“No bit, or any other single item of equipment, can be properly understood out of its cultural and historical context. Traditionally in Spain and Portugal, a young horse is never bitted, but instead is worked in the ancient jáquima (hakma, hackamore)… Traditionally, the expert horseman of this tradition works his horse for several years in the bosal before bitting is even considered… There are several reasons for this tradition. First and foremost, it stems from a fundamentally correct understanding of the horse’s biology. No horse, at any time, anywhere, has been physically mature before the age of five and a half… The main purpose of the long work in the jáquima was to create a completely supple and decontracted horse – one that could be stopped or rolled back over its hocks in the bosal by the mere pressure of the riders little finger.” (Dr Deb Bennett, 1998).

Who doesn’t want that? A completely supple and decontracted horse…wonderful! How the heck do I get one? In this and the next two articles I will discuss something really interesting and complex – contact. Here are a few questions to ponder today that relate directly to this. I have used the term ‘head gear’ to refer to bitted or bitless bridle, hackamore, or halter:

  • What made you decide on the choice of your horse’s head gear?
  • Was it something you felt confident to choose without guidance?
  • How much thought have you put into what your choice of head gear for your horse is designed to do?
  • Are you planning to keep to this choice for good, or change at some point? What are the criteria you will use to make that change?
  • What do you believe your horse’s head gear will do?
  • What do you believe is the most ethical head gear to use?
  • How was your horse trained to the use of their head gear?
  • What have you done to educate yourself about hands, reins and contact?
  • What are your goals in rein contact?
  • Are there some of these questions you haven’t considered?!

Conversations with trainer colleagues, and recently becoming an Associate Trainer with the World Bitless Association, have prompted me to Marie Kon my mind basement and lean up my contact files.

“The WBA represents ordinary riders, non-riders, competition riders, trainers, behaviourists and all equestrians bitless or bitted, who want to see evidence based ethical training and riding increase in acceptance and popularity for the sustainable well being of the horse both mentally and physically.” World Bitless Association

Why are we so worried about discussing contact in the context of compassionate riding and training? After all, unless we are a human butterfly, we cannot ride the horse without connecting with their body through our seat and in most cases, our hands. Contact skills (and seat skills – see my post A kick ass day – Putting the amen into your fundamental seat connection) are A Learnable and Wonderful Thing. I have thought about and practised them in depth on and off horse over the years, and there are many people doing the same.

My own learning has been and continues for ever as far as I can see. I have gathered strands and embroidered my understanding from as many people as I can find, equestrians and non-equestrians, about what we can learn about the how of connecting hands and bodies for the purpose of compassionate communication.

Personally I went through about ten years of groundwork and riding entirely bitless, because I couldn’t find a trainer who could teach me the knowledge and complex skills required to develop good contact skills that felt authentically good to the horse. I was frustrated and felt like a failure because it Could Obviously Be Done by other humans, and They Learned It somewhere.

I burned all my bridles and rode with no or hardly any contact at all. This had a few advantages to my horses but it didn’t give them anything much either, because I still didn’t have the right skills or the attitude that I needed. Then I happened upon trainers who could open up this skill set for me, and who embody the attitude that We Have to Practise and Get Better at this. I have learned mainly through the French classical tradition with input from Western horsemanship, and from tai chi and baguazhang, how we can learn a compassionate kind of contact that can offer something to horses.

contact 2
Bitted or bitless, it isn’t about the equipment

The World Bitless Association aims to help all equestrians make evidence based decisions about the headgear they choose for their horse, and have published general guidance on categories of bitless bridles and their application within Least Invasive Miminally Aversive principles. Unfortunately, as they found, bridle makers mostly believe the gear they make is totally fine and horses love it.  As a saddler, trainer and coach, as well as a scientist (master of all trades, Jack of none – obviously…), I recognise four integrated areas we all need to consider and learn about so we can make informed choices about the design, fit and use of equine headgear. In the next three blogs I will explore the following topics:

