Are old bridles a bit too much? horse WHISPERS.
TO BIT or not to bit? Horse riders and horse lovers are beginning to question what once seemed laid down in tablets of stone.
From natural horsemanship to barefoot shoeing and the influence of the web, the horse world is now in a more questioning and experimental mood.
Bitless bridles are another method which appear to be catching the equine zeitgeist.
Julie Cabb, 39, from Prestatyn, a horsey working mum, has joined the army of bitless bridle devotees. She has two daughters Alex, 13, and Georgia, seven, who for months had struggled to control her otherwise perfect 12.2hh Welsh pony, Sophie.
Despite spending some pounds 250 on bridles of every description, Sophie remained obstinate and Julie was forced to contemplate letting the pony go.
Then Julie discovered Dr Cook's bitless bridle on Sheila Lee Thomas' trade stand at last month's BHS Festival of the Horse at Northop, near Mold - and everything changed.
Sheila, 57, from Lampeter, was a website designer until 18 months ago when she started importing bitless bridles from former British vet Dr Robert Cook, now Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Surgery at Boston University, USA.
After taking 30 orders in her first week, sales doubled month on month: Sheila launched a new career.
The bit or not to bit question, it seems, goes back millennia: a 6th century BC Egyptian procession in stone relief, showed bitless mules.
Dr Cook said: "The bosal, the hackamore and the sidepull are not perfect but they cause fewer and less serious problems than the bit."
Frances Kelly, incoming president of the Society of Master Saddlers, whose specialisation is bridles, is less committal.
"There is a key to every horse's mouth. It is a matter of finding the right one for you and your horse. No one way is the right way," she said.
On the face of it a bitless bridle appears to be kindest. But in the wrong hands it can cut off the horse's breathing: Frances recalled how she once saw a horse pass out when showjumping.
A massive port on a Pelham bit may look like a medieval torture instrument. Yet for a horse with a large, thick tongue, it is the kinder solution since it ensures clearance on the roof of the mouth. In this case, a simple bar may not be the answer.
Nevertheless Dr Cook's bitless bridles are finding favour with increasing numbers of riders.
He said: "The new bridle does not control the horse by pressure on the mouth, nose of chin, which is the principal mode of action of all bits, the bosal and the hackamore.
"Instead it controls primarily by distributing gentle and painless pressure around the whole head. It enables the rider to put a benevolent grip on one or both sides of the head, for steering or stopping respectively."
And for one North Wales family, the bitless bridle appears to be working wonders: Little Georgia has decided to keep Sophie and they are getting on well together.
Visit www.mastersaddlers.co.uk or call Sheila Lee Thompson on 01570 471 541 (www.bitlessbridle.co.uk).
Georgia Cabb, seven, riding Sophie with the bitless bridle fitted Picture: JEFF PITT