Jun 30, 2009

The Secret to Bridleless Riding

I want to start off by saying there is no "secret" to bridleless riding. Anyone, with the right experience (a centered and well balanced seat, along with good leg control) and the right horse can do it. I am going to give you some general things to know, as well as a peak in on exactly what I have done for bridleless training and some problems I have encountered.

The right training as far as leg cues and taking baby steps can make a big difference difference. When you are riding with a bridle (whether bareback or saddled), it is good to think about a few things:

  • Can you stop your horse by just using your but/verbal/leg cues? --Not only is this important for bridleless riding, but also helps your horse to stop more rounded, because if you stop by putting pressure on the reins, horses tend to lift their heads (even if it is almost unnoticeable), hollow their backs and stop on their forehand--Another tip for rounded stops, when you stop your horse, ask for one step or a half a step back, this encourages them to shift their weight to their hind quarters, rounding their back and lifting their forehand. You should never feel like you are going to fall forward when your horse stops, this means they are stopping on their forehand which not only looks sloppy but is hard on their front legs and navicular bones!  Also leg cues are very, very important.
  • Are you yanking/pulling your horses' head to turn, or does he move swiftly off your legs?
  • When you are moving with your horse, do you have a tendency to momentarily loose balance and maybe put a little extra leg on one side of the horse? When you are riding bridleless, loosing your balance feels like a cue to the horse and can cause momentary confusion. It is ok if you occasionally loose your balance, everyone does it! But if it is hard for you to sit centered, that is something to work on before you remove the bridle.
  • Does your horse have a willing personality or are you always fighting?
I know many of those things sound very obvious, but without being proficient in those areas, it is hard to ride bridleless successfully.  Riding well makes a big difference when it comes to riding bridleless.

I will be honest, I only have 1 horse I ride bridlelesss. He is my 7 year old Quarter Horse, I started bridleless with him when he was 5. I quickly found that without bit interference he moved much more rounded and free. I only have two other horses of riding age, one is an Arab and she will never be able to be ridden bridleless. It is not because she is an Arabian, it has nothing to do with her breed, it has to do with her personality and the training she got as a youngster (she is now 27 years old). She is good with her leg cues, and can be ridden in a halter with no problem, neck reins and little kids ride her all the time, but she just does not have enough respect without something on her head. It is really hard to explain and I spent almost 6 years dedicated to getting her to ride bridleless and the farthest I could get was riding with a neck rope. Then there is my almost 4 year old that I started under saddle last fall when he turned 3 years old. He is just not quite ready as far as his cueing/timing/and such. I am almost confident that I will be able to ride him bridleless though, but I will not start until he is ready. It is better to avoid bad experiences. Well, I do have one more "almost riding age horse". I wait until my horses are 3 to really start riding them (for joint and muscle maturity, I like my horses to last!), but she is a 2 year old Quarter Horse and I have jumped on her for various reasons bareback and bridleless, she knows nothing of leg cues, but if I lean forward and push her neck in the direction I want, she understands. She also knows Whoa as a cue from ground work, but as a backup I can always put pressure on her chest with my hands. The reason I feel entirely comfortable doing this is, this horse would never run off with me and she seems to be scared of nothing. She is cow bred and has an amazingly sound mind, I love her, I just wish cow horse brains came with Western Pleasure horse bodies, :)!

A little bit more background information. I have never bought any trainer's movies or books on how to ride bridleless. I do not have an enclosed pen to ride bridleless in, just a huge yard, field and roads. I can ride my arab bridleless if she is in a small/medium sized enclosed area. I have wanted to ride bridleless since I found it was possible. I have done research like crazy to learn about it but found no secrets or tricks (I wanted to find some). I actually did not find much at all on riding bridleless, just pretty much people that said and all of a sudden I was riding my horse bridleless, or buy this product and then you can ride your horse bridleless... So I did what I usually have to do when it comes to horse training and I do not have a trainer to consult, I thought it through and tried to decide what is necessary for riding bridleless.

