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 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.
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.*
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*
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.*
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".