3 The stirrup was invented by the Sarmatians, ca. 2000 BC and re-invented by the Chinese in 300 AD 2 my doc/bridle/history of bitlessness Updated August 2007 illustration depicting chariot horses in Egypt (ca. 1321-1300 BC) being controlled with a bitless bridle.
Two reins are attached to a severely dropped noseband.
The upper rein appears to be a sort of bearing rein and the charioteer holds the lower rein.
As with the bit, the early bitless bridles may have relied on force rather than finesse.
Nosebands at a certain level would have the effect of pressing on the fleshy portion of the muzzle and would ‘control’ by obstructing the airway.
When the nosebands are placed higher, and rest on the peak of the nasal bone (as they are with the present-day cross-under bitless bridles), suffocation is no longer a factor in control and horsemen learn to communicate rather than command.
Halters were probably invented before bridles.
Evidence cited by Anderson on the design of early halters comes from a picture of a drinking vessel in the British Museum (Fig 2).
The vessel is in the form of a mule’s head with its ears laid back and its mouth wide open (Attic, mid-fifteenth century BC).
The mule wears what is plainly a halter with a low set noseband but with cross-under straps clearly indicated and no chin strap.
This item supports Anderson’s later description of the design of halters at this period of history (see below) Fig 2.
Mid 15th century BC drinking vessel in the form of a mule’s head with a halter featuring cross-under straps (From Anderson, ‘Ancient Greek Horsemanship’) A sixth century B.C illustration (Boetian) shows a cart in a bridal procession being drawn by a pair of mules.
The carter controls simply by means of a whip and there is no evidence of a bit or bridle.
An early fifth century BC vessel (Attic) in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston shows a carefully delineated Greek pack donkey carrying a load on a wooden-framed saddle (Fig 3).
The donkey wears what Anderson describes as a halter.
The lead rope is apparently attached to the packsaddle at one end and is described as being attached to the chinstrap of the halter at the other end.
The donkey’s head is strongly flexed and the front line of the nasal bone is vertical to the ground.
But judging by the position of the noseband, it was resting on the nasal bone and would not have interfered with respiration.
A feature my doc/bridle/history of bitlessness 3 Updated August 2007 of the bridle’s design is the presence of the two cross-under straps.
These run from a point high on the cheekpiece on one side, at a level just above the corner of the eye.
They end at the metal ring on the noseband on the opposite side of the head.4 Fig 3.
Pack donkey on a 5th century BC vessel; the halter has cross-under straps and a chin strap (From Anderson, ‘Ancient Greek Horsemanship’) An Etrurian vase from about 530 BC in the Louvre shows a mounted hunter with javelin, riding bareback, chasing a pair of antlered stags.
The horse has a bitless bridle with noseband (on the nasal bone), browband and throatlatch.
Its mouth is shown wide open.
This may have been an artistic convention to indicate liveliness, rather than because it had a bit in its oral cavity.
Anderson suggests that the open mouth “merely provides the artist with an opportunity to indulge his love of white paint” but I think we should be wary of accepting this explanation.
The bit is such a common cause of an open mouth in an exercising horse, both in painting and sculpture, that the presence of a bit should always be suspected as the cause of this pathological situation whenever this ‘convention’ is seen.
Another bitless bridle variation is seen in an Attic, mid-fifth century BC vase in the British Museum.
The horse wears a halter with a very broad noseband, probably with spikes or studs on the inside.
The draughtsmanship is rather poor but, if it is to be believed, the bottom edge of the noseband lies in touch with the top edge of the nostril and the corner of the mouth. 4 This halter, with small changes, could easily evolve into the present day cross-under bitless bridle. my doc/bridle/history of bitlessness 4 Updated August 2007 A continuation of the idea that horses can be controlled by pressure across the nose led eventually to the system of control now regarded as the norm for the Western style of horsemanship on the American continent.
I refer to the hackamore, and bosal (both bitless bridles) that depend for their effect on applying painful pressure on nose and chin.
Historically, these trace their ancestry back to the horseman of the Iberian Peninsula and la jaquima.