  • The culture of bridles and headgear
  • Skill development and learning – human
  • Skill development and biomechanics – horse
  • Compassionate communication and welfare friendly equipment

The culture of bridles and headgear – history and design in brief

Many of the more complex elements of head gear and bits are the retained badges from past eras when human society used horses much more extensively for martial or working purposes, than we do today. They were originally designed (and used) to exert extreme control over the horse’s head position and range of movement in combat situations either on the battlefield, raiding, or in the bull ring, or used to allow herders and cowboys to be efficient during long, hard days in the saddle and manipulate lots of other equipment as they needed when they needed it.

From then on equipment has been adapted for practical reasons, but also fashion. The way people use it has changed for the greater part. The questions as I see them now are, do we as an equestrian society in the 21st century want to find a way to resign this kind of equipment to the past as relics of a different society, if we can find more welfare friendly equipment, given that most horses are not ridden in the contexts where they were intended to be used today? And what exactly makes equipment welfare friendly?

It is worth investigating some of the history first though, so that even if you decide to use complex head gear, you understand that the use of it was first and foremost intended to be part of a training process. People did not go into their local tack shop and grab whatever took their fancy because they ‘were expected to ride in a double in the show ring’, or ‘thought their horse might have better brakes in X bit…’. When used in the manner that they are intended by well thinking people, properly trained horses are gradually habituated to powerful bits, and they are not intended, in modern usage, to be used with any force.

For instance, well fitted spade (leverage inducing) bits are designed to apply pressure firstly to the palate, then chin and poll, and finally the bars of the mouth of the horse causing them to move their poll away from their chest and arch their neck. The intention is not to escalate pressure, but to stimulate the palate so that the horse lifts the base of the neck and the poll, taking pressure off the bit.  It is intended that extensive prior training over years in a bosal, then with a snaffle bit, prepares the horse for the action of the leverage bit and creates the groundwork for self-carriage.

Try pressing your tongue towards the back roof of your mouth. Do you feel a little lift in your own neck below the back of your skull, and a small chin tuck? They are designed to influence the same system in the horse. Training the horse in compassionate collection can be protective to their musculo-skeletal system, but these days it is very possible to train this with more simple bits or bitless, without the use of potentially very aversive equipment.

I choose to use a bitless bridle most of the time, or a side pull noseband alongside a simple bit for everyday riding. I introduce the bit when the horse is riding calmly, along side the side pull, to teach the young horse that the aids are equivalent. I only use the bit for very refined connection in schooling to influence balance and posture, and I pay great attention to making sure that the horse is calm and comfortable with any equipment I choose. Historically this is what was done too.

“In the classical era, horses were more often ridden in the cavesson than longed in it. Young horses who wanted to carry their head high were not forced into a leverage bit to “cure the problem”, for educated horsemen knew that the solution lies in the horse and the horseman, not in any bit” Dr Deb Bennett (1998).

In both the European Classical traditions, and in the Vaquero and the other Western traditions being practised today that stem from the same root, the headgear chosen for the horse is intended to be a reflection of their level of training. Riding a collected horse with no contact and draped reins was the result of a specific training process which was intended to enable the horse to be ridden in self-carriage. As the quote from Dr Deb at the beginning of this article indicates – it is the outcome of years of training and testing (in the way that ‘descente de mains’ or dropping the rein to the neck and expecting the horse to continue a movement on their own is a test of the horse’s balance). In this way the layered headgear of the modern day Vaquero and the double bridle were introduced very, very gradually, have a practical purpose and the horse and practitioner had to be ‘qualified’ to use them. The whole ensemble was further intended to illustrate the practice level of the practitioner to the audience.

See the source image

In the 21st century as equestrians who are predominantly aspiring amateurs, we have to consider when choosing head gear:

  • what it is intended for
  • what it actually does (rather than what we are told it does)
  • can we use it ethically and appropriately.

