It only took me a short while to realize I barely knew what I was doing. My first horse was a sorrel Quarter Horse gelding 8 years old. Perfect first horse except he pulled on the lunge line and ran away, pulled back when tied, steered like a mack truck and wouldn’t stop for me and I couldn’t get him to stop grazing. A popular local trainer told me a double twisted wire snaffle bit would help to control him on the lunge and while riding. This all got me thinking and feeling like something was wrong.
Two years later, my second horse a Paint weanling filly got me into action. I knew I needed help but I didn’t want to hurt this little girl and I didn’t want to recreate what I already had in my gelding. I wore my helmet just to walk across the yard because she was always jumping on me. I noticed right away that while she was always on top of me, she never even bumped into my gelding even by accident; he stood at the fence and she respectfully stood quietly behind him. I needed some of what he had! So I watched and I became obsessed with watching what he did.
Over the next 4 years, visiting with everyone, devouring books, articles in magazines and going to clinics brought me to Louisville KY, Equitana USA. It was 1996, upon my arrival home, in the plethora of trade show literature I found a magazine called Natural Horsemanship. It talked of horses as prey animals and that made tons of sense, no wonder my little horse was afraid, that chain over her nose was hurting her, no wonder she acted like I was going to kill her I was acting like a predator! And just like that bit didn’t help my gelding, that chain never helped keep my, now four year old, off of me. The magazine talked of games horses play and games sounded like fun, the reason I wanted horses in the first place fun, friendship, you know, the dream of Black Beauty, galloping on the beach free as the wind!
This is my girl! Now in her 20’s
As it turned out there was a clinic and all the stars aligned and we were in. The clinician said this was a foundation program and we should complete it or any foundation program, then we would have a complete picture from which to think. It was sound advice. Before the end of the first session, my girl was standing behind me like she did with my gelding at the fence, in three months I was riding on trails, just the two of us with nothing but our relationship. We now had real communication where both of us had something to say and we each listened or not but we were both at least in the same conversation! Now I was not a kid, I had a business to run, a farm to keep and three sons to raise. This was a major transformation and the impetus for our bitless adventure.
At the clinic we learned to ride with one rein, actually a soft rope halter and 12 ft. lead rope. After we had done it on the ground, if we could sit on our horses, toss the rope over her nose and bend her on each side, softly, we could walk and do the same exercise and if all went well we could move on to the trot and the canter. Well, everyone in the clinic was cantering around with one rein except me. I was just sitting there in the middle of the arena trying to get my horse to go. I didn’t even know how much I used my reins to go! I really needed to get connected to my body.
I started this gray mare after I completed my foundation training. She was 7 at the time. When I learned to ride with a seat independant from my hands and to use my reins separately, I learned that safety came in being able to stop and go, directing the forward motion. My first horse liked to stop; not every horse does. The soft one rein stop using the soft rope halter and lead rope works. Timing and feel need to be practiced by the rider and the horse will benefit from this practice too. Some people call it an emergency stop, best to make sure the brakes work before engaging the engine. When there are no strings attached you learn to really rely on your body language and believe in social intelligence or the collective knowing. In my foundation program I was told not to talk, so I didn’t, this gave me a deep connection to my unspoken (thoughts, feelings, intention) and body language. I added talking after my foundation was in place. I find talking helps many people and horses, I have experienced it getting in the way for others.
I regularly ride off the track thoroughbreds, standardbreds, warmbloods, quarter horses young and old in a soft rope halter and a lead rope, I prefer this setup because if we have not gotten to the bottom of an issue and I have to be firmer with a horse, I’m not causing them pain. I am a big fan of ‘working it out on the ground’ so issues in the saddle are few and far between.
The photo at the top of this page is me riding my lovely lead mare and ponying two others, of course bitless and barefoot, our friend Karen whose horse’s head is in the photo took that picture. Giving a horse purpose is important to their overall mental health and physical well being. Moving together at a trot for awhile is natural for a herd. It’s good for what ails us all!