The tradition was introduced into America by the 16th century Spanish conquistadors.
They, in turn, had inherited the tradition from the 700-year Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula in the seventh and eighth centuries AD.5 In using this system, horses are trained to respond first to the hackamore before introducing a potentially severe curb bit.
But used correctly, the curb bit is employed with only the very lightest of pressure on the reins.
It has been described as the nose-to-bit system.
Pat Parelli is a modern exponent of the system but not everyone uses the system so well.
Anderson comments on the early distinction that was made between a halter for leading a horse and a bridle for controlling a ridden or driven horse.
The distinction is illustrated in a vase painted about 540 BC by the Athenian artist Nearchos, found at the Acropolis in Athens (Fig 4).
To be inserted In relation to the development of the cross-under bitless bridle it is of interest to make note of the description given by Anderson of the design of the halters in the late centuries BC. “The simplest type of halter consists of a noseband divided into two halves, front and back, held in place by a third strap passing over the horse’s head just behind the ears.
The junctions between these straps, on either side of the horse’s head, are normally formed by two large rings, presumably of metal.
A single lead rope is fastened to the back part of the noseband [the chinstrap], under the chin.
More elaborate examples have browbands and throat lashes, or [and I add emphasis here] two straps crossing under the chin in place of a simple band.” Anderson does not, at this point, make a cross reference back to the mule head drinking vessel (Fig 2) or to the Greek pack donkey (Fig 3), though it seems likely that this is what he is describing.
MODERN HISTORY I have deliberately gone into some detail in the foregoing section to outline the development of cross-under bitless design, whether in a halter or bridle.
As there can only be a limited number of ways in which a strap device can be designed for a horse’s head, the differences – though minimal – are nevertheless important.
The cross-under bitless bridle of today makes use of all that has gone before but adds small but vital detail.
The development over time can be described in three paragraphs. Legend has it that the conquistadors led the Native American natives to believe that their horses wore bits to prevent them from eating people.
My doc/bridle/history of bitlessness 5 5 Updated August 2007 First, a cross-under feature was introduced in the design of a halter.
This we have seen was already present in the fifteenth century BC (Fig 2).
Related to the idea of crossing the straps of the halter to provide mechanical strength has been the idea of crossing the reins attached to a halter to provide functional control.
Many a young lad in the past has been taught to ride by his father using a head collar with reins attached.
The boy was never allowed to use a bit (or even a saddle!) until he had developed an independent seat and could handle a bit without damaging the horse’s mouth.
But to gain better control with a head collar, the trick was to cross the reins so that the left rein was attached to the ‘D’ on the right side of the head collar and vice-versa.
This was akin to head reining and in fact encouraged the concept of neck reining.
Horses respond well to this form of communication.
When it was first developed I have not yet been able to discover but I have traced its history back to the end of the 19th century at least and it was probably in use far earlier.
The technique is known about, to this day, in the world of foxhunting, flat racing and probably many other disciplines.
In 1894, McCleod patented a bitted bridle with a cross-under feature (Fig 5) that may have owed its inception to the ‘crossed-rein’ principle.
In McCleod’s bridle, reins ran forward from the rider’s hands, through the snaffle ring, and then crossed under the chin and up the opposite side of the face to finish (after a long detour that included a trip down the side of the face to a pulley on the snaffle ring) by joining over the poll. Fig 5.
The McCleod cross-under but bitted bridle.
This is a rather complicated one-cord bridle involving the use of a couple of pulleys to draw the bit up in the mouth.
In the early 1950s, ‘Ike’ Grimsley, a rodeo ‘bulldogger’ of Swink, Colorado devised a bitless bridle based on the cross-under principle.6 It was the forerunner of today’s crossunder bitless bridles and identical in principle.
It had one small difference.
A strip of copper wire was sewn on the underside of the crownpiece and browband (Fig 6) Grimsley developed this design in response to his own need and that of fellow 6 In those days, everyone had a nickname.
Grimsley was also known as ‘Ink of Swink.’ 6 my doc/bridle/history of bitlessness Updated August 2007
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