Barred for being bitless…

by Linda Chamberlain

A Royal show gets ready to open its doors – but this is one competitor who will have to stay at home.

Rea 4

Not because the horse isn’t a top performer…and not because the rider isn’t willing and able. Have a look at the photo – Rea Trotman can ride that horse of hers with no hands. Over jumps.

So why does the Retraining of Racehorses Organisation have such a problem with their entry at the Royal Norfolk Show? The animal is barefoot but that’s not a stumbling block for the horse, the rider or the show. No the difficulty, it seems, is the choice of bridle if they want to enter a jump challenge for retrained racehorses.

You see this beautiful thoroughbred, who has won countless races at Ascot, Goodwood and Doncaster, is now ridden with a bitless bridle. His owner has chosen this for him as a kindness because his teeth aren’t as good as they used to be and anyway…he doesn’t need a metal bit, jangling around in his mouth in order for him to understand his rider’s requests.

Rea, who has owned Danegold for the last seven years, read about the harm bits can cause to teeth and jaws, and decided he should never wear one again. As you can see, it hasn’t slowed them down.

They’ve entered plenty of low-key fun shows, showjumping and sponsored rides but Rea thought it was time they stepped up a gear.Rea 6

The Royal Norfolk Show is the biggest agricultural show in the country and the Queen is its patron. More than 1000 horses are expected to enter and over the two days in July about 90,000 people will come to watch the spectacle.


It’s a fair bet that those spectators would love to see what can be achieved by a barefoot and bitless horse like Danegold.

And wouldn’t the Queen, were she to attend this year, be impressed  with a wonderful ex-racehorse proving how well these beautiful animals can adjust to life after the track?

The class Rea hoped to enter includes a course of jumps and an individual show. ‘My horse would excel in this class as it is judged on style and performance,’ she said. ‘He is very laid back and well behaved; he deserves to show everyone just how great ex-racers can be.’

She decided to check with the retraining organisation’s officials but was told there were rules against bitless bridles for this class although not for showjumping.  ‘The reasons were shocking,’ she added. ‘They made no sense. Seeing a bitless ex-racer demonstrates complete retraining, which is what the class is all about.’

Rea has much in common with other bitless or barefoot riders who are falling foul of the rules of competitions in the UK.

Rea 3

The rules governing our shows are in a complete muddle. You can participate in extremely dangerous equine activities such as racing, showjumping and hunting without metal applied to your horse’s mouth or feet. But you aren’t allowed to do many dressage competitions without a bit. Rules for working hunter classes insist on both bits and shoes even though you can ride without either if you are hunting across the fields. Many barefoot riders say they are frustrated at the exclusion. One person told me they were stopped from competing in a Pony Club team because a ‘barefoot horse was an unfit horse’.

And just listen to this story from Monica Andreewitch of the Pony Academy in Surrey who teaches children to ride on ponies wearing just a rope halter. She had six children eager and ready to go to a jumping competition and then realised the rope halters might cause a bit of a stir. She checked with the organisers and was told that juniors must ride in a bitted bridle.

‘After pondering and checking with my soul, I decided that I could trust the children with bridles,’ she said. ‘They have independent seats and do not hang onto their halters – so why would it be different in bridles?’

Monica bowed to pressure. The children competed. The ponies weren’t jabbed in their mouths and they did cause a stir thanks to their notable control with long, loose reins. Not everyone can or will comply. For Rea and Danegold, there are dental health issues that cannot be ignored.

Rea 5

But frankly, these competition rules are silly. Or are they about tradition for its own sake?

I can’t help worrying that all this nonsense stems from utter embarrassment. There are a growing number of people who ride like Rea. They have a close connection with their horse. They achieve amazing things without whips or spurs and they do it without hands sometimes and make the rest of us feel like novices again. Imagine feeling like that if you are a judge. Is this the reason such riders are excluded? Are they too good? Too kind? They are not in need of whips, spurs and strong bits – all of which are welcomed with open arms.

The only time I’ve seen a rider booed as she left a showjumping arena was thanks to over use of a whip. A horse refused some jumps in a top competition at Hickstead and was eliminated. The horse was punished severely with a whip. The rider was jeered and humiliated by the crowd. If the public knew of the potential harm caused by shoes and bits, the public would not be amused by the equine world.

 So, here is my message to the rule makers and show organisers. Keep up with this growing equestrian movement towards less coercion and fewer gadgets. Embrace it because it’s good horsemanship; it’s humane and wonderful. Welcome it because the public, and probably the Queen, would love to see it. They would probably cheer!


