Bitless, Treeless and Barefoot

Article by Andy Beck of

When Celtic cavalry served as mercenaries to the ancient Egyptians saddles were limited to stirrup-less cloths, and all horses were ridden barefoot. In contrast bridles and bits, familiar enough in design to be fitted by the modern rider, had been in use since 3500 BC.

Antler 'Cheekpieces'

Who, how and when the idea of putting something in the horses mouth to restrict movement came about is unknown, and destined in all likelihood to stay that way, since the materials available to this early inventor have all turned to dust over the ages. The first 'soft' bits were very simple; two cheek pieces of bone or wood, joined by a rawhide or sinew mouth piece. Later the substitution of solid materials in the mouth part created the bit as we know it.

Celtic, and other, cavalries continued to provoke compliments on their effectiveness in battle by the ancient authors of the 5th, 4th and 3rd millenniums B.C.E., such as Xenophon -- writer of the oldest surviving treatise on horsemanship. By his time the bit had been developed into a complex hard bronze mouthpiece, jointed in the center, and with stylish curved cheek-pieces, discs and spines.

Xenophon says that two types of bit were used -- the smooth and the rough. The design of the 'mouth' part was known as 'sea urchin', having hollow mouth-pieces covered with the spines suggested by the name. The differences between one and another were the length and relative sharpness of the spines and the diameter and thickness of the discs.

The discs would have stopped the horse from closing its mouth, perhaps in order to prevent it 'getting the bit between its teeth'. The spines would have increased the stopping power by increasing the discomfort caused to both the bars and corners of the mouth. Lastly the 'nutcracker' action produced by the joint in the mouthpiece would further increase the effect on the corners of the mouth.

The first bit was to be used during breaking, and had longer or sharper spines and larger finer discs and must have caused either extreme sensitisation in the hands of a careful trainer -- or a bloodied and calloused mouth in the hands of anyone less careful. Clearly these bits exerted control by virtue of pain and/or fear, which helps to explain why, if you look at ridden horses in art works from the time, they all seem to have open mouths, and a posture that is instantly recognisable as the result of a constant battle to evade the bit.

Part of Frieze from the Parthenon.

The horse of these times was of supreme importance in war, and the following passage from Xenophon, describing the strategy of Celtic cavalry fighting on the side of the Spartans, gives a crystal clear idea of the way in which their use could determine the outcome of a battle: "Few though they were, they were scattered here and there. They charged towards the Thebans, threw their javelins, and then dashed away as the enemy moved towards them, often turning around and throwing more javelins. Thus they manipulated the whole Theban army, compelling it to advance or fall back at their will".

It requires little imagination to see how necessary complete control of one's mount would be to the success of this strategy, particularly without stirrups. So perhaps we can understand the harshness of bits whose primary design function was to allow the rider to carry out the frequent changes in speed, direction and pirouettes.

It is also military convenience that explains the later developments of saddle, stirrup and spur. A soft pad would be quite good enough for general riding, but what the mounted cavalryman wanted was a firm platform for the use of weapons; spear, sword and bow. In this scenario the interests and comfort of the horse were entirely subjugated to the utility of the outcome.

By this time the design of bits was already as complex as it could reasonably become, but the saddle was to remain a 'work-in-progress' up to, and including, the present day. One of the earliest sources on the use of saddle pads is those that served as a part of chariot harness in 1500 BCE Egypt.

A "T" shape yoke of wood was used to harness a pair of horses. The ends of the yoke rested on the pad, over which was tied a girth. The chariots were not very reliable and mention is made of their occupants jumping out before they came apart and then escaping on the back of one of the horses. Without a girth a saddle is useless, but with a girth to secure it the saddle developed.

Reconstruction of a Roman Saddle.

From the soft pad was developed the leather pad, to which additions could be made with rolls of stitched cloth and, later, by use of rigidly stuffed leather panels. The use of leather opened up the potential yet further, the ability to set wet leather over a frame to dry and to tighten, for a smooth cover, far stronger and more hard wearing than cloth, to be fitted over a padded wooden former -- the origin of the saddle 'tree'. Even so, a rider mounted in a frame saddle has no way to brace himself against the force of his own or any others blow, nor any way in which to balance -- until he has stirrups!

