by Cynthia Cooper.
Control (or lack of it) seems to be one of the big fears riders face when starting to ride bitless.
For me as a natural horsemanship devotee, it wasn’t an issue at all because the program I followed developed control on the ground that translated directly to the saddle.
I came to appreciate that hindquarter control was most important, especially when I was riding with a halter and one rein!
Mind you, all of this was practised in an arena so it wasn’t so scary – it was when we rode out on young freshly started horses during a colt starting clinic that I realized how important that practice was, and how it taught me to use one rein at a time for control.
It also taught me to rely on moving the hind end to slow down – pulling on the head doesn’t work especially with a green horse being ridden in one rein on a halter!
As I progressed through the levels of horsemanship I studied with many and various instructors in Australia and the USA. I discovered how much finesse you could achieve by having a horse so responsive to leg aids that you could move each individual leg to get many different manoeuvres.
From a turn on the forehand to side-passes, half-passes, canter leads and flying changes – they all rely on refined hind end control.
But so does something as simple as asking your horse to slow down, or not rear, or buck you off, or run backwards! In fact, many issues can be dissipated by moving the hindquarters a little, or a lot!
It wasn’t until I developed the LightRider Bitless Bridle and started selling it to ‘traditional’ riders, I became aware that unless they had practised some natural horsemanship, most traditional riders had no concept of moving the hind end for control.
Sure, some knew how to execute a turn on the forehand, but that was at a standstill – moving the hind end while in motion was something you only did in the higher levels of dressage – such as in travers, renvers and half pass.
So while I was still instructing in Natural Horsemanship, I began to teach some basics for traditional riders who were discovering bitless riding and coming to my workshops.
We focused on groundwork exercises to see how a horse responded to pressure from the bitless bridle before the rider got on, then progressed to the saddle when they were going well.
Here are the basic steps I taught in a nutshell:
- Back-up on the ground, then while riding
- Lateral Flexion on the ground, then while riding
- The hindquarter yield on the ground, then while riding
You can see these basic steps in a video from an Equine Expo here.
Training for a bitless transition at home:
Before you even start, ensure your bitless bridle fits the horse well and is correctly adjusted according to the type of bridle.
You can see how the crossunder and side-cue type bitless bridles are fitted here: /transition-bitless-bridle/
I recommend these two types of bitless bridle for training because it’s easier to achieve lateral flexion than with a ‘leverage’ type of bitless bridle (one that has wheels or shanks) which are often used for more advanced work.
Starting with Groundwork:
The best way to check that your horse responds to the bitless bridle is where you’re safe – on the ground.
Start by asking your horse to yield their nose to pressure with one rein, both to the left and right while you are standing level with the saddle.
If your horse has been taught to yield to a rope halter, this should be a familiar exercise, but remember you are using a new piece of equipment which may put pressure on a different part of the head so accept a small response first.
For a horse that hasn’t been taught this, or who is resistant to the rein I use a treat to ‘lure’ their head around, then reward them for bending their neck and head towards you – even a little at first. When they understand what’s required, you can ask with a light feel, stroking the rein until they offer lateral flexion, then eventually hold it for a few seconds and remain relaxed. If a horse finds this difficult over a period of time, it’s worth getting a physical check of their neck, poll, and back especially if they’re stiffer on one side.
Sometimes stiffness can be worked out, so start with half bends for a few days then progress to holding a little longer until some suppleness is achieved.
You’ll find a horse responds better to a rhythmic ‘asking with on-off feel’ on the rein than a steady pull. Close and open your fingers gently, in a rhythm a bit like covering each hole of a recorder or flute in sequence.
Any steady pull on the horse’s head usually sets up a brace or ‘opposition’ response because of innate behavior – your horse is programmed by nature to oppose pressure automatically until they are educated to understand that certain types of pressure mean certain things.
A bitless bridle uses this principle; for turning left or right it applies gentle pressure to the opposite side of the nose, so the horse is moving away from, rather than into the pressure.
When your horse can ‘give’ his head and hold lateral flexion for a few seconds while you give their head a rub, or even release the rein totally by dropping it over the neck, it’s time to get on.
