Bridleless Riding - How do I know when my horse and I are ready?
Riding Like the Black Stallion – Preparing for Bridleless Riding
By: Mattie Cowherd, 3-Star Parelli Professional and Horse Development Specialist
Question: I want to ride my horse bridleless, how do I know when my horse and I are ready? What should we be able to do really well in FreeStyle so I know when it is safe to take the bridle off?
Answer: So many of us grew up with the image of the Black Stallion galloping down a long, sandy beach. We dreamed of being that free, that carefree, and that connected to our horses. This dream may have been one of the many reasons we went searching – we knew that there was so much more to our relationship with our horses that we had! There was so much deeper of a relationship that the successes (if we were lucky; the pain, if we weren’t) we were having with our mounts… that search has lead us here, to Parelli.
But now that we’ve arrived – what are the steps toward our dreams?
The Basics – Yielding from Eyes, Belly Button, Weight/Seat, Leg, Rein, Stick
There are quite a few prerequisites to riding bridleless – the first of these is basic control. Can you ask your horse to walk, trot, and canter under control? Can you safely bend your horse to a stop from a gallop (because you should be prepared for the fastest your horse can go)? Is your riding balance good enough to keep up with a random turn or stop?
You should be able to communicate, and control your horse when necessary, with several things: your body, your rein, your leg, and your seat. Get really good at “Eyes, Belly Button, Leg, Rein” and “Eyes, Belly Button, Leg, Stick”. Make sure that you can use JUST your reins to stop, go, and turn. Then make sure you can do the same with your legs and your body. These pieces need to be so strong that your horse can understand these even at higher gaits, so you are both prepared for times when adrenaline comes on or you are moving quite fast. Prepare, prepare, prepare!
Start by getting really good at pushing passenger lessons. This prepares you to ride whatever your horse is doing – whether it is a turn you were not expecting, or a stop out of the blue. This will improve your feel, timing, and balance, so you become one with your horse and are able to anticipate his moves.
Also, start to practice “don’t make me pick up my reins.” When you are bridleless, one of the main micromanagers, the reins, will be gone – this means you aren’t going to be course-correcting with them constantly (a common habit of riders). Challenge yourself to put one hand and the reins down on your horse’s neck and really pay attention to how many times you use them. Get comfortable carrying a stick to reinforce your body rather than the reins, too. The more you can use your body and not your reins, the closer to bridleless riding you will be!
Respect – Impulsion – Flexion
Pat often talks about the ladder toward Level 4 riding as Respect (Level 2), Impulsion (Level 3), and Flexion (Level 4). Level 2 is about having the horse respect your requests, going and stopping when you ask, and responding appropriately to the basic rein positions (lateral flexion, indirect/direct reins, and the Nine-Step Back-Up). You are looking for a positive response at the walk and trot, as well as working toward the same response at the canter. Your horse should respect the leg and rein and start to work as a partner.
Level 3 is where you are going to work on impulsion, or the mental/emotional balance. It can also mean “whoa equals go.” A horse with good impulsion will go when you ask, confidently, and at the gait/speed you request. They will be thinking about going, but with “whoa” in mind – or vice versa. To develop this, you can use the impulsion patterns (see below) and make a program of seven days with each pattern to develop a calm, connected, and responsive partner that is ready to go or stop when you ask. When this is good, you will be ready to work toward no longer having a bridle on.
Flexion (Level 4) refers to the bend in the horse’s body. This helps the horse move more effectively (and smoothly!), and be in the correct body position for the movement you want. Flexion will start to come naturally when respect and impulsion are good, and in Level 4, you will start to learn how to shape and control your horse’s body effectively. Positive flexion also is the best time for true bridleless riding (without a safety net).
Pat built the impulsion patterns (Level 3) to help develop a balanced system of whoa and go in horse training. Each of these is designed to be done as a program – meaning at least seven sessions in a row. You are looking for an improvement in quality of impulsion and purity of gait. The basic seven patterns are below:
1. Backwards and Sideways
2. The Trotting Game/Passenger Lesson
3. The Cloverleaf Pattern
4. The Bull’s-eye/Circles
5. The Corners Game and Follow the Rail
6. Canter/Trot Transitions in FreeStyle
7. Point to Point
There is a lot of supporting video for all of the above patterns in the Parelli Learning Library. Each pattern is designed to help balance the horse’s speed and get them thinking and interacting as a partner rather than a prey animal.
As your horse starts to be calmer and more connected to you, you are going to work toward doing all of these patterns without your reins, using your stick for support. As your communication increases, you will eventually take the bridle off and use a neck string and a stick as your backup.
Troubleshooting and Safety
Bridleless riding is the “truth test” of FreeStyle, just like Liberty is the test for what you have done On Line. This means that you want to put the communication and safety with your horse first. If your warm-up to ride that day is challenging, it is NOT a good day to test taking the bridle off. When you warm up riding, too, you want to make sure that you can check off the basic safety tasks (listed in the Basics above) and that you’re able to do a basic pattern without using your reins.
When you first move to bridleless riding, you may want to consider a “backup” safety net. I choose to always ride one of my horses with a halter and Savvy String on, so that if he gets worried, I can bend him to a stop. Even my advanced horses usually wear a neck string. Remember, taking the bridle off is not required in any Level of the Parelli Program.
If things go badly, use your stick to bend your horse to a stop (or use your halter and/or Savvy String, if the horse is wearing it). Do not pull back on a neck string or your reins; only bend. Practice this move (emergency bend and dismount) with your safety net, whatever that may be, until this comes as second nature.
You also want to focus on pushing with one hand while you bend with the other, so your body remembers to relax and pushes to the balance point. This is an exercise in your mental/emotional control, and is good to practice in a controlled situation until it becomes second nature. As Pat says, "Ride as fast as the horse is moving, until you can get the bend." Practice riding at faster gaits so you don't get worried.
Start in a smaller area, one that your horse is confident in and that you have good control in – such as a round pen or smaller square pen. Start with baby steps for your confidence, and build your control without a bridle.
Bridleless riding can be one of the most exhilarating ways to share time with your horse. Many horses feel free and empowered when you take the bridle off. As a rider, there is no greater feeling than good communication without the need to control your horse through the reins. With a strong program and some key communication pieces, you can reach your bridleless dreams!
Visit Parelli Savvy Club for more educational articles and horse training videos designed to inspire, empower and educate horse owners of all levels.