THANKS to everyone for supporting this campaigning blog. My interview with ex-farrier Marc Ferrador last month had more than 30,000 hits in a week! Click on the follow button to keep in touch and leave me a comment as I love to hear from you.

BOOK NEWS – published this week – A Barefoot Journey, my honest and light-heartedCover_Barefoot_3 (1) account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback and Kindle.

BookCover5_25x8_Color_350_NEW from AmberLinks to The First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – Amazon UK. Amazon US.




16 thoughts on “Barred for being bitless…

  1. Reading this excites me, as I have just taken on a 15.2 gypsy cob she has been a broodmare all her life. We are working bitless. We have a long long way to go to get to your level. But it’s been a great journey so far. Well done to you


  2. I personally think it’s not right you should be able to compete barefoot and bit less as long as you have full control which they do I jump my here barefoot because if it wasn’t for barefoot my horse would have gone eight years ago to navicular barefoot saved his life and I also ride bit less .


  3. Linda, this is just one more example of the traditionally minded powers that be. The thought that a bitless horse cannot be controlled sufficiently and the outright rejection of all scientific evidence that bits are harmful. The “we’ve always done it this way” attitude will sadly prevail for a great many years to come but at least some of us are already making a difference and helping the tide to turn.
    It is interesting to note the pony club attitude to barefoot and compare it with racing Trotters here in France – shoes are obligatory, not because of issues of soundness but rather because of the unfair advantage barefoot offers!!! A barefoot horse falls in the same category as doping 😦


  4. Ugh, I’ve noticed that even small local shows require bits for all the classes. I mean I’ve been riding bitless since I started riding, till now when I have to put my a bit in my ottb’s mouth for a show. Sure soft hands and a snaffle will may ease her uneasiness with the bit, but it proves no point for the world.


  5. I think it’s crazy that bitless should be excluded from certain competitions. How many bitted horses have you seen who are not under control. All 6 of our horses are bitless, barefoot and treeless. Some people arev scared to ride like that first time, that’s normal. Strat on long lines and in an enclosed area. I now want to progress with one of our horses to bridleless. It’s all about rtaining and communication. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a high profile person backed bitless?


  6. Fantastic post, thanks. Bitless, barefoot, non-coercive training techniques, more natural lifestyles – wonderful to see these things being explored and the increase the safety between horse and human.


  7. We rescued five Standardbred horses, trained them (and they trained us) as a team. We went bush trail riding for three months (unassisted) – just the seven of us (husband, me and 5 boys) – well relied on each other totally. The boys wore boots when on road as they were barefoot and at times there was a lot of road work – all the boys were in rope halters. Three were packing and the two we rode, we didn’t have one problem (with them being bit-less). The boys were far more relaxed and actually listened to our voices – that was our main control. I hope it is okay to mention this here Linda – but I wrote a book on our extraordinary journey – it’s just been released and I am donating 50% of proceeds to help rescue more horses….


  8. The one time i did compete in a Riding Club Hunter Trial bit less, I signed a disclaimer….that seemed to work, and then came 2nd in the Novice:) I thanked the organizers profusely for such a great day, collected my prize and then went onto walk around the course to watch the following class with my daughter, (who has always been bitless)…she just could not believe how some so called Riding Club members were shouting, swearing and hitting their horses over the jumps and that seems acceptable by the Riding Clubs Association…..


      • “The classical world of horse riding, the heir to militarist rigour and the fruit of a very macho attitude, does not tolerate a horse that resists. There is not a single moment possible where the “horseman” can yield to the resistance of the horse. Often, yielding is not an act of failure but can be more intelligent than a confrontation that only ends in constraint. For reasons that still have not been evaluated, the horse – a sentient being – can express refusal. Many accidents could be avoided if the rider or is instructor was allowed to listen to the horse rather than falling into the widespread paranoia that supposes that, after a failure, the horse wants to be dominant in its relationship with man. Wanting to have the last word is a very tight concept which degrades all relationships. It is not fear nor pride that guides a relationship. These notions often take the place of confidence.”
        Quote from The silence of the horses by Pierre Enoff


  9. Great article. The world of horsemanship has and is changing and the ‘stuffy’ rule makers have to change or be out of a job because so many riders are now going bitless they will not have any competitors to ban – brilliant work keep it up. If more competitors would stand up for their horses and bother to read all the information ‘out there’, particularly from the likes of Dr. Robert Cook things would change even faster. I can’t believe anyone who cares for horses would put metal in their mouths, causing pain and stress, and thats just the beginning of problems and discomfort for the horse.


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