Riding without a bridle or reins might seem easy. Just take the bridle off, and ride. Or? It actually would have been this easy if all horses was educated to a high level in dressage the classical way, but many are not, so then we will have to add a few more steps to the procedure! :)
First of all; I cannot give good advice on particular horses or situations over the internet, so these tips are written on a very general basis. Please use common sense and remember: SAFETY BEFORE COOL PHOTOS!
You have to keep in mind that horses have instincts, and even horses ridden tackless for years many can spook. I have ridden Batman on hacks in a cordeo only for four years, and I still ALWAYS keep in mind that he might be so scared of something that he will try to escape the danger. I know how to read him extremely well, I know how to read his breath, changes in his movement and expression and we have never had one single accident so far – but I still take necessary precautions. Even when we are just riding inside the arena, I’m always very careful.
So no, your “bond” are not strong enough to handle a dangerous situation in a large field the 5th time you are trying riding without reins on a horse that has been ridden with reins all his life. And there we have the first tip on my list!
1. You are not riding with your cordeo; you are riding with your body and mind
As you should never depend on the reins, you shouldn’t depend on the neckrope either. You are not slowing down or steering with the neckrope itself; you are riding the horse with your seat and body. The cordeo can be a great tool to bring the attention back to you, or to give more precise signals combined with our primary aid (the seat), but you don’t just sit there and ride with your hands. In the beginning, teaching the horse to walk in a circle, you can do it this way: First, look in the direction you are heading. If the horse turns, its well educated and starting bridleless will be easy. If he is not responing, give the aid with your seat. If that does not work, use your seat even more precisely. If that does not work, add a little bit of leg (don’t kick your horse, use all your aids very softly!) Still no response? Pick up your reins carefully and ride into the circle, and then reward a lot and take a break. It won’t take too long before your horse suddenly gets more sensitive, because your aids are more sensitive, and suddenly your horse is 100% seat-ridden. Adding a little bit of positive reinforcement will make the process even easier. Try to use the neckrope as little as possible in the beginning, the most important thing is your seat, and this is a great opportunity to educate your seat.
2. Cordeo or no cordeo; the riding is the same
If you choose to ride without a neckrope, that’s no problem. The riding is the same. You are never supposed to pull the cordeo, use force or steer with it, so it does not matter if you skip the neckrope. It’s only a tool of communication that you should not depend on anyways. Some choose to ride with two whips instead of a neckrope (The Honza Blaha-method), because it’s easier to do the dressage exercises and more advanced riding (collection etc) this way. It depends on what your goals are, but I recommend to try both! Right now I ride Batman with two whips mostly, but he don’t have any problems doing the exercises with only a cordeo. But in the beginning your tack is not that important, focus on the basics and the feeling.
Batman in dressage with two whips and no cordeo.
3. Safety first, don’t put yourself in danger
I’m so tired of people putting themselves in danger for a photoshoot. If your horse has been ridden with rein contact all his life, he probably doesn’t know any other way. Then it’s not safe to just take the reins off without any preparation at all and ride out bareback and without a helmet and then gallop around in a field. You are putting yourself, your horse and others in danger. Start with a bridle and reins + the cordeo (or only your body and seat), and let the reins rest on the horse’s neck. Then you do have them there for safety. Start the training in a safe area, such as a riding arena. When your horse starts to understand your aids and signals and you are getting more connected, you can try without the reins, but only in a riding arena or paddock. Always remember to use a bitless bridle, a rope halter or a normal bridle with reins when you ride outside the arena. You don’t need to use them, but in case of an emergency situation, you will have reins. It’s not so fun anymore if your horse bolts, throws you off, runs over a road and gets injured because you had no chance to stop him. And always wear a helmet!
When you lay your life in the hands of a huge animal with strong instincts, a helmet is a must. In the photo I have a rope halter with reins on for safety.
4. The horse listen to you because he wants to, not because he has to
I prefer to use lots of praise when teaching a horse to be ridden bridleless. I reward every single attempt from the horse. Take nothing for granted – never! This is about learning the horse to listen to every single signal you give, and often your signals will be much softer than usual. Many horses are unfortunately ridden with the “more leg, more whip, more rein”-principle, but that won’t work when you are trying to ride on the horse’s premises. The softer the signals, the better the result will be. This is riding based on feeling, friendship and your opinion is not worth more than the horse’s. You have to listen to him. You are equal. Your horse is supposed to listen to you because he wants to. Not because he has to. He will not be whipped, yelled at or dragged in the mouth if he won’t listen to you. If your horse won’t listen, you are doing something wrong. Then it’s your job to find out what you did wrong. If you feel the need to punish somebody, punish yourself, not the horse.
Make it a positive experience for both horse and rider – this is supposed to be fun! You don’t have any other goals than having a good time together. It’s not supposed to look cool; it’s supposed to feel good. And believe me, it’s the most amazing feeling ever.
I was super-happy the first time I tried riding Batman with the seat only and he did a halt! I praised him for a minute straight and then we walked out of the arena and he got a few extra carrots with his supper.
If your horse willingly does a halt for you, you should be grateful. Take nothing for granted.
That’s where you are supposed to start! Don’t canter around like a maniac. Start with walk-halt transitions, and later you can try slalom with some cones. Reward the horse every time he listen to you – he listen because he want to, and you should reward that. Never take that for granted. Horses are not our slaves; they don’t have to work for us. Don’t expect the horse to listen. Be grateful is he actually does.
I used treats, voice, scratching and short breaks as reinforcement, and I still do. Find out what’s the best reward for your horse and reward a lot!
Reward wanted behavior. I combine lots of positive reinforcement with my riding.
5. Be aware of the consequences of violent use of the neckrope, and remember that riding without a bridle does not make you better than others
I often see riders pull their neckrope waaay to high and then use it as a pain device to stop the horse, making him rear etc. If you do so, you are so far from soft riding and equal communication as possible. This is an extremely vulnerable part of the horse’s throat! You can actually do damage to the arteries, and other vessels and pipes located almost unprotected. Never place your neckrope higher to gain control. The neckrope are supposed to rest on the chest and only be used for seconds at the time, with a light hand. Every tool used wrong can easiliy be turned into a torture device. Bit or cordeo, in the wrong hands they can both cause damage. Remember that bridleless riding is not the same as good horsemanship. Riding without a bit or bridle itself does not make you a better rider. It depends on how you ride and treat your horse, not what kind of tack you use or not. Please don’t look down on others just because they prefer riding with a bit. It’s important to respect others, as they respect you.
6. Everybody can do it, but it often takes years
Everybody can learn how to ride bridleless. Most horses can be ridden bridleless. But all horses are individuals with different background and personality, so it can take years to get on a level where you can canter around in a field making your horse go from canter to halt in the matter of seconds, just by breathing out. But everybody can do it, this is not magic. But it takes training, time and dedication, just like everything else. Nothing is done overnight, but believe me, it’s an amazing journey! Good luck!