As with bitted bridles, bitless consist of many types. As with bitted riding, bitless requires knowledge of biomechanics, recognisable cues and connection or contact.
Riding in a halter with a lead rope tied around as reins is not bitless riding. It is a sloppy piece of equipment that will give sloppy cues and have a tendency to exert pressure on either the nose or the poll. More importantly there are incidents of oversized halters catching on a fence, tree or gate, or even snagging a hoof if a horse fly-kicks or drops his head for a scratch. A loose halter also slips around excessively, increasing the possibility of an eye injury or nasal cartilage damage. A tight halter is not as dangerous, but does affect the release of pressure, being the basis of natural training, therefore lessens the effectiveness of training techniques.
Pressure halters, like Mr. Roberts Dually, or the Be Nice, punish wrong behaviour. I am an exponent of "ignore the bad and reward the good". So to punish the wrong is a definite no-no in my book. If the horse pulls against you, these halters tighten at the poll, exerting a pressure greater than the horse exerted into the halter. The horse then yields, because he is avoiding the pressure. He has learnt not to run into the pressure. He hasn´t learnt to listen to his rider and understand positive cues.
If a horse pulls against a rope halter, or bridle, it will receive it´s own pressure back, because a rope bridle has no closing action. This is then a consequence, rather than a punishment. Being thinner than a conventional halter, a more concentrated pressure is exerted if the horse leans on it - one that has instant release. Though the real point of a rope bridle, used correctly, is to give clear signals about the right behaviour. It is not to punish, or even prevent, the wrong behaviour.
Refined communication, clear gentle movement on the face, means a horse learns to respond to increasingly lighter signals, and rope bridles are where it all began.
It was the Spanish riders who took their technic to the Americas. Using a bosal, made of rawhide, they started all their horses in this ´hackamore´ The nose piece, the bosal, was shaped to fit the horse. Correct positioning and fit were important, as along with the weighting of the fiador knot, this kept the bosal in place, limiting forward movement of this knot, but allowing it to swing when rein pressure is released. "For approximately 2 years young horses were taught the basics in a bosal. Neck reining, back up, halt and to cut and work the cattle. All without a bit. As education progressed the thickness of the noseband (bosal) decreased. Starting out in a "heavy hackamore" of about 3/4" diameter and ending with a light 3/8th inch. Not until a horse was 5 or 6 years old was a bit introduced into their training."
With the advent of new materials we now have amazing fabrics that appear to be leather, and metal side pieces to attach reins in different positions, for different pressure and distinct styles of ridiing. What ever your chosen discipline, what ever the style of bitless bridle, it does not mean you can by-pass that basic schooling.
The resurgence of natural horsemanship seems to have opened the doors to a whole new level of non-horsemanship. People see going bitless as an excuse for no riding skills, not realising the harm they are causing their mounts. I am seeing more horses developing ewe necks due to unbalanced riders pushing their horse up it´s gaits, running into one from another, than I ever have due to bad bitted training. I am seeing many sway backs because people aren´t collecting the horse, teaching it straightness and balance in a working walk or trot, because they think letting it plod is natural, and if it´s natural it´s good! I see horses unable to walk a circle, never mind trot or canter one without falling out, and even in, due to washing line reins being yanked at the last minute if the horse isn´t going where the rider desires, along with the rider leaning on the inside, further confusing the horse. All in the name of natural riding. Natural is not being ridden. Being ridden there has to be changes, for the good of the horse. Being ridden bitless does not mean taking shortcuts. Good groundwork for the horse. Good correctly trained riding skills for the rider. A seasoned trainer for the horse. All the afore mentioned need applying with the correct tools. But remember, tools do not make up for lack of teaching and the very first tool to be pulled out of the box should always be patience.
A correctly schooled bitless horse, and correctly schooled rider, can enjoy each other in whatever discipline they choose with far more joy and far less health issues. Bitless riding is one of the current hot topics in the higher echelons of the equestrian world. In many cases it is a welfare issue, beyond the issues we know of tongue and bar pressure, poll and sacral issues of a bit. We need bitless riding to be taken seriously. In order for this people need to be seen to be riding correctly not just for the immediate sake of their horse, but for the sake of positive change in regulations and better welfare for all horses. Please take the time to assess a number of different schools and trainers when looking for someone for you or your horse. Expect to pay proper money for proper education. It is a technique that needs to be learned. It isn´t rocket science, but it isn´t going native either.