Baron turned 18 this month. I wish he were a little calmer at this stage in his life, but alas, he is and will always be a thoroughbred, which means that he will always be just a bit more excitable than his colder-blooded cousins. Since I’ve moved, I’ve had to ride alone because the other horse at the barn is 30 years old and retired, and I haven’t met many riding buddies yet, or at least been able to work out scheduling to ride together.
I want to be able to ride alone confidently, and I feel like my riding skill and my communication with my horse need to level up in order for me to feel safe. Part of it is getting Baron used to riding on the beach. The more we do it, the more relaxed he’ll be, but there’s another element of knowing that he will listen to me when I ask him to speed up, change direction and especially slow down even when he’s excited.
Baron is a good horse; he does take care of me and most of the time he is drama free and low key. But he is big and athletic and excitable, and I have to better my horsemanship to keep up with him. I need to have clear lines of communication, to know that he listens to me with or without a bit, and with or without a saddle.
A quick word about tack. I ride in a bareback pad instead of a saddle most of the time. I find it more comfortable on my knees, and I feel like I have better control when I’m able to sit deep and remind him that I’m still up there. He feels tiny shifts in my balance and he tries to take care of me by adjusting his body to match mine. I can think about trotting and he’ll trot. Slowing him down is trickier, especially when he’s amped up and excited, but I’ve always been able to bring him back down to an acceptable speed. Interestingly, the one time recently that I had to get off him and walk, because he was getting out of control, was when I rode in a saddle. (The saddle fits; that’s not the issue.) There’s just something about being bareback that gives me a better connection.
I prefer to ride in a bitless bridle because I think Baron prefers it. But I also like to have brakes, so lately I’ve been riding with a bit. I’ve been able to control his speed with the bit and bareback combo, but I’d like to get to a point where I can go bitless again. For that to happen, I need him to slow down off of my seat cues. It needs to be reliable, not just once in a while.
With that in mind, I tried riding with no bridle for the first time. I used a neck rope that I made from a rope halter whose knots had gotten all tangled up. I untied all the knots and refashioned it into a loop. It even has a fancy handle that used to be the noseband!
I used to ride my mule Ellie around the yard bridleless. She was trained to neck rein, so it was an easy transition. (Neck reining means you use the reins like a steering wheel. If you want to go left, you lift the reins and press the right rein into the horse’s neck to push him in that direction.) Baron does not neck rein. He is trained to direct rein, which means if you want to go left, you squeeze the left rein. I figured I would have absolutely zero steering since he isn’t used to me pushing on his neck to move him around.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was very responsive to my steering cues and moved left or right like an old cow horse. It’s a great feeling when you ask your horse to do something new and he cooperates!
I had zero control over speed, however. When he wanted to trot, he trotted. When he wanted to slow down, he did. I sat deep and was able to keep him from going into a canter, thankfully.
He knows what “whoa” means, but sometimes he is so nervous he has to trot it out. He responds better to “easy,” which is what I say when I’m willing to let him go a little faster as long as he stays under control and doesn’t take off. It’s not that I don’t want to trot. I love trotting! But he has another trot gear that is on the precipice of turning into an out of control canter with some bucking thrown in for good measure. “Easy” is what I say when I can feel him revving up into the next gear, and that cue works. He gets to keep trotting his energy out in a sane way, and I feel safe.
It really is an exercise in finding balance with a hot blooded horse. Asking them to plod like an old plow horse isn’t realistic when they’re quivering with energy underneath you. People will say that the horse should always walk until he’s told to go faster, and should come back down to a walk immediately. Those people don’t ride hot horses. There are ways of dealing with excess energy that are safe but don’t put unrealistic expectations on the horse. Expecting a baby racehorse or an endurance bred Arab to walk all the time is silly. It creates frustration in the horse, and a frustrated horse does stupid things like buck and take off because they feel too confined and eventually hit a wall. Even though I much prefer to walk calmly, there are times that Baron NEEDS to trot it out for his own sanity. I’m okay with that, as long as he keeps listening to me.
On our first bridleless ride, we never left the pasture, but it was a productive exercise. I figured he would stand by the gate the whole time and refuse to cooperate, but he gave me a nice tour of the pasture and turned when I asked.
I’ll keep working on the bridleless riding and get him to where he can stop and slow down off of my seat. Having a horse is a journey . There are always new things to learn and ways to improve myself and my relationship with my horse. In some ways Baron and I remind me of an old married couple. We get on each other’s nerves sometimes, and occasionally we disagree, but there is a deep well of love and mutual respect that comes from 12 years together.