Bitless equitation in ancient times

Boy with horse (possibly Castor)
Marble relief from Hadrian’s Villa (Tivoli – Italy)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In recent years, the ability to ride a horse without using a bit, perhaps performing sophisticated dressage exercises, has often been presented as a demonstration of an innovative communication skill with the animal, due to the new techniques of so called “natural horsemanship”. But in fact, the use of riding without a bit is very old. Classical sources provide us with many examples, most of which relate to the use of a horse mounted without a bit, not simply to perform exercises that demonstrate his perfect training, but even in war in which the riders relied on their horses for their lives and their success in battle.

The best known case is that of the ancient Numidian cavalry. The Numidians were a people who lived in Northern Africa, in an area that went from the Mauretania to the kingdom of Carthage, which now coincides roughly with northwestern Algeria. They were skilled riders who provided mounted troops first to the Carthaginians, then to the Romans. The Numidian kingdom finally became a Roman province after the victory of Caesar over Pompey (48 BC.). The Numidian cavalry (equites numidarum) constituted a significant portion of the auxiliary corps of light cavalry in the Roman army from the Second Punic War until the third century AD. They were fast units, mainly used to strike the enemy with sudden attacks and quick retreats. They were armed with round shields of leather and short javelins. They were also used in patrolling tasks, but they were quite vulnerable in close combat.

Numidian Cavalry (on the right)
The horses have a simple collar as the only harness
Traian’s Column (Rome)

Their skill is mentioned by Livy, which recounts an episode in which their habit of riding without bits was exploited as defeat, with a trap, for the Ligurian that barred the passage to the Roman army. Livy writes:

«Between the auxiliary troops, the consul had about eight hundred Numidian horsemen. […] The Numidians jumped on the backs of their horses and began to ride in the face of enemy positions without attacking anyone. Nothing was more insignificant of their first appearance: men and horses were few and little ones, the riders had no belt and weapons, except for the fact that they brought with them a javelin, the horses were without bit and even their gait was bad, seen that they cantered with a stiff neck and head forward. Increasing on purpose such contempt, the Numidians fell from their horses and offered themselves to the sight of the enemy amidst mocking jokes» (Ab urbe condita, XXXV, 11, 8).

By this strategy, the Numidians were able to evade the enemy blockade and, once beyond the line of defense, they reached and devastated a village. Their action produced panic among the ranks of the Ligurians, which disbanded and, therefore, the Roman consul could proceed with the rest of his troops. Always, Livy (Ab urbe condita, XXIII, 29) points out that the Numidians had horses specially trained and that they took two animals with them into battle. At the height of the fight, they used to jump, as acrobats, from the tired horse to the more fresh, so great was their agility and the docility of their mounts.

Numidian Cavalry
Traian’s Column (Rome)

The Numidians habit of riding without a bit is also mentioned by Virgil, in the fourth canto of his Aeneid, when talking about them he defines them as (in verse 41) “infreni”. This adjective is usually translated with words like “unconquered” or “wild”, meaning “savagely hostile”, but literally it means “without brake”, namely “without bit”.

Further confirmation is in the Pharsalia of Lucan in which, giving an overview of the African troops under the command of Publius Varus Actium, lieutenant of Pompeius, he remembers that among them were mentioned the forces of the Numidian king Juba. Of the Massylii, namely the Numidian oriental tribes, he says “that, riding bareback, they direct the muzzles, unaware of bits, with a light stick” (IV, 682-683).

In his description of North Africa, even Strabo (Geography, XVII) points out the use of the Massylii to ride without a bit, only with the help of a rope and a stick. Their horses are described as small and ardent, but yet so obedient to follow their masters like dogs.

The Traian’s Column
Rome – Italy

Another use which is also confirmed, is found in the Column of Trajan, the Roman monument that celebrates the conquest of Dacia (101-106 AD) by the Roman emperor Trajan. This is a column which is about a hundred feet high, growing to about one hundred and thirty one feet if you include the base and the statue on top. Along the shaft, rolls up a spiral frieze, a total of about six hundred and fifty six feet long, which includes 114 scenes that tell, as a giant strip cartoon, the deeds of the imperial army. In one of these can be clearly seen, the Roman auxiliary cavalry Numidians troops who ride their horses without bits, but with a simple collar as the only harness.

In his Essais, Montaigne also points out that Julius Caesar, as did Pompey Magnus, was an excellent rider. So much so that in his youth he was able to ride «on a horse bareback and without a bridle», with his horse «running at full speed keeping his hands behind his back» (Essais, I, 48).

Finally, in the sixteenth century, the Italian writer and horseman Claudio Corte devotes a chapter (the 63rd of the second book) of his treatise about The Horseman (1562) to «the manner of riding the horse without the help of reins and without curb chain», explaining how, through progressive training, the horse can be taught to obey only with leg and seat aids, so that he can perform difficult exercises without the use of a bit.

Alizée Froment riding her lusitano stallion Mistral, without either bit or saddle. A superb demonstration of perfect understanding between horse and rider. To visit her website, click on this link: Alizée Froment website

Bibliography

CORTE, Claudio, Il Cavallarizzo, Venezia, Giordano Zilletti, 1562

LIVY, Ab urbe condita, libri XXIII e XXXV

LUCAN, Pharsalia, IV, 682-683

MONTAIGNE, Michel de, Essais, I, 48

SIDNELL, Phil, Warhorse: Cavalry in the Ancient World, London-New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007

STRABO, Geograhy, XVII, 3, 7

VIRGIL, Aeneid, IV, 41

2 thoughts on “Bitless equitation in ancient times

  1. You are a treasure to the modern equestrian world! Your book, “The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art” published by Xenophon press is a masterpiece of research and writing. It sheds light on a plethora of all but forgotten equestrian history illuminating the beginnings and evolution of classical horsemanship and introducing some of the lesser or unknown masters of this age of Rebirth and Enlightenment. As one of the co-founders of the Baroque Equestrian Games & Institute, it will give us great pleasure to promote your articles and books through our website, clinics, workshops and competitions. Thank you for your amazing body of work!

    • Dear Tina,

      I’m very glad and honored of your appreciation and I will be very pleased to cooperate with your activities.
      We will keep in touch. Thank you!

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