * *

I had two excellent work sessions with Maisie and Dawn today. Maisie and I went back to the Rockin' S snaffle, which works very well for her. And we had an amazing work session! We started with walk/halt transitions as well as shortening/lengthening the stride at the walk, all off slight half-halts with my seat. Once she was warmed up and working well, we did some backing and reestablishing the softness at the walk - after that I only used my hands and reins to ask for continued softness in her whole body, and she really delivered! Then we moved to the trot and did numerous trot/walk/halt/walk/trot and trot/halt/trot transitions off my very slight seat half-halts. We even did some excellent free walk - she doesn't do a true extended walk, but she was extending nicely and reaching down with her head and neck. At the trot, we did shortening/lengthening at the trot, and some very nice circles of different diameters, and some lovely leg yields on the straightaway and circles. She was soft, working beautifully off her hindquarters and immediately responsive. I basically used no leg or rein aids, and although I had contact with the reins, it was an ounce of pressure at most. One spook but she immediately resettled to work. And I worked the whole time sitting - this seems to allow her to relax and use herself - the connection with her through my seat and hands was incredibly "alive" and through - and I almost felt as if I were riding bareback - my legs were relaxed but draped - it was a wonderful feeling! I can't ask for more!

Dawn was more settled today - no rodeo moves this time. We did some lunging at the walk and trot, working on our body language/energy and verbal cues. She actually lunged at the walk over the ground pole without too much worry - not rushing - although I did get some licking and chewing after each pole pass - to me this indicates a release of tension rather than thinking - so she had been slightly tense, which was to be expected. To the left, she was really getting the hang of the transitions - I think she's mainly working off my walk, trot and whoa verbal commands, but's that's fine for now if it works for her. I was also proud of her both today and yesterday - she spooked and then was able to recover her composure and go back to work - this is a very good sign of self-calming and ability to focus on the task. Then to the right she wasn't getting it at all. At the trot, she was just zoning out. We moved back to leading (with me on her right) and worked on our walk/halt/walk cues. Then back to lunging, on a smaller circle to make it easy. She finally began to respond - the right is her more difficult direction - and we stopped lunging after she did a walk/halt/walk transition three times with success and decent precision. We can refine later. Then I bridled and we did a brief under saddle session - just walking around a bit. She's very heavy on the bit even in the little bit we've done, particularly on the turns, when she wants to rush - just nervous, I expect. Our next step will be some in hand softening to the bit, and also getting her used to ropes in preparation for ground driving.

All in all, a very good day!


  1. I love your in depth recantation of your experience with the Dr Cook bitless bridle. Since 2 of my horses go so well in the basic english hack, I just didn't persue it very much. And yes, it does give them a very open opportunity to grab at the 'snack bar' during trips on the trail! LOL! Great post! Thanx a bunch!

  2. I have that bridle, too, Kate, and have used it once or twice with Bar, but not in awhile. He tends to argue with the bit, so I may try it again with our next work.

    Thanks for the reminder

  3. Terrific review of the Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle, your experiences and Maisie's, too.

    I used a Dr. Cook's on Baby Doll the first year that I owned her and rode her out on trails. She seemed to like it very much and caught on very quickly and we didn't have too many troubles related to the Bitless Bridle, except one: Heavy head. As a Western Pleasure horse anyway, she tends to carry her head low anyway, but with the Bitless she would lean down into the bridle until her head was down below her knees and seemed to be asking me to carry her head for her. Once she made contact with my hands and I was carrying her head, she finally rested. But I swear she might have tried to get her nose to the ground if my hands wouldn't have made contact and stopped that behavior.

    It also made me nervous to have her drop her head so low. Even though she's never bucked with me on her, I''ve learned there is always a first for everything, so I don't always want her head that low while riding.

    My shoulders would ache after most of our rides trying to get her head back up or get her to turn the direction I wanted her to.

    We would play tug o war with her head sometimes and that was so frustrating as the Dr. Cook Bridle causes the reins to slide all the way over when a horse does that pulling, not giving the horse any release. Baby Doll's nose and chin would be squeezed tight and I could do nothing to give her relief and she coulnd't get it herself. Frustrating to say the least. And then you have one rein longer than the other and you can't adjust it from the saddle. gah!

    Overall, though I did like using my Dr. Cook's on Baby Doll and hope to ride bitless again one day....maybe using a hackamore, though. I'd have to see how heavy my horse's head is and then work with her to carry her own darn head. lol!



  4. It sounds like you had the same exprerience with the Dr. Cook bridle as I did. It is very useful in certain applications but for me anyway, not enough refinement and precision in communication.

  5. sounds like you gave the bitless a good test... Interesting results too - I've been tempted to try one on my horse because he can get a little uptight with a bit (when riding english) since I think he had his mouth pulled on a lot with previous owners. But, since I've been riding western with a looser rein he is I'll wait before spending the $$!

    Glad you had two good rides with the girls!

  6. Kate, that was a really great, detailed review of the bitless bridle -- wow! Since I've thought of trying bitless with Panama, it's good to hear about the pros and cons of the different bitless bridles available.

    Panama doesn't really seem to mind the bit (other than pulling on it to tell me when he's getting bored with what we're doing) so it would probably be more for my peace of mind than for him. However I think I may be softer in the hands than I thought -- when I was worming the other horses on Tuesday, I realized that the older mare, who is used for kids' lessons, is really tough and calloused in the corners of her mouth. Panama's mouth still feels soft there. Now I don't know where else the bit makes contact, but at least judging from the corners of his mouth, I'm not as heavy-handed as I feared!

  7. Kate, spot on with the Doc Cook. My experience was exactly the same, way to 'general' in it's effect and absolutely not possible to give precise, quick release aids. I am really happy with the hackamore because it is so precise, acting only on the side of the nose it is applied and instantly released, it's like a 'whispered' aid but 'there' when needed. Seems Maisie has sense!

  8. Interesting comments. I have just started using a Dr Cook with my horse and it suits us both very well. However, I agree that his head carriage is slightly lower than with a bit but so far, this has not been a problem for me. My friend, however, said that she would not ride again with it because she thought he was going to trip up at amy minute and she would be over his head!

    Horses for courses, as they say. I haven't tried schooling in it yet but will do so soon.


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