It is common knowledge that handling and riding horses can be dangerous, it is classed as a risk sport, and therefore the issue of safety is often brought up regarding riding without a bit, and even more so without any tack. It is something I get asked about a lot, especially regarding my bridleless work, which to some is regarded as dangerous.
Upon meeting new people, the conversation of horses and horsemanship will often arise, to which I will mention that I ride bitless. The response to this is often “oh that’s brave”, as if in some way riding without a bit makes it more dangerous. It is quite bizarre to me, as I have never thought about it being a brave thing to do, because in my opinion, I am not putting myself in any more danger than any other rider.. in fact, I never knowingly put myself at risk. There lies a difference in attitudes, whereby control is means different things. To some people, feeling in control means using strong bits and gadgets… to me, it means coming from canter to halt on just the word “woah” with no bridle attached.
You see, for me.. I feel safer on a horse that I know, with no tack on, than I would on a horse I don’t know who is tacked up to the eyeballs and strapped up with gadgets. I have had more accidents and incidents when riding bitted horses than I have bitless. Herein lies the main point – being safe is not about equipment and the control that it can give you; it is tangled within understanding, it is about feel and knowing the individual. A feeling of safety is built on the trust developed between horse and rider, which relies on the foundation of time and effort that is put into training.
There is something quite instinctive that kicks in when I work with a horse, which I refer to as a “feeling”, the feeling of knowing when to do things within training. This instinctive feeling is especially useful when backing horses, during their early schooling, or working with difficult horses; and it is this that keeps me safe. It appears a lot when I ride without tack, and it is almost a prediction of how the horse will react to something. I work with difficult horses, yet will not consider myself brave, I do not like to sit rodeo acts (although it is something I became well practised at as a teenager!), so I do what I can to avoid those situations.
Of course, underneath this feeling lies something much more complex. It is a subconscious reading of the horse, which comes from taking the time to get to know them and their individual ways of expressing themselves and what they are trying to convey to you. Once established, it will become less obvious that you are reading and watching, and more obvious that you are listening, subtly or even subconsciously.
Once you can listen in this way, you need to know how to act accordingly. Do not dismiss warnings, as there is no point getting to know a horse if you’re going to ignore them and push things on too fast anyway. Let’s take a horse being backed as an example; I do not like to rush horses, they will all progress at their own pace and, for my own safety as well as their emotional state, I will wait for them and go along with their speed. If they are uneasy about the next stage, I will go back a step and wait a little longer.
Personally, I only do things with my horses when I have that good feeling and I can, to the extent that is possible, predict their reactions. I have ridden over the top of the Malvern Hills without a bridle, and whilst this looks brave, or perhaps even a stupid thing to do, I had the right feeling from my horse. My feeling was “he is ok with this, he is listening, we are good to go”. If I didn’t have that feeling that day, I wouldn’t have done it. If he was showing me any doubts that he wasn’t happy or listening, the bridle wouldn’t have come off.
I will happily jump my horses without tack and the same applies here, a good level of understanding and trust produces a good connection. Don’t get me wrong, there is a limit on how much you can predict a horse’s behaviour, they are after all individuals with their own thoughts and feelings, but I still feel safer doing things my way than I used to doing things traditionally.
The connection between horse and rider is vital, but sadly often over looked. Those worried about safety or control will often just add more tack in order to set their mind at ease. Taking time to work with your horse, developing understanding and putting effort into correct training will produce a safer horse in the long run.
I will often say communication is more important that control… with communication established a level of “control” is maintained. Whereas, if one works simply by control then communication will be lacking. Being safe, after all, is more about good communication than methods of control.
Stay safe guys