A side pull is simply a bridle used without a bit. Reins are attached to rings on either side of the horse's muzzle. When both reins are pulled, pressure is placed on the horse's nose, queuing a halt or turn. Pulling on one rein cues the horse to turn its head in that direction—pulling on the left rein cues the horse to turn left, and the right rein cues a right turn. The simplest side pulls look and feel like a halter. In fact, many of us have used a 'side pull' by attaching lead ropes to the rings on either side of the noseband of a halter.
There are different names for side pulls. They may be called a cavesson bridle, Indian hackamore or a Lindell. Many are named after their creators like a Dr. Cook bridle.
Side pull bridles come in many different designs. Some may be made entirely of leather, and some are made of rope. On some side pulls, the nose piece may be a very stiff strap (or several layers) of leather. There may be a synthetic or metal wire inside of the leather for more stability. Some side pulls have nose pieces made of one or two lengths of stiff lariat rope. Knots on the nose pieces of the side pull add to the pressure when the reins are pulled. The wider the nose piece, the softer the pressure, while thin nose pieces can add to the severity. You'll also find English and western-style side pulls.
How Does a Side Pull Work?
Steering is usually direct reining, although you can neck rein with a side pull. When the reins are pulled back, pressure is placed on the bridge of the horse's nose. When one rein is pulled to turn, the horse's nose/head is pulled in the direction of the rein. Depending on how they are designed some side pulls may place pressure over the poll or under the jaw. You generally don't ride with as much contact as you might with a bit.
Why Use a Side Pull?
Many trainers start young horses with a side pull. This allows the horse to learn directional signals without placing pressure on a sensitive mouth. Horses that are uncomfortable carrying a bit can respond well to a side pull. Horses with dental problems, malformed jaws or other facial injuries may be more comfortable with a side pull than a bit.
Horses that have had riders who are heavy-handed and have caused pain and numbness in the horse's mouth may respond well to a side pull, provided the rider learns to use their hands gently. A rider who hauls on their horse's nose may find the animal becomes insensitive to a bitless bridle as well. Many behaviors like head tossing and shaking, balking, and rooting are stopped when a side pull is used.
Using a side pull on the trail makes it easier for the horse to snack and drink. In winter there is no frozen bit to hurt a horse's mouth. School horses with riders who have unsteady hands might appreciate being ridden in a side pull.
How Should a Side Pull Fit?
The side pull fits like a regular bridle. The browband should be long (wide) enough that when you pull on the rein to turn, the cheek pieces of the bridle don't pull into the horse's eye on the opposite side. The nosepiece of the bridle should fit about four fingers from the top of your horse's mouth. You'll want it high enough that it doesn't sit on the cartilage of the nose, or on the ends of the nose bones themselves. The higher it is placed, the milder the action. If you need a little more "whoa," try adjusting the nose piece so it sits a little lower. The chin strap should be done up so that the horse can still open its mouth comfortably, but not left so it is dangling. We prefer light leather reins. If you buy a specific type of side pull, like a Dr. Cook or Diane Thompson side pull, you will get detailed fitting instructions with your bridle.
Other Types of Bitless Bridles
There are other types of bitless bridles, such as hackamores and bosals.