If your ultimate goal is to ride without a bridle, you’ll need to make sure you have precise cues that don’t involve reins for every movement you’ll request of your horse. He’ll need to know what you’re asking for with only your voice and body to give him direction. It’s time to refine your cues and make sure you’re giving your horse all the information he needs to follow your requests.
In this second installment of our three-part series, trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight shows you how she taught her horse, Dually, to stop, back up and turn without reins. You’ll practice stops and turns with the bridle in place while teaching your horse to follow your voice, seat and leg cues. Use Goodnight’s steps to build your confidence as a rider and teach your horse to listen to your “pre-signals” instead of a correction from the reins.
A New Kind of Cue
What does it take to stop, back and turn without reins? “You have to learn to use all of your aids: your seat, legs, voice and arms—even if they are not attached to reins—to communicate the cue to your horse,” says Goodnight.
You’ll need to develop specific and clear cues to stop, back and turn your horse without rein pressure. The transition to these new cues will take time, patience and your commitment to be clear and consistent so that you give the same cues every time you ride.
“It’s likely that your horse has become very reliant on the reins to tell him what to do,” says Goodnight. “Most riders pull on the reins to turn and stop, and that’s the very first signal the horse gets. He never has to think about what to do—he just follows the pull on his mouth. Now that bridleless riding is your goal, you need clear cues and your horse has to learn to listen for those new cues.
“This process is harder for him and takes more concentration on his part than the kick-and-pull style,” says Goodnight. “Your cues must become very specific and easy for your horse to hear, sense and feel.”
Although it will take time, Goodnight says that horses learn easily when there is a sequence or routine they can pick up on. Your horse already knows some of your repetitive cues. For example, if you pick out his hooves in the same order every day, he probably knows the pattern. He may pick up the next hoof or shift his weight just as you’re ready to move to the next foot. He takes a “pre-signal” from you moving from hoof to hoof. He knows the plan before you touch his leg. Because of the sequence, he knows what’s coming next.
It’s that same kind of repetition and cue that you’ll teach your horse before you can ride without a bridle. “If you sequence your aids in such a way that the reins come last—and only as reinforcement, not as part of the cue—your horse will soon learn to listen to your other aids,” explains Goodnight. “Your whole body now steers your horse—your eyes, head, shoulders, arms, torso, hips, legs and feet. You’ll teach your horse to pay attention to every move.”
The New Turn
To ask your horse to turn, Goodnight shares this visualization: Imagine you have a neck brace and body cast on so that you have to turn with your whole body to look where you want to go. Your horse will feel your center of gravity shift and your legs fall differently on his sides when you use your whole body to turn.
Practice this with your horse outfitted in his usual tack and with the bridle and reins in place: Riding straight ahead, your eyes, shoulders, arms and legs should be pointed straight ahead (toward 12 o’clock if you imagine riding on the face of a clock). Your hands hold the reins and reach well in front of the saddle; they should be down near your horse’s withers. As long as you are in this position, the horse should continue straight. Now prepare for a new kind of turn.
Look in the direction of your turn, but with your imaginary neck brace on. With this in mind, you’ll open your shoulders, twist your torso, shift your weight to your outside seatbone, close your outside leg on the horse’s barrel and open your inside leg.
“Only give your horse about a second to respond before you pick up the inside rein as reinforcement,” says Goodnight. “As long as you sequence your aids in such a way that the rein pressure comes last, your horse will begin to respond to your body cues.”
Practice making small circles to the right, then go straight, circle to the left, and then go straight again. Reinforce with the reins as needed. “Cueing your horse back to straightness is half of this turning exercise,” says Goodnight. Alternate right and left turns, always with periods of straightness in between.
“Soon your horse should begin turning in response to your body cues, but you’ll still need to be quick with the reinforcement for some time before you can think of taking off the bridle,” says Goodnight. “Once you’re no longer using the reins, you’ll still use your hands and arms the same way. They give valuable information to your horse as he sees your visual cues and feels your weight shift just as it did with the bridle in place—so use them deliberately. Within a few days of practicing this you should be able to ride circles, serpentines and straight lines all over your arena without having to correct your horse often.”
To form new cues for speed changes and stops, Goodnight says to focus on shifting your weight and work to keep your reining hand neutral. Your center of gravity will cue the horse to slow down and speed up. If you like your horse’s current speed, keep your weight in the middle of the saddle and in line with your horse’s center of gravity. This is called a neutral or following seat. Your cue to change speed will depend on feeling this neutral position and how you can shift your weight forward or back from there.