According to Historian Lynn White: Medieval Technology and Social Change -- "The history of the use of the horse in battle is divided into three periods: first, that of the charioteer; second, that of the mounted warrior who clings to his steed by pressure of the knees; and third, that of the rider equipped with stirrups."

The stirrup was a Chinese invention somewhere around the time of the first century. The advantage it offered the cavalryman was such that its use spread throughout the steppes of central Asia. Finally it was Mongol tribesmen that brought the stirrup to Europe. The earliest written record dates from 580 A.D., when a military manual of the Byzantine emperor mentions the need for stirrups. So important was this new piece of equipment to prove that it is sometimes claimed that it was the introduction of the stirrup that laid the foundation for European feudalism.

Medieval saddle with Stirrups -- sketch 1.

This then is the history from which the modern bit and saddle has evolved. But it is not just history, dead and gone. Although materials may have changed the basic design of bits remains that they operate on the basis of discomfort or pain.

Take a look through any present day catalogue of bits and you'll find, alongside the relatively mild nut-cracker action of the jointed hollow mouth snaffle, plenty of reminders of that original ancient world concept. Wire mouth bits, twisted mouth bits, bits with high ports, stallion bits, and long branched lever action bits fitted with curb-chains with which to supply that extra mechanical advantage to produce that extra bit of force; still causing pain and discomfort, just as all those years ago.

And, just as there were problems all those years ago there are problems associated with bits today. Remember the earlier reference to "open mouths, and a posture that is instantly recognisable as the result of a constant battle to evade the bit."? Let's just follow that up and see where it leads us. Really to do this we have to start with equine locomotion. Movement of the neck and head are very much an integral part of any movement. Take the gallop as an example. During the diagonal phase the head and neck swing down, helping the hindquarters free of the ground and generally aiding forward movement. Any bit that restricts or changes the normal action of the head and neck will obviously interfere with the gallop, but the 'star-gazer' posture of a horse evading the bit leads to problems at slower gaits also.

Ligaments & Vertebra of the Neck - sketch 2.

Strong ligaments run from the poll to the tail. Lowering the head and neck pulls this ligament tighter so that it supports the back, keeps the vertebrae beneath more rigidly in line, and allows good transference of impulsion from the quarters through to the forehand. Conversely pulling the head up causes the ligament to slacken and the spine, most particularly the part between the end of the thoracic vertebrae and the sacroiliac joint, to become dipped and less well supported. Add rider weight to the equation and we have all the makings of a horse with anything from mild to potentially chronic back ache.

Bone pathology investigations carried out on the remains of early Iron Age, Scytho-Siberian horses from burials in the Ukraine and the Altai, dated around the Ist millennium B.C.E. reveal abnormalities of the caudal thoracic vertebrae, believed by some historians to result from the use of pad saddles and, in all likelihood, with riding bareback also. But consideration of the exercise posture that results from use of severe bits suggests that this may well have been the primary cause of such wear on the vertebra, rather than saddle impact and rider weight alone.

Here and there references are found in historical anecdote and myth to the riding of horses without either bit or saddle. Warrior groups such as the Celtic Irish chieftain Finn Mac Cumhail's Fianna were said to disdain the use of bit or saddle, riding by their skill and the forbearance of their horses alone. The same idea has also surfaced many times in works of fiction, where for horses such as Shadowfax from Tolkien's epic Lord of the Ring there is neither bridle, bit or saddle; "If he will consent to bear you, bear you he does; and if not, well, no bit, bridle, whip, or thong will tame him."

So, is the idea of riding by co-operation rather than force and discomfort, using both bridle and saddle designed with the comfort of the horse foremost a matter for romance -- or a realistic and humane alternative for the average rider?

The first thing that strikes one when riding with a bitless bridle is the feeling that you have no brakes, and it takes some time to get over! The natural fear is that if the horse wants to do something badly enough he will neither listen to, nor respect what the riders hands are communicating. With this in mind we decided to devise a small test for this article. Could the stallion pictured above be given a daily walk of inspection past paddocks containing both mares and fillies -- some of which would be in season -- and remain controllable. The test seems a reasonably difficult challenge when one considers for a moment the severe colt and stallion bits traditionally used, and supposedly essential to the proper control of entires.

