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Marauding horsemen from the East once dominated vast swathes of the known world. Could some of them, notably the nomadic Bedouins, have grasped a crucial element of horsemanship that has since been largely lost? A bridle with its roots in antiquity is providing some tantalising insights.
Veterinarian Robert Cook can still recall his week working in Kuwait nearly 30 years ago.
Cook travelled to the region in 1986 to deliver a series of lectures on horses and his grateful sponsors had organized a drive deep into the desert by way of thanks.
He was introduced to a small group of tribesmen who arrived with one horse. The animal was head-shy and they asked Cook through an interpreter if he would examine its mouth.
He obliged, finding nothing that indicated a problem. To his surprise, was he presented with a beautifully crafted hand-made halter as thanks.
He took it home and hung it on his study wall as a souvenir of an interesting week. It would be nearly 30 years before he would fully understand what it was – a Bedouin bitless bridle.
Cook, now 84, did his veterinary training in Britain, graduating from London’s Royal Veterinary College in 1952. He was in practice for the first six years of his career before taking a role as a senior scientist with Britain’s Animal Health Trust.
Over the years, he has been a clinician, teacher and researcher at university veterinary schools in Britain and the United States.
His research focused on diseases of the mouth, ear, nose and throat of the horse.
He eased into retirement in 1994 from Tufts University in Massachusetts as an emeritus professor of veterinary surgery, but maintained his interest in research. He became focused on the function of the bit, believing it was harming the horse.
He went on to develop and patent the widely used crossunder bitless bridle, manufactured and marketed by BitlessBridle Inc., the company he founded in 2000.
The Bedouin may well have stayed on Cook’s wall, had it not been for a friendship he developed three years ago with a retired general and vascular surgeon, Fridtjof Hanson, who lives in New Zealand. Hanson is a life-long horseman who, at 73, still competes in endurance.
Hanson had started to use Cook’s crossunder bitless bridle in 2012, and felt compelled to share some ideas about its design.
They met for lunch in Wilmington, Delaware, and regular brainstorming sessions have continued ever since by telephone and email.
Two years ago, Hanson volunteered to train one of his horses in the crossunder bridle for a pilot research project using exercise endoscopy to monitor the upper throat.
The study at New Zealand’s Massey University Veterinary School was designed to use exercise endoscopy to test Cook’s hypothesis that the bit breaks the horse’s lip seal and destroys what should be a vacuum in its mouth during exercise.
He reasons that this triggers a cascade of soft palate instability, suffocation, exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage (bleeding in the lungs), and unexplained sudden death in racehorses.
Meanwhile, Hanson was fast becoming a convert of bitless riding. He had borrowed an authentic hackamore with a traditional rawhide bosal. It featured a special weighted rein, making it possible to control the horse on a predominantly loose rein, which avoided upsetting the pendulum-like balancing movement of the horse’s head and neck.
He had also gleaned insights from a clinic held locally by US horse trainer Buck Branaman.
Hanson put it to Cook that weighted reins would further improve a horse’s responsiveness to the crossunder bridle.
By this time, Cook had recognized the uncanny resemblance between the Kuwait halter he had in his possession and the Bedouin halter as described by Lady Anne Blunt, whose daughter, Lady Wentworth, penned the famous book, The Authentic Arabian Horse.
Lady Anne, who travelled extensively in Arabia and the Middle East from the late 1870s to buy Arabian horses, noted: “The Bedouin never uses a bit or bridle of any sort except for war, but instead uses a halter with a fine chain passing round the nose. With this he controls his mare easily and effectively.”
It dawned on Cook that what he had taken to be an attractive lead rope for the Kuwait halter was in fact a weighted rein. His “halter” from Kuwait was nothing less than the bridle that Bedouin horseman had used for thousands of years – a “living fossil” of a bridle and an undoubted ancestor of all bitless bridles.
So just how good was this Bedouin bridle? Cook would ultimately get the answer, thanks to his friendship with Hanson.
Cook gave the bridle to Hanson last Christmas, knowing he would be putting it to good use.
Hanson instantly recognised its principle. The noseband lies at the same level as recommended for a crossunder bridle. It has no browband but that is not a problem – the throat latch serves the same purpose. It has a plaited woollen headstall. The seemingly flimsy noseband comprises a strip of felt over which lies a light, stainless steel chain, loosely attached. The links are similar to those found in a dog’s choke chain.
The only change he made was to loop the free end of the “lead rope” back to the centre shackle so that he rode with two reins.
Hanson found it perfectly fitted his 15.2 hand 11-year-old thoroughbred mare, Erin, whom he had been riding bitless for two years. Hanson used it without any preliminary trial, and completed a 40km training-level endurance ride at Kohuratau with it, riding “on the buckle” (with a loose rein) throughout.
Erin finished the race in 150 minutes, 30 minutes quicker than recommended, and easily passed the required veterinary checks.
He found the control possible with the bridle, with its weighted reins, was unrivalled. A mere vibration of a loose rein was all that was necessary to communicate with the horse.
Hanson is utterly sold on the Bedouin bridle, describing it as probably the ultimate bridle. The simple piece of tack is held in place by gravity.
“It is,” he says, “subtle, cleverly designed, perfectly balanced … and lifts communication to a whole new level.”
