Horses do not always require bridles, halters, or other pieces of string on their face in order to be safely controlled. However, unless certain steps are taken beforehand, this can very quickly prove to not be the case.
I have recently started working without any kind of headgear on an 8-year old ex-racehorse mare. One year previously, this horse was extremely spooky and reactive, prone to rushing away, with a particular fear of bits and nosebands. Nowadays, she is much calmer, has excellent brakes and a much better relationship with people, but still demonstrates evasive mouth behaviours when confused by new work. Bridleless work for her is a good way to build trust and have fun, continuing her rehabilitation.
These steps are as follows:
1. Ensure that you have a safe, calm, enclosed area in which to ride. If everything goes wrong, you want to make sure that the horse will not be able to go off on a rampage. You don’t want anything too stimulating or frightening in the area either.
2. Groundwork. Does your horse have a good working relationship with you on the ground? Does he or she yield away from pressure, reinback when asked, move easily and without argument when asked? Does he or she know basic voice commands? If not, then you’re taking a big risk in working without a bridle. You want a horse who is responsive and attentive, who understands what you mean when you use your voice and gentle pressure cues.
3. Practice riding around with no rein contact. Go about on a regular ride, and try dropping the reins entirely, then asking the horse to move forward or slow down with your legs, seat and voice. Ask them to turn using only your seat, legs, and body weight. If your horse is confused or unresponsive, pick up the reins gently to show them what you’re after. Slowly reduce how much rein contact you need in order to get good turns and transitions.
4. Introduce a neck rope. A lead rope with a knot at the top, tied at the base of the horse’s neck and shoulders, is a good cheap option. Start introducing the neck rope as part of your regular riding cues for turning and braking, so that the horse can associate its different pressure with normal instructions. This is intended to give you a fallback plan in case of emergencies. A correctly tied neck rope can sit on the horse’s neck without flapping or slipping around, so is a good set of emergency brakes or steering if something unexpected happens.
5. Start with something simple. Don’t expect perfection straight away. For example, the horse with whom I’m working has excellent reinless transitions, but is less proficient at turning. So for our first ride without a bridle, I kept her on the arena track and focused on just getting walk, trot and canter transitions.
6. Praise frequently. Keep your horse’s attention trained onto you and the entire situation as stress-free as possible. You are in a more vulnerable situation without a bridle, so don’t take risks or ask for anything that your horse finds frustrating or difficult too early. Be easy to please – give pats and voice rewards often, and use bridleless riding as a final exercise to a normal ride. For example, ride as normal in a bridle for the first 30 minutes of a session, then remove the bridle while staying in the saddle, and perform simple cool-down exercises bridleless for 10-15 minutes.
Here are two excellent examples of just how good bridleless communication can get. Don’t expect perfection, and don’t rush either yourself or your horse – just enjoy the slightly surreal feeling and have fun!