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Can You Ride a Horse Without a Bit? Plus Order of Harshness

Last updated: December 6, 2022

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

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When getting our horses ready to ride, I choose the bits to use for each horse and rider. This procedure piqued my young friends’ interest, and he asked how I decide which bits to use and if every horse has to have one.

You can ride your horse without a bit. Some work well bitless, and others perform better with a bit. But a bit typically gives a rider more control of their horse. Bits have critical differences, but how you use your hands to guide is a significant factor determining a bit’s harshness. 

When riding or driving a horse, communication is essential. While there will be voice commands, communication through the reins of the horse is also important. There has long been a debate about which is best, bitless, or with a bit.

What factors determine if you need a bit for your horse?

There is also another debate amongst those that believe in bits. What type is best, and what type is worst? There are strong opinions on both of these issues, and they can be very confusing to a new rider. However, your horse’s safety is of the most importance.

Picture of a row of bits hanging on hooks in a tack room,

Many people think that going bitless is best for a horse. Metal in a horse’s mouth can cause pain issues, tear sensitive skin, and even damage teeth. It isn’t quite as simple as that, though. It very much depends on both the horse and the rider.

When we mount a horse for the first time there is no need to use bits. Introducing the bit before your animal is comfortable with its saddle can create too much stress and confusion for an inexperienced animal.

We never use a bit when mounting a horse for its first time because it creates too much stress. Instead, we keep things simple by letting them become accustomed to saddle first. The introduction of bits comes later after these young animals have had lots more experience with riding activities.

Picture of a horse in a bitless bridle

Your hands

Even without a bit, you can cause your horse problems if you are a heavy-handed rider. If you add a bit to that mix, the horse is not going to be happy. Light hands tend to be best, no matter what type of bit or even whether or not you use one.

How you use the reins while riding or driving will play a large role in your communication with the horse. The horse’s mouth is very sensitive and somewhat delicate. Sawing on the reins will tear tissue that will take time to heal.

Your horse

Each horse and each horse breed are different. That difference will be the primary thing that helps you decide about bits vs. no bits. Talk to the previous owner to see what was used. If you are buying from the horse’s trainer, you can get even more information.

Picture of a woman riding a horse without a bit,

Bitless riding or driving is done through the reins alone. They are attached to either side of the bridle and communicate that way. Using a bit adds a mouthpiece that can give even more information, although it is usually more subtle.

Types of bits

There are a lot of different types of bits out there. Some are gentle, and some aren’t gentle at all. Some are only for training, while others can be used across multiple disciplines.

Bits apply pressure in the horse’s mouth when a rider pulls on the reins. The pressure signals the horse and directs its movement. The type of bit you choose is based on the style of riding, your riding level, and the horse’s experience and training.

Picture of a horse with a bit,

Some people swear by the snaffle while others mock it and prefer the curb type. The following bits are the most common types you typically see used.

Snaffle bits

Snaffle bits have a jointed mouthpiece and rings. The bridle and reins are attached to the rings outside of the horses’ mouths. When a rider pulls on the reins pressure is put on the tongue, corners of the mouth, and the bars of the mouth.

The most manageable bits can be of the snaffle variety. Snaffle bits typically fit in the gap between the horse’s front teeth and its molars. Sometimes the snaffle has a curve in it, which is called a port. There are also different materials used for the bit.

Eggbutt snaffle bits are gentle.

An eggbutt snaffle is usually called the gentlest bit. There are many brands, and the crosspiece can be made of many things. Horses like sweet metal a lot, though they can be plastic or from other metals. A gentle bit and gentle hands go well together.

The reason it is considered the best is because of the shape of the cheekpieces. They are unlikely to pinch the horse’s skin, causing pain and a startle response. Snaffle bits can have a straight piece or can be jointed in the middle.

Snaffle bits apply pressure from the top rather than the bottom. They may have a curb strap under them to prevent slippage, but the strap is only there for that reason. Snaffles apply pressure on the mouth, cheeks, and tongue depending on the shape.

Curb bits

Curb bits provide something snaffles don’t have a lot of; leverage. The reins are attached to the bottom rather than the top of the bridle. Many people think that if a bit has only a single bar, it is, therefore, a snaffle, but that isn’t true. Curb bits can have the same single bar.

When you pull the reins of a curb bit, the pressure goes under the chin, on the roof of the mouth, and even onto the poll. The leverage means it is likely to have a speedier response, and this bit is often used in speed competitions.

A martingale can increase the intensity of a curb bit.

A curb bit isn’t necessarily a harsh bit, although they can be. In the wrong hands, any bit is a harsh bit. However, there are additions to the bit that can make matters worse. As an example, a martingale attachment can do that.

There are other types of bits. Some are combination snaffle and curb bits. These usually require two sets of reins, one to operate each section of the bit. They can be more challenging to ride with until the rider gets used to using the two sets.

Spade bits are harsh.

When it comes to harsh bits, usually, the spade bit comes to mind. However, in the hands of a rider who knows how to use it, the horse may respond well with little to no pain. In fact, the spade bit is used only in Western riding, and those riders who use it do more neck reining than using the bit.

The takeaways about bits and bitless are simple. There are a few rules to consider when deciding on what to use, and they are easy to follow for the most part.

Hackamores are used when riding without a bit.

hackamore is a type of horse headgear perfected by Vaquero ranchers. It doesn’t have a bit but is designed to control a horse with pressure applied to points on a horse’s face, nose, and chin for control.

Hackamores have been traditionally used to train horses in single reigning and the introduction of indirect pressure and release techniques. Pressure and release techniques are essential in many aspects of a horse’s training.

Rules to consider when choosing a bit.

  1. This can’t be stated often enough: The harshest bit isn’t what goes in the horse’s mouth. It comes from the hands of an inexperienced rider who has heavy hands. It doesn’t matter whether that person goes with or without a bit; that is the harshest.
  2. Look at what breeds may need which bit. The horse’s breed does make a difference, although that is a generalization.
  3. Look at the rules for the type of riding or driving you plan to do. If competition is what you are aiming for, the rules will help decide about bits and whether or not you need one.
  4. Talk to the person you are buying the horse from. This person can tell you about more than just the bit type. All kinds of needed information can be passed along before purchase.
  5. You may have to experiment with different bits to find the right one. If you can, take a test drive before purchasing.
  6. Listen to your horse. How it responds to the bit can tell you a lot.


1. Is it OK to ride a horse without shoes?

Yes, it’s fine to ride most horses without shoes and the more they’re barefooted the stronger their hoofs get. However, most horses need shoes when riding over gravel or concrete to protect their tender soles and hoofs. To learn more about riding a horse without shoes check out this article: Can You Ride a Barefoot Horse on the Road? 10 Tips

2. Can you ride a swayback horse?

Yes, you can ride most horses that have a swayback. However, some horses with curved backs have weakened back muscles and may not be suitable for riding. Every horse is an individual, and there is no one rule for all of them. To read more about swayback horses, see this article: Why Do Some Horses Have Curved Backs? A Look at Swaybacks

3. How do horse feel about being ridden?

Horses are individuals and I think each feel a little different about being ridden. Some horses love the companionship they have with their owners out and enjoy working with them and training for events, others not so much.
A horses’ attitude towards being ridden has a lot to do with the way its treated, how the tack fits, and its fitness level. You can find out more about the attitude horses have toward being ridden in this article: Do Horses Like to Be Ridden? 5 Keys to a Happy Horse