To speed up, tilt your weight slightly forward and increase the energy in your seat to more of a driving seat. Roll forward slightly on your seatbones to shift your weight in front of your horse’s center of gravity. To slow down, move your weight slightly behind the horse’s center of gravity by rolling back and down onto your seatbones. This is called a resisting seat, because you’re resisting the current speed and asking for slowness. When you move your weight forward and back, you’ll find that your legs naturally swing in the opposite direction. That helps you maintain balance and is a clear cue to the horse as well.
Three Ways to Stop
Your new, no-rein-pressure stop cue will be the most challenging speed cue to learn and keep consistent. “I teach my horses to stop off of three different aids—just my voice, just my seat and just my leg position,” Goodnight says. “I want to make sure I have brakes once it’s time to ride bridleless. When you have three ways to stop, you have more confidence in your horse’s obedience. You can teach all of these cues to your horse by applying the aid, then reinforcing with the reins a second or two later.”
To begin practice, long trot your horse a few times around your arena until you can feel him wanting to stop or slow down. When he’s wishing for a stop cue, put your hands down on his withers (to neutralize your hands so that you won’t use them) and then say “whoa.” Wait no more than one to two seconds, then reinforce your voice cue by picking up the reins firmly, stopping him abruptly and backing.
Repeat the exercise until your horse is stopping as soon as he hears your voice, well before you pick up the reins. When he stops without your rein pressure, reward him with a rest and lots of praise.
“His main reward is that when he listens to your voice, you will not use the reins. Stopping and resting is his bonus for doing it well,” says Goodnight.
Repeat this process to teach the horse to stop when you plant your seat, rolling your weight back onto your jeans pockets. For this round, do not use your voice or the reins (except as a reinforcement)—just sit down hard on his back and plug in your seatbones. With reinforcement and repetition, your horse will learn to “listen” for your seat cue and accept that as a sign to stop.
Goodnight advises repeating the process one more time while teaching your horse that when your legs move forward of the girth, he should stop. Again, reinforce your new cue with rein pressure until he understands the new cue. “Don’t use your voice—just swing your legs forward as you sit back,” she says. “You’ll have to sit down and use your seat at the same time. Give your horse about a second to come to a complete stop, then reinforce with the reins if he doesn’t follow the new cue. After you are stopped, back him up, using enough pressure to make him search for a way to avoid that reinforcement.”
Back it Up
Goodnight also teaches her horses a cue to back that doesn’t involve reins. “If your horse stops well off your voice, seat and legs, this step shouldn’t be hard,” she says. “I teach my horses that when my legs are forward of the girth, he should stop, then back. So legs forward of the cinch also becomes a back-up and slow down cue.”
From the halt, put your legs forward of the girth and flap them simultaneously. Then wait about a second before you pick up the reins and use them to back your horse. Apply pressure with both legs to tell your horse to walk forward again, then put your legs forward to cue for the back. Again, pick up the reins to reinforce until he learns the new cue. “As long as there is a brief pause between when you apply the aid and when you reinforce with the reins, your horse will learn that legs forward means stop,” Goodnight says.
Putting it All Together
Once your horse understands that legs on means go and that legs off and forward means stop and back, you can use your legs to signal the horse to slow down. If you are riding at the long trot and you wish to transition down to the jog, slowly start moving your legs forward as your weight settles back. As soon as the horse notices the leg cue and begins to stop, put your legs back on as if to say, “Yes, that’s the speed I want.” Goodnight says that it will take a little practice before this slow-down cue becomes refined, and you’ll have to practice many downward transitions.
In the beginning, as you work with these new cues, you’ll start by riding with your bridle in place. Ride with a loose rein and with your hand down on the horse’s withers to prevent you from accidentally using the reins.
“I like to grab my saddle pad to make sure that my reins are neutralized,” Goodnight says. “But you’ll be using the reins regularly as reinforcement after the cue if the horse doesn’t respond. Don’t wait more than a second or two at most to reinforce a cue.
“As your horse learns your new cues, you’ll reinforce less and less. Then you can tie your reins to the horn as you ride, only occasionally reaching down for correction, but having them handy if needed.”
Goodnight advises practicing your new cues daily for 10 to 15 minutes, all while doing your best to not touch the reins. Ride straight lines on the rail and in the center of the arena; do circles and serpentines and reverses. Practice lots of transitions. Ride at the walk, trot and canter when you are ready. Within a few weeks, you should be progressing significantly in making your bridle obsolete. When your horse learns something new or tries really hard, shower him with praise and let him rest. But be very insistent on his responsiveness and always be prepared to reinforce, using enough pressure to motivate change in the horse.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!