Evidence is starting to emerge for instance that some head gear definitely has an aversive effect on horse’s vascular perfusion (in the case of tight nosebands), and they may be undergoing a physiological stress response when wearing double bridles (McGreevy, Smith & Guisard, 2012).

We might also have to be honest with ourselves – if we are considering using head gear mainly for control of a forward moving horse, it’s a sticking plaster and likely to Make Things Worse. The horse needs us to train them more effectively and give them the confidence they need not to do this, or we need to limit the contexts in which we ride the horse. If your horse runs away out hunting and you are not prepared to put the hours in retraining them, don’t go hunting.

The majority of modern ridden horses are not ridden by people who are trained in the use of complex head gear, or expected to be ridden in a high degree of collection, and never in a combat situation. Furthermore, we now understand the extensive damage that can occur if we force the horse to assume unnatural physical postures, and in the mouth from bits and from our hand actions.

Even if we do aim to develop the horse in self-carriage, we can train horses and develop their strength without the use of potentially punishing and complex head gear. Given the high level of literacy and the internet compared to the 16th century, there are a range of other ways to communicate the level of training the horse has undergone, even if the gear itself looks pretty! I love a gorgeous bridle as much as the next person, supple leather is just so ‘mwah’! But I would rather buy one that the horse appreciates and that gives the artisan a proper income to reflect the level of thought and skill they have put in. Equine head gear designers need to include better research and development in their production process. Saddlery is predominantly a craft based profession and riding equipment isn’t really yet recognised as sports technology. Traditional products don’t go through R&D well unless the results can be used to promote something innovative about the product. Understandable from a business perspective but not very objective.

I remember being given bridle cut measures charts at college – clearly taken from a very different shape of horse than we commonly see today. I made dozens of ‘cob size’ browbands that have never fitted any cob I have ever met. Change is happening with organisations like Horse Bit Fit, who offer much more in depth biomechanical bit and bridle fitting and education. They are independent, offer detailed assessments and consultations, and can advise on headgear choice.

We understand the needs of equines in far greater depth, and we need to promote compassion in the relationships we form with them. Happily lots of people are now exploring these innovative pathways, and it is easier to find enough information to make an informed choice, and a wider range of products.

See my next post for ideas about the kind of things we can do to develop our contact skills!

Some of the ideas in this article were shared from my book Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse. I hope you have enjoyed this post, you can find a link to the book here.

For more information about my work, visit my website at www.annistonebridge.com


Bennett. D (1998). Conquerors: The roots of New World Horsemanship. Equine Studies Institute; California.

McGreevy. P, Warren-Smith. A, Guisard. Y. (2012). The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, Volume 7 Issue 3. Elsevier.


5 thoughts on “Four ways to think about contact, and why you need to think about it from your heart – Part One

  1. Lovely post.
    I will note there are two schools of thought in the vaquero tradition. The first, that the Spade is a palate bit,
    as Bennett mentions, and the second, that the Spade is a signal bit.
    Early Californio purists adjust the curb strap to limit the action of the mouthpiece, ‘curbing’ it’s potential to affect the palate. Instead, the signal of the spade lifting off the tongue, never to touch the palate, is utilized. Jeff Sanders is an example of a modern vaquero who teaches this approach, learned intergenerationally, as opposed to indirectly.
    If one balances an authentic Spade on the palm, it is apparent how it is precisely balanced to act as a rebounding signal, like the water-dipping bird toy of years ago.

    1. Thankyou for your comment Andrea! Yes it was people like Jeff Sanders and others I had in mind when writing. That kind of thought process – in terms of how to alter the action of a tool with the intention of reducing aversive consequences or making the tool specific to a task – is part of the whole context of employing equipment within a training process. There are some amazing craftspeople out there.

      The difficulty is that this level of thought and application is not very accessible to modern equestrians unless they can reach someone who can guide them. Then also we need to apply what we know about horse behaviour (and human thinking), to check whether the horse’s welfare is genuinely being protected, or whether we only ‘think’ it is.

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