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I am one of those horse crazy girls that can’t remember when I first started to love horses. I think it is something that has always been with me and since none of the rest of my family cares at all about horses I’m the crazy one. I was lucky enough to have a pony when I was seven (even if he was nuts), lessons when I was around nine and I got my first horse when I was 12 years old. I felt like it was soooooo long between lessons and that horse but looking back I can see how lucky I was.
My first horse was named Bucky and although the previous owner assured us that his name was based on his color and not any particular bad habit, he actually fit his name in both ways. He was a terror, I swear that horse knew every bad and dangerous habit in the book. He would rear, back into trees and rear, roll on you, charge people in his pasture, he was impossible to catch, he bolted and he LOVED to buck. I loved him. I was also scared of him but he was my first horse so I stuck it out and dealt with his crazy behavior because it was that or not ride. As I said before none of my family or friends knew anything about horses so I was on my own when it came to riding, training and all care. I did a great job for a twelve year old but because of his scary behavior I didn’t ride him as much as I would have liked. Enter Jackson. My mom had this idea that if we could get a well behaved horse that Bucky could follow all would be well. It worked, of course, but it sounds funny to me now. Jackson was everything that Bucky was not and I was very jealous of my sister but mostly I was just happy that I could actually ride.
The person that we got Jackson from was a hippy, horse whisperer. She invited us to bring both Bucky and Jackson to her farm and that we could keep them there for the cost of hay. Her place was rough but functional and she ran a daycare/riding lesson type thing where dozens of young girls would hang out after school. I started taking riding lessons, but more importantly riding with her daughter. We became fast friends and this is where my story takes a turn. The daughter was a gutsy rider that could stick on any horse but she was rough. Often unfairly rough to horses that were confused or scared. I was impressed by her and so I learned to be rough, especially when I was scared, to force a horse through my fear rather than dealing with my own problems. It worked quite well and I became a better and better, while rougher and rougher rider.
It was around this time that I decided I couldn’t live without jumping and Bucky, who used to race barrels, couldn’t jump at all. By this time I had completely retrained him and he was incredibly well behaved. I loved him and didn’t want to give him up but I finally decided and ended up trading him for a different horse named Loki. Loki was great, well behaved, a good jumper and everything that Bucky hadn’t been. The problem that I very quickly discovered was that he hated me. I don’t blame him now, I never really got to know him, never made any effort to love him and because this was when I was at my most serious, and roughest, he put up with a lot from me. I will always be grateful to him for introducing me to Dressage.
Eventually I ended up going to college and he got pushed into the background. My love for horses didn’t leave but I just didn’t have enough time to do anything with him and when I got home and went out to see him he would walk in the opposite direction. I dreamed of a horse that would actually like me but I didn’t do anything about it because I didn’t have the time. Finally around my last year in college I started working to sell him. After about a year I found the perfect person for him and sold him. I didn’t think I’d get a horse right away but I couldn’t help but look and about three months later I found Sora.
I was determined from the beginning that things would be different with Sora. Loki had been incredibly heavy so I worked to make sure Sora was light. I also was careful to keep my roughness away from her. I had by this time realized how hard on my horse’s I had been and vowed not to ever treat Sora that way. I started out with a variety of different natural methods and she did really well. I didn’t plan on doing anything really different than the traditional methods but I did want to give her a good base to work on. I got her used to the saddle, she never even minded it, the bit etc. I was riding her nicely, mainly with the halter but I knew I wanted to be able to ride her with a bit because I wanted to be able to compete in dressage with her. After I had her for about a year I ran into the bitless horse blog and thought “wow, that would be so nice but it can’t work for me because I’d never be able to compete that way.” I think I basically told Sydney, the blog’s author, exactly that and she pushed me, even mailing me the link to Interdressage. I still thought that it wasn’t for me but I did a search for bitless dressage. That one little search ended up changing my life in a huge way because I found the Art of Natural Dressage Forum. The Art of Natural Dressage, or AND, is not completely bitless, it is simply respects the horse’s decision and if your horse doesn’t want a bit you don’t ride with one. I was extremely impressed because many of the people didn’t even use bridles and although I thought “that will never be me” I wanted to learn more.
I joined the forum and started learning and having my mind changed. I discovered that horses are far smarter than I ever gave them credit for and that with the right work they can even want to be ridden which is something I NEVER thought could happen before. Most importantly I completely changed the way I worked with Sora. I started using food rewards and giving her a choice about whether to do behaviors or not and even whether she wanted to work with me at all. I started teaching her what I would have considered “stupid tricks” before and now realized were incredible behaviors that each had something they could teach a horse, or a specific muscular group they could strengthen. I learned that Sora is incredibly food motivated and should be a member of MENSA as she learns new behaviors in minutes or even seconds sometimes.
I also started to teach her to be ridden bridles. I never would have thought I would write that sentence last year but I am proud to write it now. I use a Cordeo, or neck rope, and at this point I can stop Sora with it as well as turn and back her. Eventually I’ll be able to collect her and do even the most difficult of maneuvers with the lightest touch on her neck. She’ll stop even through a shy with less than one ounce of pressure on the base of her neck, treats are very useful here. I would never consider this dangerous because when she wants me off her back she doesn’t have to buck or bolt, she simply has to back up on her own and I happily dismount. Along with that it is completely up to her if I even climb on her back. All I do is stand on the mounting block while she’s at liberty and if she feels like it she lines herself up to the block and lets me mount. She’s been teaching me how she wants me to ask her to move forward and how to balance myself correctly. She is a picky and exacting teacher but she’s only four and I’m not ready to move even to trot work until she’s five or six (when a horse’s body is fully mature) so I’m not in any hurry.
The most important thing I have discovered is the strength of allowing the horse to teach. After all they know how to do this all, it is the rider that is moving in a different way and learning a different language. By allowing the horse to teach us how to work with, and train, them we not only learn better and faster but in a way that is palatable and even enjoyable for our horse.
The horse I have now is completely different that the horse I started out with. Sora had been abused before I got her and was tense and nervous around people. She was almost impossible to catch and would shy at anything. She now can have a superbike revving next to her while I’m picking out her hooves, at complete liberty not even wearing a halter, and not even flick an ear. (and yes, this has happened as my dad is an avid motorcycle person with a Ducati lol)
Going forward I know I will NEVER use a bit and hopefully will ride almost exclusively in just a neck rope. You see, as soon as reins are in my hand and I get nervous I still react the way I was taught by the friend. I am working on myself but with a Cordeo that is not a problem and since I must trust Sora I relax and ride the way I always wanted to, like I’m part of the horse.
As Sydney says, bitless (and perhaps bridless) is for every horse but not for every rider. Feel free to visit my blog to follow my and Sora’s progress. I could certainly use a cheering section =)