The stallion came through the test with flying colours -- co-operating with spoken requests on every occasion. At no point was there any loss of control or refusal to continue past females, even when they displayed the squealing, winking and spraying that both announces and broadcasts a receptive mate.

As the fears diminish it soon becomes obvious that riding this way really is all about communication, and that control can be a matter of partnership. The next thing that becomes obvious is that the movements of head and neck show greater flexibility and relaxation in achieving that all important novice outline at the beginning of an exercise period.

The back is held level, transfer of power from the quarters is smoother and there is a feeling of effortless lightness and elevation to the paces. In the old classical riding schools riders were made to ride without reins in their early training, the intention being to establish the foundations of the good balanced seat that is so easily spoilt by reliance on the reins and bit to hold position. The bitless bridle also prevents such reliance -- to the benefit of both horse and rider.

Novice outline during freework with synthetic saddle.

The increasing array of bitless bridles now available testifies to just how many people are interested in bitless riding. But are they all the same? The answer, in a word, is no. So let's look at a few, starting with the hackamore.


The operation of the Hackamore relies on leverage. Force applied by the reins to the bottom rings draws them backwards bringing the attached hard noseband into harder contact with the nerve rich area of the nose and driving the curb chain into the chin groove. The longer the branches, the greater is the moment of leverage -- so that far from being a gentle device the Hackamore can be used to dramatic and forceful effect, in extreme cases such that a separation of vertebra at the top of the neck can result as the horse's head is levered back towards the neck. The material of the noseband is, of course, an important factor. Anything from rubber covered motorcycle chain to the saw-toothed serreta of the traditional Andalusian Vaquero can be used, with effects varying from painful points of pressure to shallow, but bloody, lacerations. In truth whether bit or leverage are used to produce physical control of the head both operate on the basis of pain.

The Bosal

The Bosal is a much gentler form of Hackamore. A simple rawhide loop is attached to shortened cheek pieces. The ends of a soft rein are then attached to the back of the loop. The fit of the loop is all important; if too large it will tend to slip up the face, too small and it is likely to create sores. Essentially rein contact on the bosal is for stopping or downward transitions only, since the rein attaches at the same central point directional aids are given by neck-reining. Of course neck-reining can be taught whatever the type of bridle in use, and is arguably the gentlest and most relaxing method.

An alternative to bridles of any sort, and which also operates on the neck-reining principle is the liberty ring or neck lariat. This is simplicity itself, a ring of stiffened rope, rawhide -- or even wood, that is brought over the horse's head and held a little way down the neck. The ring is then turned in the hand so that it comes into contact with either side of the neck to indicate a turn. The limitation is that it cannot be pulled backwards with anything other than very low force otherwise it would bear directly onto the windpipe -- so stopping or downward transitions are signalled by alterations in the seat and legs.

Next come the side-pulls. First let's look at the leather side-pull pictured below.

Side-Pull Bridle

The bridle is quite a simple affair, completely lacking in mechanical advantage. Pretty much any saddler can make one up to you and your horse's specifications at a reasonable price. If discomfort can result it will be from points of pressure created by the nose-band -- which can also be suitably padded with a roll of sheepskin or similar material to further reduce 'mechanical' impact. In fact there is no real need for brow-band or throat-lash either -- as in photo above.

Risque wearing a rope-halter

Next on the list are the rope-halters and rope-halter side-pulls. There has been a lot of talk about pressure points, including claims that the knots in rope halters operate on the "pressure points", but there seem to be few exact details offered on how this would actually work, or what the effect would be. According to acupressure charts of the horse's head the only points that could be stimulated by the knots are those that have to do with stomach functions. Why would that be good during ridden exercise? And, even if it was good could the rider reliably target the same point, with the same knot, over and over again? Extremely dubious.

Or is this meant to imply that these "pressure points" are spots where the horse is particularly sensitive, as in the pressure points used in Martial Arts? If it is then we are right back to the discomfort principle again.

When we tested the rope side-pull we found that two of the knots could very easily be pulled back against that bony protuberance on either side of the face creating a point of pressure -- not a pressure point! How uncomfortable it might be would depend entirely on how hard, and frequent, contact with the knot was.