Step 1:
If you are familiar with horse training and transitioning through bits, you know: before using a curb bit, a horse should be able to do everything you want it to do in the snaffle bit, because it is the training bit. Starting a horse bridleless is like that, you do your training in the bit and then once they know how to do everything, you can take it out of their mouth. It really helps when you first start that your horse already knows how to neck rein. I also cannot stress enough the importance of your horse understanding leg cues. Not just push left to go left, but to be able to round your horse around your leg, two track, side pass, pivot on both the haunches and hindquarters. I am not saying your horse will immediately be able to do all that bridleless, but the ability to do that will make your job much easier.  *Read my article on leg cues for riding your horse.*

Step 2:
Test your horse without the bit in their mouth, use a halter. Are you able to get the same obedience you did with the bit? If not, you are not ready to move on, you either need to work on dominance and respect or maybe your horse does not know the leg cues quite well enough. *It is safest to leave on the bridle and keep the extra set of reins there just in case you need them*

Step 3:
Now test your horse without anything on their head, use a neckrope. This does not have to be anything fancy, I have used a lead rope around their neck, a nylon rein knotted to prevent it from falling off, a twine...whatever works and I have on hand. I spend about 6 months with my Quarter Horse Gelding doing this. Do not rush your horse when training for bridleless, this is one thing that take time and going slow makes them even more sturdy in their training. *Once again, for safety's sake, keep the bridle on your horse and have your reins on hand just in case.*

Step 4:
Let the neck rope hang on your horse's neck, so you are no longer using any neck reining cues, but keep it their for correction if you need it. You should be able to move at all speeds, walk, trot, lope and turn, pivot, sidepass, stop and back at the very minimum before you ever consider taking the neck rope off.

You may find working circles at the faster gaits more difficult. I have tried 2 things once completely bridleless, reaching forward and slapping the horses' neck right behind the jaw to push them back over into the circle and sitting deeper to enforce my leg cues. What I use depends on the situation.

I have studied dressage leg and body cues and tend to use them because they require little body movement, but rather more subtle but yet obvious to the horse cues. This helps me keep centered and balanced while riding my horse, especially bareback. Like to back up, I move my body just as if I was to push a stool out from underneath my butt. I also use these cues when I show because it makes my horses look more "polished".

When training this, always keep safety a first. I am almost reluctant to write about this because I do not want people to get overly ambitious. If you feel uncomfortable, take it a step back and in each step are baby steps, so maybe even go back a few baby steps. If your horse is not ready, wait until they are. Keep working in the bridle so make them more responsive. If you have a horse that bolts with you or bucks, do not go in this direction yet! You have other training issues to work through still. (Bucking horses can be a chiropractic and/or dentist problems so be sure to check that out).

You may find that once you have enough training on your horse to be able to ride him bridleless at all gaits and do lateral movements, that you need to "teach" others how to ride your horse since they know your cues so well, they are almost over trained. If this is a show horse, you will look amazing in the show ring though! Especially in western pleasure classes because you can have the lovely drape in your rein and still look in control. Reiners also do well with this, but you almost need to be able to ride a reining horse perfectly without using reins anyways.

Now that I can ride bridleless, I use it as a training tool, just something fun to do on a relaxing day and a cool down. If he is acting restricted or behind the bit, going bridleless often loosens him up, solving our problem.

Some riders/trainers look down on bridleless riding, saying that many times people are riding their horses out of frame when they are bridleless, heads up, backs hollow.... I do not believe that is always true. With the right training a horse can move nicely without the bridle. I have a leg cue for my horses to raise their backs and hold their heads and neck level, along with doing long and low stretching. I do not do any of the high headed neck arching dressage stuff though. I have however jumped bridleless and worked through ground poles and trail obstacles.

Well, there is much more I could say about bridleless riding but this post looks like it is getting a little long. I was also considering a post on how to use bridleless riding as a training technique.
If there was something I missed, or you would like addressed or if you would like to tell me I have something wrong with my bridleless training please leave a comment. Asking questions helps us learn, not only you but me too, because often times people bring up aspects that I have never considered before, this helps me to be more aware of things. I will either answer your question as another comment, or if it is broad enough, write another post on it.

Thanks everyone, I sure hope you learned something from this post!

Learn more about becoming a better rider by reading my "Be a Better Rider Tips".


