Hackamore Vs Bit: Choosing the Right Bridle for Your Horse

Do you know the difference between a hackamore vs. a bit? When choosing the right bridle for your horse, the choices can be overwhelming.

I have a tack locker ridiculously full of bridles – snaffle bits, a gag bit, a Myler combination bit, a loping hackamore, a traditional hackamore, and a mechanical hackamore. It’s about finding the right piece of equipment for you and your horse.

That might change with time, training, and experimentation, which is why so many people collect bits and bridles.

Let’s talk about hackamores and bits.

Key Takeaways

  • Mechanical hackamores use indirect pressure or leverage to control the horse.
  • Traditional hackamores are gentle and use direct pressure but require skill and timing to teach the horse to work correctly in it.
  • Unlike a snaffle bit, both require loose reins and an independent seat, because relentless contact will make them ineffective and potentially injure the horse.

Going Bitless

The most obvious difference between a hackamore and a bit is that a hackamore doesn’t have a bit.

Bits, depending on the type, work on the horse’s lips, bars, tongue, and the roof of its mouth.

snaffle bit

Any type of bitless bridle, including (especially) the hackamore, operates on the sensitive nerves around the horse’s face. 

Researchers using sensors to study the forces exerted by bitted and bitless bridles concluded, “Removal of the bit from the horse’s mouth means that rein tension forces are distributed to other facial structures.

This study demonstrates that these forces are sufficiently high to possibly have detrimental effects. The design and use of bitless bridles should be carefully considered in light of this finding.” (1)

So, bitless can work, but it isn’t automatically kinder than a bit. It depends on how you ride with it. That said, some horses prefer it.

It’s necessary to point out that some mechanical hackamores are at the more severe end of the bitless spectrum.

Read on to find out why.

CHECK: Best Hackamore for Strong Horse


Mechanical hackamores all use indirect pressure or leverage. They work like a curb bit or gag bit, acting on the horse’s nose, poll, and curb groove. Unlike a bit, they obviously don’t exert any pressure inside the mouth.

They have metal shanks and a curb chain or curb strap, which applies pressure to the horse’s lower jaw in the same manner as any shanked bit.

Watch this video to learn how mechanical hackamores work:

A snaffle bit, on the other hand, uses direct pressure. So do rope halters, sidepulls, and other varieties of bitless bridles.

Direct pressure means that when the rider pulls on the rein with a force of one pound, the horse feels that as one pound.

When you add shanks to your bridle, however, you magnify that amount of force. Now the horse feels your one pound as five pounds, or more, depending on the type of hackamore and length of the shanks.

This is also how shanked bits work.

Mechanical hacks are not suitable for beginner riders or green horses. The horse needs to have a clear understanding of seat and leg aids, and the rider needs to have soft hands and an equally as clear understanding of the seat and leg.

However, the traditional hackamore, or bosal, doesn’t use leverage. Its rawhide noseband does not tighten around the horse’s nose. It hangs loosely, and when the reins are pulled, the horse feels the top of the noseband twisting.

It uses mecate reins, which are thick and heavy, traditionally made out of mane hair, but you can also find ones made out of nylon, yacht rope, or alpaca. The weight of the mecate aids the signals and can be used to teach a horse to neck rein.

Once the horse is familiar with the bosal, you can ride with the lightest levels of pressure, as the noseband is designed to signal the horse from slight movements of the reins.

This video shows a bosal in action:

It is traditional amongst vaquero riders to start green horses in a bosal. But only if the trainer knows what they’re doing. It is easy to make the horse dull and unresponsive if timing and feel are not precise enough.

RELATED ARTICLE: Common Types of Horse Bits

Different Styles of Riding

If you are a dressage rider like me and accustomed to riding in a snaffle bit, you will have to adapt to the hackamore, whether it’s a mechanical hack or a traditional one.

Snaffle bits are designed to be ridden on constant contact. Hackamores are not. The latter work from an immediate release. You ask the horse to stop or turn, then you let go of the contact as soon as he responds.

Riding with steady pressure on the bit, as you would with a snaffle, will make your horse dull and heavy. It might also cause the hackamore to rub his face. A good hackamore horse will carry himself without relying on the rider’s hands to hold him together.

And a good hackamore rider will have an independent seat and hands.

For horses who prefer more constant input from the rider’s hands, hackamores aren’t the ideal bridle. I owned a horse who was conformationally challenging – long-backed with a heavy front end and low-set neck. This horse went much better in a snaffle bit because I could help keep her front and back end connected.

Western riders who are used to neck reining, curb bits, and riding with loose reins won’t find the transition to the hackamore difficult at all.

Check out our expert bits reviews.

Who Uses Mechanical Hackamores?

While they can be harsh in the wrong hands, they are not useless. They are liked by riders in speed events who need extra control. Examples include show jumpers, barrel racers, trail riders, endurance riders, and eventers.

If your horse cannot wear a bit for whatever reason, but you need good brakes, the mechanical hack is an option.

You can even get combination hackamores which have a bit and a hackamore noseband. These are commonly seen in show jumping.

Who Uses Western Hackamores?

Western riders, predominantly. Needless to say, anyone following the Western tradition of making a bridle horse. There are also show classes for hackamore horses, and they are used in reining and working cow horse classes.

Beyond showing and working cattle, they’re an interesting, kind option for trail riders and anyone interested in pursuing bitless horsemanship.

READ MORE: Difference Between Bosal and Hackamore


Is a bitless bridle better than a bit?

lady riding a horse with bitless bridle

It depends on your hands and your horse. Many horses are much more relaxed bitless but you need to experiment and see what works for you. No bridle is a substitute for good training.

What is the gentlest bridle for a horse?

A sidepull. It’s a bitless bridle that essentially acts like a halter with reins attached.

Are hackamores harsh?

A mechanical hackamore with long shanks such as a German hackamore can be very harsh. It should only be used by experienced riders.

Can a beginner ride bitless?

Yes, if the horse is used to it. But not in a hackamore for the reasons stated above. A sidepull and a well-educated horse would be a perfect combination for a novice rider.


If you are thinking of riding your horse bitless, traditional and mechanical hackamores are two out of many options. They are not the easiest ones, however.

For riders who want the same feeling of steady contact that they have in a snaffle, something like a sidepull may be a more forgiving choice.

That said, some horses prefer hackamores and go really well in them. So long as you’re aware of what they can and can’t do, you may find that it’s the perfect bridle for you and your horse.

brown horse wearing a bit


1. Available from: 1.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351729133_Noseband_and_poll_pressures_underneath_bitted_and_bitless_bridles_and_the_effects_on_equine_locomotion

Emily Donoho
Emily Donoho

Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.

Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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