When I was young I always admired the other girls that just jumped up on their horses in the paddock and rode around without a care in the world (I've never been an incredibly brave rider). I was much more disciplined and just never played with my horses that way during my dressage training. 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. It turned out, he LOVES to be ridden bridleless and to work at liberty and he has taught me so much that 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 clearly and effectively with your horse (with or without a bridle) you need to have good balance. You should be comfortable and confident at the walk, trot, and canter with NO STIRRUPS and with NO HANDS.
- 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 the two of you have not fully worked through those issues, I suggest you put more time into your relationship before beginning the bridleless process.
- A Solid WHOA! Make sure you practice the halt, a lot! Your horse needs to be responsive to your voice/seat cue (there is that clear communication) so that you can feel confident that your horse will stop whenever you ask. That is why I use treats when I ask Douwe to halt (he is a food-oriented fellow). I use my voice in the rolling r noise and he halts and gets a treat. This method is similar to clicker training except I am using my voice for the cue.
- Bitless or Halter: See if you can ride in a bitless bridle or just a halter 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 used 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. 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. 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 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. 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 neck rope. You will love this video!
Hand Signals: If you have an exceptionally 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. 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 (communication!) you can use these cues, 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. This video of Stacy Westfall is a great example of just 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 videos, feel free to share!
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