Hanson has copied the design with substitute materials, but confesses he has been unable to truly match it to date. The plaited rein, for instance, made from goat’s wool and horse-mane hair, has a prickly feel, which he says aids communication against the horse’s skin. He has not yet replicated that feel, let alone its elasticity and springiness.
“All these subtle qualities are entirely missing from a standard leather or synthetic rein.”
He says the only pressure a horse feels from the bridle is the slight and constant weight of the reins.
Hanson continues to work Erin in a copy of the Bedouin bridle, saying it has delivered further improvements in her breathing, stride and performance, which had first been apparent with the use of the crossunder bridle.
He has since used the Bedouin bridle and his copies on other horses with equal success.
He says he is able to convey the most delicate of signals to the horse via what is known as proprioception, which Hanson characterizes as the sensory “glue” built around our awareness of where we are in space. Proprioception is the sense that, with our eyes closed, enables us – if sober – to touch the tip of our nose with a forefinger.
The connection with the horse is both simple and subtle, Hanson says. “Signals are made via an entirely loose rein, but it is very much in no way an inactive rein. I call it the ‘feeling’ rein.
“Correctly fitted and used,” he says, “the Bedouin bridle is the closest to comfort for the horse and effectiveness for the rider that I have ever encountered.”
“There is a unique clarity of signal; a clear distinction between signal and non-signal.
“Because the horse is the quintessential flight animal, the rider’s cardinal skill is the accuracy, speed and timing of his signals.”
He describes the bridle as a precision instrument.
“Riders must have an independent seat,” he says, “and must be prepared to relearn a completely different basic rein-signalling technique – a whole new tactile language for the bitless bridle.
“The signal delivered by a loose rein and the quality of the rein’s ‘body’ is a wave signal. It is not dependent on rein tension and is incapable of inflicting the pain of a bitted-rein signal. The signals with the Beduoin rein are faster, lighter and much more effective.
“I would be doing riders no favours,” he cautions, “by indicating that proprioceptive riding can be enjoyed without going through the mill of learning a new skill. Graduation to a Bedouin bridle is a process.”
The skill can be best learned, he recommends, by first using a weighted rein in conjunction with a crossunder bridle, he suggests.
Hanson concurs with Cook that removing the bridle can eliminate a raft of behavioral problems and the cause of 40 or more bit-induced diseases.
“Unfortunately, tradition and our own fears convince us that rein-aid communication requires rein tension.
“The result is that we ‘hang’ onto a horse’s head remains, and we persist in ‘hanging on to his head’ and in so doing, trigger pain and fear responses and severely handicap the horse’s head/neck pendulum.”
This “pendulum” is an essential part of balancing, striding, breathing, and the circulation of blood.
Use of a bit runs counter to the aim of achieving unity with the horse – “the holy grail of horsemanship”.
He assesses the Bedouin bridle as by far the safest bridle to use on a horse. “As we all know, horses respond to gentleness and deft handling. They love the skilled and gentle touch.
“The horse is so superbly ‘aware’, it is almost uncanny. We can never, it seems, overestimate its sensitivity and the rapidity and willingness of its response to a proprioceptive signal.
“The horse challenges us to match his ‘awareness’ but will always leave us in the shade.”
Hanson said he kept his mare in Bedouin bitless training for a year in preparation for the Massey University study.
“I was astonished to realize how much better she began to breathe and stride. Her breathing became ‘cleaner’ as her speed became faster.” Lips sealed, jaw closed, no slobbering and no swallowing.
“When bitted, the opposite is common.”
Hanson has yet to learn the findings of the university pilot study, in which Erin was fitted with an endoscope to monitor her airways under exercise loadings, both with a bit and in a bitless bridle.
For the study, she had to learn to exercise on a treadmill. Taupo-based engineer Phillip Haycock built the treadmill for this purpose, housing it in his hayshed. He powered it with an old Ford sedan parked next to it.
Erin went on to complete two successful treadmill runs and two runs along Himitangi beach for the study, all fitted with the endoscope.
She has completed four 40km endurance rides, with and without the bit. Hanson opted for the shorter distances in order to test her wind at higher speeds, and obtain recordings of her wind noise.
They train regularly on a lonely two-mile stretch of beach, with some hill work and interval training on trails across nearby forestry land.
Hanson has used the Bedouin-designed bridle only on horses previously ridden with a bit. His dream is to use it on a foal from birth, as did the Bedouins.
“If used as a halter for ground work first, before it is ever used as a bridle, only then will its full potential be realised.
“The trick in training,” he says, “will be to avoid at all costs, teaching a foal to pull.”
He suspects that racehorses trained and allowed to compete “Bedouin-style” had the potential to re-write the record books. Cook agrees. Being free of pain in the mouth, able to breathe, balance and avoid wasting energy, they could not help but outpace “handicapped” horses.
The pair dispute the widespread assumption that a bit controls a horse. They see this as a myth and a barrier to reform. There is, they say, no scientific evidence to justify mandating a bit’s use.
They suggest that if their joint findings cannot be refuted, horse sport and racing administrators will have to permit bitless riding for safety and welfare reasons.
Currently, in many equestrian disciplines, there are serious problems in need of solutions. Approval of bitless bridles has the potential to solve many of them and enhance both horse and human welfare, they assert.
Both men believe that horse sport administrators have it in their power to transform horsemanship.
Email Dr Bob Cook
Email Fridtjof Hanson