  1. Fantastic post, great tips, well explained! Thank you! :))

  2. Please stop by my blog, there's an award waiting for you!

  3. Nice. I totally agree with everything you say! I have a 19 yr old TB that I am starting bridleless - we are at the neck rope stage and right now he is awesome at circles with spiraling in and out and walk and trot. Canter is still a little exciting for him so we just work on slow relaxed gait on a 20m circle. Working on lateral work at the walk. My H/J coach is really happy with his frame and bend without the bridle. I am considering taking to a schooling dressage show when he is solid at the canter and transitions and causing an uproar. I already did once using a bitless bridle. Amateur dressage people can be very closeminded.

  4. FANTASTIC information. I agree that in many cases it takes the right horse! As you said in your blog --- "It is not because she is an Arabian, it has nothing to do with her breed, it has to do with her personality and the training she got as a youngster (she is now 27 years old). (sic) but she just does not have enough respect without something on her head."

    I totally agree...I ride my 9 year old ex racer bridless and wouldn't dare do that with my 22 year old Tenn Walker. Funny how those things work... We were able to do anything in a halter from the get go so I didn't have to take her "back down" to take it off. I go spurless too.

    Great information and with the right combination of horse, rider, personality and some really great leg strength (it def. built up my squeezer muscles) I believe everyone can at least ride bridleless to some extent.

    My girl does everything bridleless...and I'm at the point where every piece of tack is off and we are progressing nicely...we are not high level...but we do all the basics up through canter, turning, and we are now on sidepassing slowly without any tack at all.

    Happy bridleless trails!

    GOOD JOB and keep up the GOOD POSTS!

  5. HI!

    I'm a trainer and have wanted to ride bridless for years but didn't have a horse that seemed fit, or at least one that I was confident enough in to take away the safety blanket. I'm currently training a Missouri Fox Trotter who is flying through training so fast its difficult to keep up with her. So yesterday I started working her with a rope around her neck - she picked up on it so fast it's incredable. I have tried with other horses and they just ride though the rope or quickly tire of my game and get frustrated (obviously they were not ready). I was so shocked with her responsiveness I went head and pushed my luck and removed her head stall today. She rode like a dream.

    I would just like to have contact with you as I walk though this for this first time. I think this horse has the potentail to do anything bridless and I don't want to mess her up because I'm a rookie in this field of training. I rarely get the pleasure to work with horses like her and want to see her suceed with bridless riding.

    Thanks for all the great info - this tells me were on the right path.


  6. Question. I have been riding my horse bridless and am showing him this weekend in a bridless class. At times he seems so relaxed his head gets to low. What do you do for that? I have been working on a head up que...if you can believe that. He does not hollow out his back he just gets below a nice top line.

  7. Dana,

    When the horse drops his head, even if the back is still rounded, they are transfering some of their weight onto the forehand, so you may have to work on pushing forward with forward motion and lifting back up his forehand with your legs. Think of lifting that area of the neck right in front of the wither, so the neck is rounding off that point.

    Of course some of this just has to do with training, but if you are asking him to go slow and raise his head, it just worries me that he will gain the bad habbit of hollowing his back. So it is best to "push" him up into his neck, that will keep the back rounded and his hindquarters underneith him.

    Sounds like you are doing awesome, keep up the good work!

  8. Thank you ! This has helped alot. I need to remind myself to take baby stpes, and not to rush because I really want to ride bridless, but I realize my mare is NOT ready at all. We have the trust and relashionship, but we really need to work on leg cues. Do you have any tips for a right brain extrovert? Because she moves very well under saddle and with a bridle ( we are jumpers ) and bends well, but as soon as we go with a halter ( or neck rope ) and she feels pressure from one side, she just thinks foward, not sideways or ''push over'' but ''FOWARD'' because she is a right brain. Just wondering if you had something to say on this, or maybe some tips. Thanks !

  9. Not a problem. Well, the first thing I would do is work on bending her neck just from the standstill, then bending on circles with the halter, because sometimes it just takes time and training to get them used to the new cues. Another thing I would do a lot of is lateral movement like two tracking to practice moving forwards and sideways with leg cues but not speeding up the forward movement and doing lots of figure 8s and such so she'll learn to change direction without speeding up. So I would say just time and patience. You're mare should eventually be able to learn what you want, but it may just take more time because of her nature. Sounds like you are doing great though, and wishing you the best with your bridleless training!

