For over forty years, Linda Tellington Jones has recognized the benefits of giving horses and riders the experience of riding without the constrains of a bridle. In the 60’s Linda and her students traveled around the United States with Hungarian warmblood mares and stallions, jumping in quadrille with only neck rings. In addition to improving trust and communication, occasionally riding bridle-less has many other concrete benefits.
In The Ultimate Horse Behavior Book, the basic steps to riding bridle-less are clearly laid out and easy to follow. In a clinic scenario we are sure to have a handler on the ground initially leading the horse, so the transition to no bridle is a safe one.
If you are primarily working alone, and are quite sure of your horse’s safety, it is very possible to start riding bridleless without having a leader. Obviously you want to do this in an enclosed area, on trustworthy horse, and be a confident, balanced rider. Initially try the cues to stop and turn with the neck ring, while leaving the bridle on. Horses are usually quite responsive to the signals, as long as the rider is clear and can effectively use their seat and leg aids to assist with the cue on the neck. If you are unsure about your horse’s brakes it is always better to be safe then sorry.
Photos one: Skid w.bridle and neck ring (trot)
With the neckring the first thing you want to be sure of are the brakes. To halt, take the neck ring up to the jowl area and give a signal and release, you may have to repeat the signal, while applying seat, voice, and leg cues you would normally use. With some horses I like to add a “crunchy stop” the first time with a neck ring as my “emergency brake”. To do this simply have your horse turn its head back, while keeping their feet still, to take a treat each time you ask for a halt. Most horses are very quick to pick up on this and it is a great way to reinforce the halt on a horse with intermittent brakes. After a few times you needn’t treat with each halt, but instead give them a scratch or verbal praise.
The second thing you need to check in with is steering. Turning with a neck ring is similar to halting in that you apply your regular aids along with an “ask and release” or “meet and melt” on the outside of the neck at the jowl. The importance of the release cannot be emphasized enough, and be assured that it will come up again. Recognizing and diffusing the opposition reflex is one of the key pieces to having success with most any being in most contexts.
PHOTOS SKID TURNING
Getting familiar and comfortable with the neck ring, whether completely bridle-less or not, will give you many new and invaluable tools to work with under saddle regardless of discipline or experience, and will give horses of all training levels a new level of trust and awareness.
Exercise #1: Finding the bend without the bicep.
One of the most common errors in schooling horses is the excessive reliance on the inside rein. Turning, circles, inside bend, Shoulder-fore, and shoulder-in all typically suck riders into over-use of the inside rein to achieve the desired movement. With the neck ring, the rider must use their body as there is no inside rein to over-use.
To most effectively use your body, it is useful to become familiar with the idea of “neutral pelvis” or being “centered” as described in Connected Riding and Centered Riding respectively. From a Connected Riding perspective, releasing one’s back and being carried by your core will be cornerstone to the rider’s freedom of movement, and self carriage, which closely mirrors that of the horse. When in a “neutral” position, the rider has the least amount of strain on their body, and can move in the most bio-mechanically efficient way possible. Once in this position, the rider will be able to independently move their limbs, without straining the back, hips, or abdominals.
The first step to helping your horse find the bend through their entire body starts with asking for some basic turns. As your horse’s head is completely free, the thought of the turn does not begin at the nose; instead imagine the inside hind propelling the horse through the turn (a useful thought with or without a bridle). To achieve this, start by looking to the direction of the turn and allow your entire body to rotate in that direction, imagining that your are swiveling from the seat, rather than twisting at the waist. As you rotate, allow your inside knee to be soft and open, as to allow the horses inside shoulder and ribcage to soften, which will offer more space for the inside hind to come through. As you rotate your torso, think about cuddling with your inside calf to encourage the horse to release through the ribs. Think about your outside calf supporting the bend and containing the outside movement.
Photo w/ Shiner
Photos w/skid (leaningin)
Photo w/skid no lean
As you play with asking for the turn, be sure not to pull on the neckring. As soon as you start pulling you will trigger the opposition reflex and turn the neckring into a plow yoke. Instead; think about a vibration or a “meeting and melting” signal, thinking more about an upward movement rather than a backward one.
An important thing the remember is to be sure that you imagine being a carousel pole rather than a Harley Davidson rider and resist the urge to lean, especially on your horses weaker side. Carrying yourself in the middle of the horse will help your horse continue in balance through the turn.
PHOTO LEANER PHOTO NO LEAN
Try different sized circles on both reins, and notice which is easiest for you and your horse. If you find one direction much more difficult, try doing circles in the easiest direction and then change your rotation and ask for a few steps of a turn in the difficult direction, before retunring back to the easier one. By asking for just a few steps at a time in the weaker direction you will be better able to help strengthen the less dominant hind leg.
Once you have mastered circles try making circles off of the rail back onto the rail and continue along the rail with a slight inside bend, thinking about cuddling with your inside leg, sending the horse to the rail, and encouraging the bend from the body through to the nose. If you find your horse falling off the rail, really exaggerate the rotation to the inside and imagine your inside seat bone is sliding towards the horses outside shoulder. This exercise can then be increased to asking for shoulder-fore, and shoulder-in, just be sure that it is done incrementally and for only a few steps at a time initially.
Exercise #2 Encouraging Self Carriage
One of the most striking things about taking off the bridle is the way that horses tend to drop their heads and really stretch down. This long and low posture is essential in the first steps of having horses use their backs and be better able to come through from behind.
