I've had a number of requests to do a post on bitless options, and the similarities and differences between them. What I've written here is based on my limited personal experience with these various options, or information I've been able to find out. Many of you out there have your own experiences with bitless options, and have much more knowledge than I do, so please chime in and give us the benefit of what you know. Some of these options I've tried personally, and some I just have heard about. My opinions about the various options are just that, my opinions, and they're based on what's worked or hasn't worked with my horses - your experiences and opinions may differ and please speak up if you disagree with anything I say or may have wrong.
In my mind, I classify bitless options into four categories, based on how they work: direct action on the noseband, compound action on the noseband as well as other parts of the head, leverage action (mechanical hackamores), and bosals. And then there are different bitless options within each category. There are also true bridleless options, including the use of a cordero (neck rope or string), but those are beyond the scope of this post. I'm also not going to talk about "combo" bridles, where a bit is combined with a sidepull (Western) or a mechanical hackamore (a big fad in the jumper ring right now) - I think most of these are really just control devices and many of them are very severe, and anyway they're certainly not bitless.
I might also add that I ride my horses both with bits and bitless, and I think either, if used correctly, can be an effective means of communication between rider and horse. If the bit is just resting in the mouth, or the bitless headstall on the head, either can be means of having a two-way soft conversation. And either option can be abused if used incorrectly or with the intent to coerce or punish. So, without further ado, here are the various bitless options as I understand them.
Direct noseband action
The simplest version of this is a halter with two reins attached to the sides. The next most simple is a basic sidepull, like the one I got from Buckeroo Leather - here's a picture of what it looks like on Pie:
Note added later - the fit in this picture is incorrect - the noseband is too low - for the correct fit see this post. The action is straightforward - when rein pressure is applied, that pressure is transmitted directly to the noseband. Since the noseband is very stable - it does not slide, rotate or twist, this bridle has the advantage that it works well for direct rein usage, and therefore I find it also works very well in turns. It can be used for all the softening work that a bit would be used for.
There are sidepulls with different noseband materials, some of are thinner or harder than the soft leather noseband of my headstall. Some of these materials, I think, could be harsh in the wrong hands.
There are many variants of this design. There is an English version that used to be available - I haven't been able to find a picture of it - which is similar - a noseband with rings attached to a normal English headstall - I used to have one but found that it wasn't very sturdily made and the noseband tended to move around too much - it wasn't very stable.
There is also the Enduro bridle - here's a picture (from the maker's - Lodge Ropes - web site), showing how it works - it's basically a modified rope halter with reins:
I've never used one so don't have too much to say about it - it looks like it might be good for endurance riding since it's lightweight.
Compound action on the noseband and other areas of the head
There are a number of variants in this category. The difference between them and a basic sidepull is that in addition to transmitting pressure to the nose, rein action produces pressure on other areas of the horse's head, typically the under-chin area, or the sides of the face and/or the poll. There are sidepulls that operate with the ring attached to a chinstrap, so that when rein pressure is applied, the chin strap tightens.
The Dr. Cook's and Nurtural bridles both fall in this category. Here's a picture of a Dr. Cook's bridle on Maisie:
When pressure is applied to a rein in the Dr. Cooks, this pulls on a strap that passes under the chin and up the other side of the horse's face until it connects with the crown piece. This produces a "hugging" action. I have used a Dr. Cook's and found the connection with the horse somewhat "muddy" or "fuzzy" - the delicate, soft connection I want wasn't really there and it was hard for me to give precise signals or small precise releases to the horse. For me, using one rein or turning was a particular issue, and at least one of my horses seemed to find the headstall and its squeezing action confusing and somewhat aggravating.
Here's the Nurtural bridle (from their web site):
I have never used a Nurtural bridle (but I know some of you readers out there do, so speak up), but I understand that the biggest difference from the Dr. Cook's is the X that connects the two straps that pass under the jaw. I would expect that this stabilizes the bridle - the Dr. Cook's can have a tendency to twist in my experience - and makes the action more direct.
There is also the LG bridle (produced in Europe, I believe) - I've never seen one in action but here's a picture:
It looks to me like this might have a small leverage action, and possibly also some poll effect, depending on the rein placement, and I believe there is also a version with a shank, which would make it closer to a mechanical hackamore.
The Light Rider bitless bridle (there's also a separate noseband that you can attach to a regular headstall) is partly direct action, but it has rings that attach to a separate chin strap - when you pull on the rein the chinstrap tightens. This one looks like it could have a fairly direct, clear action. I've never used one, but know people who do and who like it quite a bit. Here's a picture from their site:
Leverage action (mechanical hackamores)
I think of mechanical hackamores as a bit like curb bits, except that instead of a bit in the mouth there's a noseband - when pressure is applied to the reins, leverage pressure is applied to the noseband and a curb strap/chain under the chin, with the severity determined by the material of the noseband (there are some pretty severe options out there), whether a chain is used under the chin and the length of the shanks. Many of the longer-shanked ones can be very severe - it just goes to show that the potential for harshness doesn't require a bit.
Here's a picture of one with a medium shank and what appears to be a rope noseband:
I haven't used any of these on my horses, but expect that the action doesn't lend itself to effective one-rein communication or finesse, although it might be just fine for trail riding on a loose rein with a horse that knows how to neck rein. Has anyone out there had experience doing work requiring precise cues with one of these bridles?
Bosals come in many nose widths, but the basic principle is the same - there is a noseband, usually made of rawhide, which comes around to a large connecting point (the "hanger") at the bottom, where the reins attach. I have never ridden in a bosal, but would be interested to try one. Here's a picture of one:
I've seen them described two ways, which seem to me to be somewhat contradictory. One school seems to think of a bosal as a transitional stage for a young horse before they're ready to be ridden in a snaffle, and perhaps ultimately a curb, bit. I've heard Mark Rashid say to the contrary that a bosal is better suited to a more educated horse and that then it can be a very soft and refined way to communicate with the horse, with the bosal defining the place within which the horse is being asked to softly keep its nose, thereby determining, through the poll, neck and entire body, the position and softness of the horse.
I also believe that contact - in the sense of a soft, live connection between horse and rider that is the means of communication between them, can occur with a bit or a bitless option, and can also occur with a loose rein with a horse that knows how to soften and carry itself softly.
I'd be very interested in hearing what experiences those of you who have used bosals have had and what situations you use them for.
If there are bitless options I've left out, please speak up and let us know about them and your experiences, good and bad, with them.