I have never been a brave rider and when I was young I admired the other girls that just jumped up on their horses in the paddock and rode around without a care in the world. I was much more disciplined and just never played with my horses that way during my dressage training. But there was a part of me that really wanted that relationship with a horse. The performances that would bring me to tears were always of horses and riders bareback and/or bridleless. The idea that "less is more" really inspired me. When I bought Douwe (my Friesian gelding), I let myself have an open mind and no expectations. Turns out he LOVES to be ridden bridleless and work at liberty and he has taught me so much on this topic and I would love to share my experiences with you.
For those of you who are like me....cautious and not overly risky...you will definitely need to prepare your horse, yourself, and your surroundings to start working bridleless. Make sure to wear a helmet and ride in a smaller, fully enclosed space like a round pen. There are a few KEY things that need to be in place before you attempt your first ride without a bridle. They are:
- Independent Balance! To communicate well with your horse (with or without a bridle) you need to have really good balance. You should be comfortable at the walk, trot, and canter with NO STIRRUPS and with NO HANDS. You also should be confident about your balance at the gallop in case anything should happen.
- A Trusting Relationship: I do not recommend riding an unfamiliar horse without a bridle or even your own horse if you do not already have a deep, long-standing relationship with them. If there have been circumstances in your past where your horse bolted, bucked, or reared and they have not fully worked through that please wait.
- A Solid WHOA! Make sure you practice whoa a lot! Your horse needs to be super sharp to your voice/seat cue so that you can feel confident that they will stop whenever you ask. Of course there will be instances when they might get distracted and the horse is a living creature so nothing will be perfect but you want a very responsive whoa. That is why I use treats when I ask Douwe to halt. I use my voice in the rolling r noise "bbbrrrddupp" and then he halts and gets a treat. He is very food motivated and can be quite lazy so this works well for him. It is just like clicker training except I am using my voice for the halt.
- Bitless or Halter: See if you can ride in a bitless bridle or just a halter with lead lines for reins before you take the bridle off completely. Take as much time as you need to feel comfortable with these other options.
What techniques can you use?
I have learned a few different ways to ride a horse bridleless, you will probably know right away which method will work for your horse depending on his individual reactions.
Whip Steering: This is the method I use with Douwe. He seems most responsive having a visual guide for the turns, I have been using two whips and recently dropped down to just one. That is why I can ride him bridleless with the fabric wings, he sees the wing coming towards him and he moves away from it. This technique will not work if your horse is scared/nervous of whips. Here is a video of Douwe performing bridleless in our "Wings of Isis" routine. You can see how I use the wings to help him steer. He does a few flying changes, the second one is a bit "hoppy" behind but that's okay, I was so pleased with his overall performance! He was a good boy!
Neckrope: You can teach your horse to "whoa" from the pressure of a neck rope. I have begun riding Rovandio bridleless using a neckrope because he prefers more input from me to help with his balance. Douwe would prefer that I just left him alone and not use anything related to pressure. To begin, I started riding Rovandio with a stirrup leather attached around his neck at the same time I was riding with the bridle. I incorporated some halts from my voice/seat and added the pressure on the neck rope. Once he halted I released the pressure and gave him a treat. You can use a variety of different "ropes", some horses react better to a stiffer rope and others something softer. They even sell a leather neckrope that has small studs on the inside of it to help the horse stay sensitive. This rider, Alizee Froment, is absolutely amazing! She is my current inspiration and when you watch this video you will see why. She starts off with a bitless bridle and then takes it off and does all the Grand Prix movements bridleless. She uses a simple neckrope. You will love this video!
Hand Signals: If you have a really obedient, sensitive horse you can teach them to move away from hand pressure. For example you would rub/push your right hand forward onto the right side of the neck to ask him to turn left and vice versa. If your horse easily moves away from pressure this can be a good cue. Karen Rohlf uses some hand signals in this video with her wonderful horse Monty. She is very subtle so I am not sure if she actually trained him to move away from her hand or if she is just using it naturally as a relaxing aid. Either way you will enjoy watching this video because it shows the horse doing the same movements at liberty, under saddle and bridleless.
Seat & Leg: If your horse is completely tuned into your seat and legs you can just use them along with your voice if needed. Some horses turn beautifully off the leg and weight aids, especially if they are well balanced and highly trained. Douwe needs the visual motivation and Rovy needs more half-halts with the neck rope otherwise he gets quick. This video of Stacy Westfall is a great example of just the seat and leg aids. She performs their reining freestyle bareback and bridleless! Awesome job!
Please be safe and make sure you are not riding alone! If you have any questions or comments about riding bridleless please leave a comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear your stories about riding bridleless and if you have photos or video feel free to share!