  10. Thank you :)We have been doing alot of flawork, i realized it helps alot when i'm showing and it will be good for riding bridle less. I ride more with just a halter too and its been going good!

  11. Hello,

    I just found your blog and was excited to see this post, as I love bridleless training. I am most interested in bridleless dressage, so was fascinated when you said you had a leg cue for your horse to raise their back. Could you explain that a little more?

    Thank you!

  12. Thank you, really glad you enjoyed my post!

    Well my leg cue to have them lift their back is a simple complicated one...yeah right I know. I cue, by doing things that make logical sense to me to communicate with the horse. So to lift their back, I essentially use my lower body to imagine lifting their back. I lighten my seat a little, "lift" their belly with my calves and drive them from the hindquarters with my thighs.

    Another way I sometimes bring them back to collection is by closing my thighs on their barrel to do a half halt.

    Hope that makes sense and helps a little, these are cues I use all the time and not just when bridleless.


  13. Hi, I just sort of stumbled upon your post, and it was really helpful! (I'm not wanting to do this for showing, more for fun.) I rode my gelding in just a neck rope last night (for the first time ever) and it was a lot of fun. I've always thought bridleless would be great, and I finally have a horse who I think (and trust) enough to try it with. I noticed he seemed to pay considerably more attention to my verbal cues. It was kind of interesting to see the gears turning in his head. I will start working with him on that "head up" cue.
    I wish I could ride in a neck rope on my other gelding, but he's just too hot and spooky as much as I do trust him.

    Thanks for the great tips and suggestions!

  14. Thank you! I am so glad you are having a fun, safe time learning to ride bridleless!

  15. Hey I just read your post and it was super helpful! I am 14 and am doing dressage with a 16 year old Thouroughbred/Appaloosa cross. However, I just started researching bridleless bareback riding. I have done bareback, and I am really interested in bridless work. He is really good with verbal cues, but I think we have to work on our leg cues before I try anything. Anyway I just wanted to let you know your post has been really helpful. Thanks so much!

  16. Glad to hear it helped you!!! Hope your bridleless training goes well!

  17. Slowly starting my horse on the neckrope stage as I have never done this before. I feel like I am learning so much on how to be very much more clear with my seat cues. She is a highly responsive horse and will stop with no trouble on a light seat cue but doing this forces me to be stronger. I have one simple question should a neck rope be tied around as the step to neckrope was unplanned (I had been thinking about it because she goes wonderfully in a halter truly fantastic and decided to just go for it today)should the neck rope go completely around the neck and not be held like reins correct? I didn't have anything long enough and just used like I had reins around her neck. She did great considering this was all new to her. I have been riding her in a halter for years and she loves that and seemed equally relaxed in this as well perhaps more.

  18. How you use the neckrope is up to you. I just found it highly beneficial to bridge that gap between having control of their face and having absolutely nothing but your legs & seat. It is not going to give you enormous amount of control, but just adds one more line of communication. I did have my neckrope tied so I could set it down and not drop it, but that is completely up to you.

    That should work great to use the reins the way you described. I am so glad it is going well for you! I have found riding bridleless to be extremely rewarding as you get that full level of trust with your horse. Just always remember to be safe.

  19. If you are knowing your horse and riding with the same horse all the time that bridle less riding is possible. If somebody sees you especially for the kids, I don't think so it is a good example for them. Always wear a complete gear for your protection as well as for your horse especially if your horse is not used to it.


  20. Hi, I am currently working with my new forest pony who I bought just over a year ago. He is from a riding school for total beginners on lead reins and so had no correct riding experience as far as schooling goes. I have re-schooled him, taught him to jump, done some cross-country schooling from home and he is going really well however, we have no REAL respect between us. I frequently ride with just a head collar and lead rope, and want to move on to using a neck rope, but he just 'puts up' with me rather than trust and respect me. I know this is long but I was wondering if you could give me some tips or some trust-gaining exercises we could do?
    Thank you,morgan


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