There are a few things to consider before hopping on your horse without a saddle and bridle. First, your seat and leg should be proficient riding bareback to the point that you feel totally comfortable at a walk, trot, and canter. If you have never ridden bareback and are unsure if you will be stable without your saddle, I recommend dropping your stirrups when you ride to test your balance. Riding without stirrups is a great exercise both for balance and for strengthening your leg.
Secondly, it should be noted that although supposedly tackless, free riding is not often accomplished without any tack at all. Rather, free riding is most often achieved with the use of a neck strap, or free riding strap. I highly recommend the use of a neck strap if you are planning on free riding your own horse at home. Free riding without a neck strap is possible but involves a more in-depth training process that requires hands-on instruction from a liberty professional.
There are several ways to integrate the use of a neck strap into your every day riding routine. One way is to run a short rope underneath your horse’s neck, then hold each side of the short rope with your reins, as shown on my 3-year-old OTTB, Prim, below:
A second way to teach your horse is to integrate the neck strap itself into your training. This can be achieved by holding it with your reins, as shown on Prim below:
The key thing to remember when using a neck strap is no matter which method you chose to teach your horse, the neck strap uses the same principle as neck reining. Your horse should move away from the pressure of the strap against their neck, much like they move away from your leg on their side. If your horse moves away from the pressure of the neck strap, it can be easily used to turn right, left, down transition or halt.
As you progress with use of the neck strap in conjunction with your reins you can begin to test your horse’s willingness to listen to just the neck strap. One way to test your steering and stopping capabilities before taking your bridle totally off of your horse is to knot your reins just in front of your neck strap.
This puts your reins out of your way, but still allows them to be within easy reaching distance if you need to grab them to stop or steer your horse.
In this video, I demonstrate basic commands and movements on my retired event horse, Pumpkin:
Without riding tack your whole body must be used to communicate with your horse in order for your commands to be effective, so the neck strap alone may not be sufficient. I am using a significant amount of my seat and leg to guide Pumpkin through these movements. I combine use of my left leg on Pumpkin’s side with pulling the neck strap against the left side of her neck to guide her into turning right. The same signals are used to turn left, only with opposite leg and rein, combining right leg with pressure against the right side of the neck.
I also use my shoulders by turning in the direction in which I want Pumpkin to move. I keep my eyes up and ahead, looking where I want to go. I lean into my seat in the direction that I want Pumpkin to move; so right seatbone to turn right, left seatbone to turn left.
As you can see in the photo, even though I do not have a connection to my horse’s mouth through a bit and reins, she is still soft and listening, offering to come round. With more energy behind I expect that she could do some very nice flatwork, despite the lack of a bridle. The fact that horses can offer such a soft carriage even without tack is a great demonstration of the connection that you and your horse should be seeking during Dressage training.
It should be noted that Pumpkin had no experience being free ridden before I started this article series. However, she was well trained in both flatwork and neck reining, which made the transition to riding tackless fairly easy. However, the training was not without its difficult moments.
In the video below I am asking Pumpkin to make an upward transition to trot, and then another to canter. However, Pumpkin picks up the incorrect canter lead, and as she reaches the corner, she makes a flying lead change. I can tell you that after that flying lead change I lost my connection with her and was out of control. I had strategically been working in an indoor arena with the gate closed, so there was no place for Pumpkin to go other than around the arena. Luckily, Pumpkin did not buck or spin or pull any dirty tricks, so I just steered her around the edge of the arena and decided to go with her rather than bail.
You can see as I reach the other side of the arena I pulled back on my neck strap, and in Pumpkin’s defense, she did respond with a half halt in the canter, but she did not down transition. As she continued around the outside I decided to pull harder on the neck strap, in what I thought would be a vain attempt to regain control. To my relief Pumpkin immediately stopped.
Since that one moment of disobedience, Pumpkin has been beautifully behaved every time I have free ridden her. However, this is an example of how careful and cautious riders need to be when progressing to free riding. I highly recommend starting in a round pen, or at least an enclosed arena or riding area. I also recommend that you not try it alone. Riding is always safer when you have someone on the ground with you.
The unfortunate truth of equestrian sports is that they are inherently dangerous. While I was comfortable with the consequences, free riding may not be the best idea for riders who are not confident in their horse’s willingness to listen, or their own ability to quickly diffuse a difficult situation. If you do choose to pursue this endeavor, I highly recommend simply taking your time, and training your horse with the neck strap and the bridle until you are positive that your horse will understand and respond to the commands from your leg, seat, and the neck strap.
If you have free riding experiences to share, or questions, I’d love to hear from you!
About the Author
Sarah Baker is an upper level eventer and Grand Prix dressage rider based at Fox Lake Farm in Southern Pines, NC.