Straight from the Horse’s Mouth

Mar 8, 2021 | Animal Behavior, BARKS from the Guild, Training

By Dorothy Heffernan

bitless horse riding training

Horses can respond very reliably to cues to walk, trot, canter and jump without the handler needing to touch them or use aversive gear © Can Stock Photo / mtoome

With a growing interest in ‘least intrusive, minimally aversive’ (LIMA) training methods and the ‘least intrusive effective behavior intervention’ (LIEBI) model, many equestrians of today are increasingly starting to consider the option of riding their horses without using a bit.

Bits have traditionally been used to train and control horses, but few people question why this might be, or how they actually work. But there isn’t really a single answer to this “why,” because different cultures have their own approaches towards horse training.

One single fact is common to all, however. A bit is a way of creating inescapable pressure in a horse’s mouth. It is effective because horses dislike it enough to want it to stop. The pressure created by a bit is aversive, and like all aversives, the horse is motivated to find ways to escape or avoid it. In this case, the pressure.

Even without additional pressure from the rider through the reins, the bit sits in the horse’s oral cavity and is likely as difficult to habituate to as orthodontic braces in humans.

Most riders cite “safety” as their reason for continuing to use a bit. However, since a common response when a horse doesn’t respond to bit cues to slow down and stop is to seek a more aversive bit, looking for a different approach is worthwhile.

Adding aversives to any situation changes an animal’s emotional response. Just as we see in other species, trigger stacking is the cause of many “control failures.” A horse who’s concerned about being alone, being surrounded by other anxious horses, about what their trainer is doing, or about sudden noises and sudden movements is not going to be reassured when the rider applies bit pressure.

In fact, the pressure adds to the stressors already present, and it has to be very aversive indeed to overshadow other stimuli the horse would naturally find concerning.

Bitless Alternatives

Bitless alternatives come in many shapes and forms, and some of them can still apply very uncomfortable pressure on the horse’s head. However, because riders have often come to believe that they need strength to stop a horse, the very mild bitless options may be overlooked.

But this doesn’t need to be the case, if you start to look at why horses respond to trained cues. A simple, well-fitted, sidepull bridle can be perfectly safe if the horse has been trained to respond to it using positive reinforcement methods.

In order to prepare a young horse to be ridden, he needs to understand and respond reliably to cues for “stand and don’t walk off,” “walk,” “turn to the left or the right in response to a cue,” “stop walking,” and “walk backwards.” All of these can be trained on the ground using a clicker training approach to shape (or capture and shape) the behaviors required.

Training the behaviors and then adding cues once a behavior is established is quite straightforward.

Some trainers use targets to get movement and a “reverse round pen,” with the trainer on the inside of a barrier and the horse outside. This is a great way to teach horses about different gaits.

Once the horse is responding reliably, a process of successive approximations can be used to teach him that having a human sit on his back is not only not a worrying prospect, but is a new opportunity to earn reinforcement. Once mounted, the already learned cues can be generalized so that they work equally well with a rider.

Now we have a horse who will approach a mounting block, stand to be mounted, move off in walk, and stop on cue. Most importantly, however, at no point has he experienced freeze or flight.

A horse trained like this will have no urge to run to escape something aversive (often a key part of traditional training, where lunging is achieved by use of a lunge whip). At the same time, there is no need for the rider to escalate aversives to move the horse out of a freeze state.

At this point, the rider can begin to introduce ridden cues using a standard process of cue substitution. For movement, the rider can use a nonaversive squeeze of their legs followed immediately by the already solid verbal cue, “walk.” For halt, the rider can simply still the movement of their body that follows the horse’s walk and follow it immediately with a “whoa” verbal cue.

Similarly, teaching turns can be done by asking the horse to follow a target to each side, and then preceding the presentation of the target with a lift of the rein on the side of the turn. It can be helpful to have an assistant at this point of training. The assistant can give the previously taught cues from the ground after the rider gives the new cues from the horse’s back, but this is not essential.


As with training other species, once the basics are in place it is essential to start a process where they are generalized so the horse learns to respond to them in situations with increasing challenge. Having a good understanding of antecedent arrangements is essential here, and knowing which situations are more difficult for a horse helps with planning a gradual change.

Training in a familiar location where the horse is relaxed and can see his friends is the ideal starting situation, but ultimately we want to be able to ride the horse on trails. Starting off by proofing cues on short rides with a familiar companion is the first step.

When the horse can confidently respond, then consider taking a familiar human on foot as a companion. Then, if the horse is confident alone, taking him a short distance while continuing to observe how quickly he can respond is the next step. If at any point the horse has a longer response latency to a cue, go back a step and repeat the training until he can deal with the new situation.

Increasing challenges also involve different gaits. Again, this should start with the trainer on the ground and a clever use of antecedent arrangements.

Have a look at liberty horse agility competitions where horses have been trained using positive reinforcement and you’ll see that horses can respond very reliably to cues to walk, trot, canter and jump without the handler needing to touch them or use ropes or sticks. For a horse who is confident being ridden at walk, taking him to the location where he has done groundwork involving faster gaits and then generalizing cues is a good way to use both antecedent arrangements and cue substitution to get faster gaits on cue when riding.

Premack Principle

Just as in training other species, another “challenge” at this point is increasing duration or difficulty. With dog training, recalls begin close to the trainer. With horses, duration of “walk” starts with a step.

Strengthening cues using Premack reinforcers is also essential. Eventually, the response to the (highly reinforced) cue to canter can be reinforced by a cue to trot, which in turn is reinforced by a cue to walk, a cue to halt and a food reinforcer.

Offering the horse the chance to do something he would naturally choose to do can be highly reinforcing.

For example, horses enjoy the chance to engage in high-speed games with friends, and cantering when out with other horse friends can be very reinforcing. Cueing canter after the horse responds promptly to, for example, a downward transition cue reinforces the downward transition cue and helps work with the horse’s natural drives and motivations. This creates a horse who can remain tuned into the rider’s cues even in exciting situations.

Teaching a horse to be ridden safely in a bitless bridle is, in many ways, a similar process to training him to be ridden with a bit. The trainer needs to know the steps involved, the cues need to be well reinforced and regularly practiced, and increasingly challenging situations need to be introduced gradually.

The difference is in the horse’s emotional response to the training, i.e. his motivation is not through relief and a desire for the training to end. Instead, he wants to engage in the training, enjoys the opportunities to earn reinforcement and, through classical conditioning, forms a positive association with everything involved in the process. That includes a positive association with the rider.

There’s actually nothing to match a horse running towards you because you’re carrying tack: it turns traditional expectations of riding on their head!

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2021, pp.48-49. Read the full article Straight from the Horse’s Mouth.

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About the Author
Dorothy Heffernan is a Scotland, U.K.-based psychologist who applies her knowledge of learning, cognition and neuroscience to help horse owners improve their horses’ lives through a changed approach to management, training and environment. She uses a force-free approach to training and enjoys making science fun and relatable. Since 2013, she has written the blog Horses Under Our Skin to help people understand why their horses behave the way they do.

She is an endorsed trainer of the World Bitless Association and helps horse owners transition to bitless riding using positive reinforcement techniques. In addition, she works with horse, pony and donkey guardians using an evidence-based approach to resolve behavior issues from handling, riding, transporting and husbandry problems. She has been a chartered member of the British Psychological Society for nearly 20 years.