But before you do, it’s also worth checking that your horse understands turning while in motion, so walk your horse forward and use a directing (outward) rein to make turns to the left and right while you’re walking next to the saddle. This also gives you the opportunity to try stopping. Rather than pulling on both reins together, ask with a gentle lift and feel on one rein, then the other – again in a rhythmic way to get the stop.
Once you’ve stopped, use the same kind of rhythm on each rein, in turn, to get a backup. If your horse doesn’t understand, take the reins in one hand and use a light rhythmic press on the horse’s chest to help.
It’s a good idea to repeat these exercises from each side of the horse so they learn from both sides and in both directions.
One most important exercise on the ground is to check that your horse can yield the hindquarters to a gentle touch from the stirrup where your leg would give the aid (between the girth and the flank).
First, ask your horse to flex their head a little towards you, then while holding this position, press the stirrup rhythmically against the horse’s side.
If there is no response to gentle skin pressure (if you indent muscle then you are pushing too hard), rather than give up or get firmer, add a gentle rhythmic upwards lift to the rein while maintaining the stirrup aid.
Keep your energy up and focus on the hindquarters until you get a result. This generally doesn’t take long if you continue the rhythm on both stirrup and rein. Release and reward after one step and work towards getting 2-3 steps so your horse ends up facing the opposite direction.
If you can do this exercise at the standstill, then also try it from the walk and trot to be sure your horse will listen to your leg – this is your brake!
While bending the head and neck in lateral flexion is like putting on the ‘handbrake’, then yielding the hindquarters takes the energy out of the horse’s powerhouse, therefore ‘braking’ or slowing it down.
Starting in the saddle:
This is best done in an enclosed arena, round yard or a small paddock/pasture to be safe.
Start by going through the same exercises you did on the ground; lateral flexion, yielding the hindquarters, back up, then walking, turning, stopping and checking your lateral flexion again.
If your horse responds well at the walk, check it all at the trot and then the canter if you are up to that stage in your riding. You don’t have to do this all in the first ride either! Get it good at the walk and trot first over a couple of rides before going faster.
Check that you can stop in a straight line by letting your energy down and gently squeezing each rein alternately, then also by yielding the hindquarters so they disengage sideways into the stop.
A nice exercise that helps the horse understand this, is to ride along the fence, yield the hindquarters away from the fence and turn the head towards the rail, to come to a stop facing the fence.
Relax (and reward with a treat or scratch) and allow your horse to find comfort in the stop for a while!
Why do we need to disengage our horse by yielding the hindquarters?
A horse who has been taught to disengage has been taught to relax and yield from nose to tail.
This gives us a tool to settle and control a frightened horse and gives us greater communication with the horse by influencing the nose, neck, shoulder, and hindquarters more effectively.
Disengagement gets the horse in a great frame of mind to learn everything else eg; forwards, backwards, sideways, one rein/loose rein riding, and for developing controlled impulsion.
When do you use a hindquarter yield to disengage?
Generally for all downward transitions especially trot to walk or canter to trot, and whenever the horse stiffens up with the nose, neck, shoulder, or hindquarters.
We can disengage the horse to soften and yield the whole horse then return to the original movement.
Horses know instinctively that to disengage and voluntarily give away their power is not a clever thing to do especially if they feel threatened. Trust in you is a big part of this.
So be patient with your horse and with yourself. It’s an achievement to simultaneously keep the nose and neck soft, the shoulders yielding a little and the hindquarters yielding a lot.
Very soon, the horse finds comfort in yielding because they are born to conserve energy, and slowing or stopping means doing just that!
Here’s some more information about ‘Disengagement as a Powerful Control’ here.
If you treat these exercises, especially the hindquarter yield as a pre-ride check (just like you’d check your car brakes before going too far or fast) then you have an incredibly effective tool for controlling your horse without pulling on two reins.
As my own horsemanship progressed and I used the hindquarter yield to reach higher levels of education with my horses, I discovered I didn’t need reins at all to slow down, stop or turn. This enabled me to reach my own holy grail of riding and that was to take the bridle off and ride free – usually with just a string around the neck for my own reassurance.
If you have that same goal and want to be in control, I’d recommend starting with this simple hindquarter yield and get really good at that in all situations.
Learn more about Riding Bitless here.