Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Lessons from a Mule- Ellie goes bridleless.

After cutting her face and being unable to wear a bridle with a bit until it completely healed, I started riding Ellie in a rope halter and reins. I didn’t have much control in it because it slid around her face any time I put pressure on the reins. Riding in a rope halter is kind of like speaking with the help of a translator. The message is sometimes lost in translation.

I had no brakes at all in the rope halter. If I pulled backward on the reins, the halter just slid up her face. Ellie’s default move when she didn’t understand was to go forward, usually in the direction of home.  I started teaching her to stop off my voice and seat. I would say “whoa” and lean back in the saddle. She caught on to that really quickly, and I was able to stop her without touching the reins at all.

The thing about Ellie that makes her so fun to work with is that she wants to please the rider. She understands that this whole riding thing is kind of like a game between two creatures who don’t speak the same language. I have to figure out a way of communicating with her that she understands, and she has to be willing to listen. When I ride in different tack, or no tack at all, I’m just taking the game to the next level. But the willing horse is the key to it all. If the horse doesn’t want to play the game, the whole thing is a no go.

Since Ellie is so amenable to playing the game, I decided to go next level and go bridleless. I left the rope halter on, just in case the situation went south and I had to get ahold of her, but there was nothing connected to it. I wrapped my reins around her neck and clipped them together, and off we went. My videographer is 8 years old, so my pictures aren’t the best!

My first ever bridleless ride went really well! Our steering definitely needs work, and a few times she went “off course,” but overall she did everything I asked. She put her head down to graze a couple times, but brought it right back up when I asked. Plenty of horses would figure out they could graze and there’s not much I could do about it, and that would be the end of the ride. Not Ellie! Her work ethic is fantastic.

We only rode around the barn property for a few minutes, just enough to see whether it was going to be a total disaster or whether this is something I could keep practicing. It went so well that next time I’m going to take her bridleless on the trail behind the barn. My ultimate goal is to do a whole obstacle course bridleless. There are several barns near me that host obstacle course challenges, and they’ll start up again in the spring. That’s a big goal because there are a lot of distractions at a show environment, and it’s never fun to have a ride go badly in front of a bunch of people. If ever there was an equine that could rock it though, it’s Ellie!

A quick note about my confidence. I’ve been working on getting my nerve back up after riding a nutty mare for too long. The bitless and bridleless work has done wonders for my trust in Ellie. I know that I’m not relying on tack to control her. I’m relying on months of winning her trust and respect, and building on her solid foundation. I’ve learned that she doesn’t want to dump me, like my last mare, and she’s not going to take off on me. She wants to do the right thing, and she looks for the answer until she finds it. My bridleless ride was was the most relaxing ride I’ve had in a while, oddly enough, because I had no choice but to trust her.

If you want to try bridleless, here are my tips:

  1. The horse needs to know how to neck rein. Ellie has only ever neck reined, so that made this really easy. My thoroughbred doesn’t neck rein, so he would have to learn.
  2. The horse has to stop off your seat or voice. I’ve taught a few of the horses I’ve had over the years to stop using only my seat aids, and they picked it up really quickly. All I do is lean back, shift my feet forward, and say “whoa.” A good horse will feel you shift your weight backward and will slow down or stop to rebalance your weight. It only took Ellie two rides of practicing before I could slow and then stop her without touching the reins at all.
  3. Go bitless first. Make sure you’ve got brakes and steering without a bit.
  4. Trust your horse, trust yourself. The less tack you have, the more you have to rely on your relationship with the horse (which is how it should be anyway). If you’ve put the time in creating a good relationship, then the horse will want to do his best for you, no matter what tack you have or don’t have. If you start stripping tack, and your horse ignores you and does what he wants, then you know that you’ve been relying on equipment and not relationship this whole time.
  5. Don’t expect perfection. I’ve ridden almost all my horses bitless at least part of the time, and the transition from bit to no bit went pretty seamlessly with all of them. I imagine most horses would rather NOT wear a bit if they don’t have to. But bridleless is a different animal. I’ve only tried it with Ellie because she’s so good. It wasn’t a perfect ride, but she was cooperative enough that I know I can keep practicing and improve. If your first bridleless ride is less than stellar, figure out what went wrong. Is the horse ignoring you, or does he not understand what you’re asking? If the horse is willing and doesn’t understand, then you have something to build on. If the horse is ignoring you and doesn’t care to cooperate, then you’ve got a trust and respect problem that you’ll have to work out first.

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