If a horse’s movement, power, collection and impulsion come from the hindquarter, shouldn’t the bridle go on their tail?
Since the earliest times of horse / human relationships, we’ve been obsessed with getting leverage on the head of the horse. In what has been a vain attempt to gain control and submission of these versatile, powerful creatures, has also been to the exclusion and detriment of the best the horse has to offer. For if you get control of his head, you lose his mind, heart and full capacity of his movement and power.
What we say, do and teach in Quantum Savvy, is often very different to conventional thoughts and teachings when it comes to horses. From the point that we begin always with ground work, the way we sit when we ride, the way we ask our horses to carry themselves, our focus on riding the whole horse, being able to communicate with the horse’s entire body and not just trying to somehow control them by getting a hold of their heads. And so on.
I was having a really interesting conversation with someone the other day, about changing the focus of riders from this one simple yet fundamental cornerstone of horse riding. The lady I was speaking with had some really great questions about why we, in QS, do what we do and how it affects our horses. She had a pretty conventional background in dressage and eventing and was of the belief that some horses simply could not go without a bridle. She also felt therefore, that anyone who could ride without a bridle, must obviously have a lot of great things going for them with their horse.
As a case in point, she sent me a video of a top European rider, doing a bridle-less demonstration on one of her competition horses. Watching the video and the way the horse moved, I could tell pretty quickly that although the horse did indeed have nothing on it’s head, it must have been ‘trained’ to be ridden bridle-less, rather than developed to the point that it could be ridden this way. And believe me there is a huge difference.
A bit of internet research on the rider, confirmed my thoughts. The horse’s movement looked forced, mechanical and contained. Typical of a horse that has spent many hours being lunged, ridden and trained in general, in a fixed position. If this is done enough times, for sufficient hours, the horse will hold it’s position for a time, after the bridle is taken off. Sometimes the training will last for a few minutes, and sometimes for hours. Just as any training with horses does. How often do horse owners send their horses to the trainer to get them going ‘right’ and tune them in? A process that must be repeated every so often because it is training….not teaching or communication. So it doesn’t last. It doesn’t stick. Some horses are more adept at accepting and holding their training and some rebel against it. You’ll find more about this in the horse training section of my book.
There are two ways to achieve bridle less riding. One is the way we do it….by working up to it, preparing our horses and ourselves and developing a strong communication and understanding between us. All of our early riding is without a bridle….we ride in a rope halter or hackamore and earn the right to eventually go to a bridle. By which time we no longer need one anyway. Many people then choose to continue to ride without a bridle.
The other way is to do as I mentioned above…..train your horse with repetition to do what he is told and what is expected of him. Aside from the obvious issues that are detrimental to the horse, this method is part of an ongoing process. It’ll only ever get so good, the horse’s movement will never look natural and flowing and it doesn’t stick. It has a shelf life and also a safety issue. Under pressure, if things go badly, there is no real communication between horse and rider so the rider is then at the mercy of the horse’s instincts. If you’ve ever been on a horse who has forgotten you are there, you’ll understand just what a terrifying thought this is.
Riding bridle less or working at liberty is not definitive proof of good horsemanship or even of a good understanding of horses. In fact, in many cases, what people do to achieve these results is no better than what others do with the obvious use of tools, leverage, fear and force. We need to create an awareness of the difference.
Our goal…that of Shane and myself and the QS Team, is to change the paradigm and the global beliefs of all horse lovers and owners. We need to fundamentally change the way people understand, interact and communicate with horses. We’ve got to get away from traditional use of force and leverage and the general acceptance of these things as standard practise. Sadly, so much of this is such a part of the day to day dealings with horses that no one even questions it.
We are not anti-bit. Not at all. As well meaning as they are, people who are against bits still don’t get it. It has nothing to do with the head of the horse. It is about communicating with the whole horse. Of engaging his mind and his emotions. If you do that, there is no more need for control with your horse than there is with your spouse, child, work mate or friend. This is what people do not understand. We do not need tools to ‘control’ horses. If fact, the more tools we need, the less understanding of horses we have. What we do need is to properly understand how to listen to them, communicate with them and create rapport with each other. This is an equal partnership.
If you can do that then you don’t need a bridle, regardless of if it has a bit or not. This is why we also don’t like bitless bridles. Many of these are no better than bitted bridles, as they still focus on leverage and control of the head.
The other side of this is that to achieve true forward, soft flexion in both lateral and vertical movement, collection and elevation, you need to be able to communicate with the whole body of the horse. None of these things come from the head and never have. It astounds me how many people think they do. How many horses do we see running and playing in the field in full flexion, doing everything we ever dreamed of doing with them, without a bridle or bit in sight! Collection and forward come from the horse being laterally soft from nose to tail, engaged in the hind and lifting through the back. If you have that, then the head-set of the horse will be what it will be. It will depend on the suppleness of the horse, the confidence of the horse, the willingness of the horse and confirmation of the horse. Some horses find it easy to offer vertical flex without any real engagement of the hind or lateral softness, just because of their breed. Others will be quite developed in their education (what we term education) and soft through the body but are not able to offer a lot of vertical flex again because of confirmation. Vertical flex should be the last thing anyone looks at when it comes to judging whether a horse is collected or not. Classical Dressage masters knew this, which is why a vertically flexed horse in the early stages of classical training, is frowned upon. But in Competitive Dressage it is so desired, that many riders whose horse is not yet ready for vertical flex, resort to use short-cuts and cruel methods to achieve it. And in the process sacrifice true engagement, forward and softness.
In QS, we focus on achieving lateral softness and forward through the whole horse before we ask for collection and engagement. This is why you will see many horses in the early stages, not yet vertical. It is not our focus. However what you will see is horses who are very light, very soft, very responsive, very happy and very forward. It is beautiful. As they go through the levels and become more confident in contact (shorter reins asking for more collection), fitter and stronger, you’ll see them offer greater and greater collection and elevation of movement. It really is a spectacular thing to see. And all the while the reins are very light. In my Harmony in Motion classes, I actually (jokingly) ban my students from using more than 2 fingers on the reins. If they have to close their third finger, their horse is getting too heavy. So they either need to rest (because the horse is tired from carrying themselves in such a strong position),or go back to lateral work to soften the horse through the body again, because they have become braced somewhere.
As I watched the video of the bridle-less rider, the horse looked very heavy (even without a bit!), forced and unnatural. All signs of a horse who has been ‘trained’ with no option, and for many hours, using repetition and a lot of leverage. All of which just trains the good bits out of your horse. In my opinion the horse’s movement was ugly. A quick look at the riders facebook page had revealed many photos of horses just as I suspected, being trained in leverage with no options. If you do enough of this, it will hold for a while. Long enough to do a demo or two and then it’s back to the leverage again. Probably even in the warm-up arena.
In April and May of this year, Shane and myself and many of our Team, are doing a 2-month tour of Queensland to create more awareness of the need for change. We will be doing free demos in each of the towns we visit, but more importantly we are opening up the doors to anyone and everyone to come and watch us all, every day during the following week, practising and playing with our horses. What we want to show people is that you can achieve collection without leverage, you can do piaffe without spurs, you can lead without a halter, you can connect without a lead rope, you can communicate without force and that control is not safety nor the basis for a happy partnership.
Conventional thinking around horses is not the way to achieve your dreams. Lightness, softness, willingness and harmony can be achieved by anyone, but it’s time to stop trying to control the horse’s head and start to communicate with the whole horse; body, mind and soul.
Meredith Ransley – Quantum Savvy Feb 2016