PHOTO SKID reg & Hover seat
Skid Steer, the chestnut horse in the sdffe photos has a tendency to brace at the base of his neck and tense his back, resulting in a short, choppy stride. With his head completely free, Skid Steer let go of his neck and lengthen his stride almost immediately. He was less rushy and very relaxed.
In addition to obstacles I also use a Connected Riding Exercise to help encourage the horse to let go; the Hover seat. For this the rider gets into a two-point position with their hands anchored in the mane. Thinking about folding at the hips and being sure to release the lower back/sacral area, allow your self to hover above the saddle. Imagine that your leg is surrounding the horse, and try to resist the urge to squeeze with your knee and thigh. Using your calf as a steadying anchor will give you the freedom to “cuddle” the belly and encourage your horse to engage its own core muscle and use its back.
Going into a “Hover seat” at the trot can really allow the horse to let go of their own backs and lower their head. As you ride the trot in this position your calf follows the swing of the horses belly and gives the horse the ability to propel forward with their hind legs.
With or without a bridle this position can be a great way to encourage your horse to stretch down and release their back, often increasing their stride and the articulation through the hind joints. Riding twenty metre circles, changes of rein on the diagonals, and figure of eights is a lot of fun and is a great way to improve your horses impulsion, posture and self-carriage. Try switching between the Hover seat and rising trot, doing 5 to 10 strides of each, and see how your horse changes.
Exercise #3 Using The Playground for Higher Learning
Once you have mastered, or gained some approximation of mastery, turning and stopping, it is fun to add some of the elements from the Playground for Higher Learning.
Several of the obstacles from the Playground of Higher Learning can help encourage your horse to let go of their topline. The Double Triangle is an excellent tool and that’s uses are limited only to your imagination. Riding over “Pick Up Sticks”, the “Star”, or over uneven poles will also give your horse the experience of reaching down and lifting the back.
To improve a horse’s responsiveness to turning try using cones, barrels, or the labyrinth. This will also help your precision, timing, and clarity as a rider, which makes the exercise easier for the horse to accomplish. Your own posture is imperative and will make or break your level of success. Should you find yourself unable to make or turn, or find that your horse is “not listening to you” go through this set of self checks:
Is your back released? Most of us tighten our backs habitually; think about melting you sacrum as you lengthen your spine.
Are your seat bones evenly weighted? Being aware of your own crookedness will help you better carry yourself and therefore make it easier for the horse to carry you.
Are you releasing the neckring? Triggering the opposition reflex will get you into a pulling match; remember that the horse responds on your release, not the pressure.
Do you have a surrounding leg? Gripping with your knees and thighs actually make it more difficult for a horse to bend around a corner and lift their back. Thinking about being a “frog on a ball” will help encourage your horse’s self carriage.
Are you supporting the horse through the turn?Thinking about having a cuddling inside calf to remind the inside hind while you support the belly with your outside calf will help funnel the horse through the turn.
THE LABYRINTH The Labyrinth, a staple in TTEAM groundwork, is an excellent tool for both horse and rider. Horses that understand the Labyrinth from the ground often have an easier time with it under saddle as they know what is expected of them, and can find confidence in its familiarity. For the rider, the Labyrinth provides a clear parameter that makes it easier to be consistent with cues, and create a clear mental picture and plan.
PHOTO: Shiner, the black horse pictured, is clearly using his inside hind to help propel his self forward through the corner. Mandy is thinking about rotating and asking for his inside hind, while using an outside leg to indicate the amount of turn.
When riding through the Labyrinth begin by halting before each corner so you can really organize yourself and your horse. Think about being balanced of the center of the horse, and keep yourself released in the back. Use your eyes and your rotation to help begin the turn, and be sure to think about making a wide turn, using the entire corner, rather than a sharp “v” shaped turn. If you find the turns difficult, make the Labyrinth extra large, so it is easier for you and your horse.
If your horse is consistently falling in and out of balance in one direction, try a counter rotation through the turn. Counter intuitive as it may sound, often a change in the riders’ rotation helps remind the horse to use their weaker hind leg and keeps the rider from bracing inadvertently.
THE DOUBLE TRIANGLE The double Triangle is a wonderful, if underused, component of the Playground For Higher Learning. It is a great tool to help horse and rider travel in straight lines, make smooth transitions, and changes of direction. The Double Triangle can be ridden in a cloverleaf pattern or any number of ways, the only limitation is your imagination. It is also wonderful gymnastic training when set up as small jumps, instead of ground poles.
Riding across the poles will encourage your horse to release the base of the neck and therefore the back. The configuration of the Double Triangle will help you make a straight line across both poles, as you will not have any reins to rely on. Imagining a funnel between your seat bones, elbows, and calves can be a useful way to help steady a horse, especially if they tend to be wiggly.
PHOTO SKID DT
The Double Triangle can also be used to make circles around, providing a clear boundary for both horse and rider.
When using the neck ring always stay within your comfort zone. Feeling safe is as important for us as it is for the animals. There is a certain amount of control that has to be given up to take off the bridle which is part of why horses enjoy it so much. Being comfortable enough to let your horse make some of the decisions is a huge part of building a relationship and improving trust.. Remember that you should not expect perfection your first attempt, it is more likely to be an approximation, as with any new skill. Above all remember that a huge part of it is the fun! Using the neck ring as a break from the regular routine is a great way to keep you and your horse happy in the saddle, while improving awareness, balance, and communication.