Bitless cross-under

The next type is the 'Bitless cross-under. The idea of this is that force exerted on the left rein, instead of acting merely to pull the head around directly, is transferred under the jaw so that it acts on the right side of the face and vice versa the right rein. The big question here is whether it really makes any difference where the pull originates. Surely the horse will get used to whatever way the pull comes, after all were not trying to pull the head round by force -- it's just a signal were sending, right? But just for the sake of argument let's say that it does make a difference, and that the cross over is better. In order for this to work the material has to be slippery enough so that it doesn't bind. Otherwise as soon as pressure is applied to the rein-strap that lays over the top of the other it will effectively trap it in position. This is exactly what happened in our trial! The synthetic material straps failed to slide over each other and the pull was not transferred at all, and there is no reason why leather would work any better. If the cross over idea is valuable there would need to be some way to ensure the straps move freely, like the bursa that allow ligaments to move freely over bone -- perhaps a casing through which each strap would run separately over sets of small rollers.

Dually "pressure halter"

Last of all there are the pressure-halters. While these are primarily intended for schooling good ground manners some can also be used as a type of side-pull. The one we tested was the Dually, and as an alternative to the usual lungeing cavesson it worked well for introducing a young mare to long-reins.

Long-Reining in a "pressure halter" - a little nervous at the start

Working well on long reins

Friends relaxing at the end of a work period

For riding the nose band has too much free play so that hand aids through the reins lose accuracy. A fixed side-pull seems by far the best of the bunch.

The Camargue saddle

Earlier we established that the major reason for the development of the frame or tree'd saddle was to improve its qualities as a secure fighting platform. Working saddles such as the Western, Camargue and Spanish Vaquero developed directly from the medieval war saddle, the need for a platform from which to work cattle taking over from the need to use weapons. In each case there is a good thickness of padding to prevent the material of the frame rubbing on the body of the horse. The first problem with this is that the saddle tends to sit up above the horses body preventing the rider from getting as good a feel of what is happening underneath as would otherwise be possible. The second problem is that the frame or tree does not allow the saddle to flex with the movement of the horses body. The English style cavalry saddle went some way toward reducing weight and improving flexibility for more modern light cavalry and has become the standard on which most saddles used in equestrian sport are based. Yet often, particularly in older saddles, the attachment point for stirrup leathers results in the majority of weight being carried close to the shoulders and wither where it would tend to interfere with free and fluent movement. The further development of the synthetic tree certainly does allow a far greater flexibility than the fixed wooden tree, but that flexibility can in itself be a problem. The synthetic tree also flexes on mounting, with the result that it can easily twist, and, as heat develops during a ride the gullet can open more bringing it into contact with the wither.

In an ideal world every rider would be able to afford to buy a saddle that had been individually tailor-made for them and the horse, with rider weight, shape, gender and length of leg factored in as well as the tree and under panels of the saddle being contoured to fit the horse. But this is rarely possible for the average person. The alternative is to go back to the pad type saddle, and that is precisely what has happened.

'Torsion' Treeless saddle.

For our tests we had two types of treeless saddle, the Barefoot and the Torsion. Although there are several others brands available all are remarkably similar. We had tried a number of different types of traditional fixed tree and synthetic tree saddles on our test stallion over several years, none of which suited him particularly well, although the fit seemed good. As with many horses he showed his discomfort by that very unsettling habit of moving away during mounting, and he disliked working at the trot. A top brand dressage saddle with adjustable gullet to allow a more precise fit and greater freedom in the shoulder also hadn't worked, so the treeless seemed a logical progression, and right from the first ride the difference was very clear. His paces were lighter, transitions were far smoother, and generally he was more relaxed and comfortable. After just three rides the habit of moving away at the mount had disappeared completely, replaced by perfect manners. Rider comfort is very good, and while the seat obviously lacks the depth that is possible with fixed tree saddles the contact with the horse is simply excellent. It's also worth commenting that when we placed the order for the Barefoot brand saddle details such as rider height and weight were factored in so that the accessories, saddle cloth, girth and swinging fender style stirrups supplied all fitted perfectly and suited horse and rider well.

With long distance endurance riders increasingly making use of treeless saddles -- and winning -- it seems certain that a lot more horses are going to be enjoying fully flexible comfort in the future!

And with these developments what could be more natural to complete the picture than getting rid of those old steel shoes -- and going bitless, treeless, and barefoot!