Horseback Riding Tips - Going Bridleless: How I Did It & You Can Too
My name is Brittany Labadie and I am this week's guest blogger for GoHorse.com. I specialize in natural, no force training and compete bridleless on my mare. I'm all about alternative solutions that help the horse instead of force the horse. This is a story of my journey and how I went Bridleless.
My Horse Beginnings
I am trainer based out of North Georgia with two great passions: wild mustangs and teaching people how to better understand their horses. This all started when my family bought our first horse Pepper when I was 15, but sadly we could not afford to keep him. It was completely heartbreaking, and something that still bothers me today. In an effort to cheer me up, my parents brought me to a friends farm. This is where my horse obsession began, and I owe it all to my parents Mary and Johnny Wilcox and Bob and Kathy Tuttle, who are like my grandparents.
They were deacons at my church and were so full of grace and kindness when we first met. They grew up at the end of the Great Depression and taught me to waste not. Mr. Tuttle was a war veteran and a math genius. As a retired engineer, he was always fixing things around the farm. He really demonstrated great work ethic and taught me so many invaluable lessons. I was 16 when I met and trained their horse, Firefly. It took me all summer. I had no idea what I was doing, never having any formal training, and wound up with a few bruises and a concussion or two. But I was really determined. I had my mom bring me out to that farm every day at 8 am all Summer long. I remember Bob telling my mom that he had kids in the past offer to work with the horses and they all gave up after about a week. He was impressed that I just kept on coming.
Fly and I went on to barrel race locally and did really well. I gave Kathy our first blue ribbon. That experience was enthralling. I learned that I could set and reach goals with the horses I worked with, and I wanted more.
The Farm From My Childhood
The farm would be a safe place I could learn and grow for years. I started out with a horseback riding lesson program I launched at 17 years old on their farm to make extra money to afford my horse obsession. I saved up $1000 to buy my very own horse for the lesson program. Her name was Summer. She wound up slipping within 24 hours of being on the farm, getting an injury that I was not ready to handle and the vet did not advise me well on, and she passed away at the University of Auburn from a septic infection. I was devastated. Bob and Kathy were heartbroken too. Mrs. Tuttle offered to help pay for a new horse. She offered to match whatever I put toward the purchase price, up to $1200.
It was then I discovered a rescue organization in South Georgia who had several momma baby pairs of wild mustangs they had saved from Nevada. They were so affordable that Kathy said she would just pay for the whole thing, shipping and all. I was so excited the day they arrived that I ran the entire length of their long driveway to meet the shipper at the gate, and I ran the entire length of it back to the barn. I couldn’t wait. Momma was a chestnut and her baby, who was two months old at the time, was Skye’s The Limit. I knew that baby was special.
That baby is the horse you see pictured being ridden bridleless. She turned 13 this April. I turned 32 in May. I made a lot of mistakes with Skye, but she taught me that those mistakes did not have to have a permanent impact on her. They didn’t have to define who I was either. Skye is a very energetic horse. She’s smart, enthusiastic, full of stamina, and will even let all of the other horses out of the barn at night. Simply put, she’s a mess. I didn’t always appreciate that about her. I got frustrated and would overcorrect her and constantly miscommunicate. I often thought about selling her in the early years. One of my favorite quotes is “when I knew better, I did better,” by Maya Angelou. I took that to heart. Any time I screwed something up, I made sure to fix it and never look back. I am here to tell you that if you are feeling lost with your horse, discouraged or like you just keep screwing up- it’s ok. Your horse forgives you. Now, go do better.
My Illness & Riding
I also want you to know that horses like going slow. That’s good for people like me because I’m kind of slow. I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism at 25 and had really intense and horrible symptoms for years preceding the diagnosis.
If you don’t know what the thyroid does, think of it as your battery. It helps your body take the calories you consume and make them usable by your cells. When the thyroid doesn’t function, you store the calories instead (hello, uncontrollable weight gain!). This affects your brain, your lungs, your muscles, your heart...every function of the body. The medication for it is really slow working (and considered dangerous when taken incorrectly!). I was told it would take 6 months to feel a complete succession of symptoms, but in reality, it took a year to feel some semblance of normal.
After a switch in Doctor, a medication change, admitting that I needed a lifestyle that allowed for occasional naps, and experimenting with different diets, I can tell you that at 32 years old I have more energy and stamina than I ever did even as a teenager!
For those of you suffering from chronic illnesses; don’t give up.
You’ll feel better if you keep going. I sometimes suffer from depression and anxiety too. Nothing helps with problems like that like a good therapist and a horse. There were days when I was younger where I wondered how I was going to feed the horses every day, much less ride. But regardless of how I was feeling, I did it anyway. This definitely slowed my progress, but it didn’t bring it to a halt. Instead, it kind of forced me to realize that there was no need to rush things. Things happened in their own time, right when they needed to. Horses did better when the pressure was off, not when it was on. Finding success despite my issues really fed my drive to keep going. Being outside in the warm summer sun, getting much-needed exercise, and finding joy in any way I could was real medicine for my body and soul.
The horses also served as a kind of plum line for monitoring my mood. If I got to the barn and didn’t care today like I cared yesterday, that was a sign that something was off, and that I needed to address it. We all go to the doctor when we’re sick with a physical illness; what’s the difference between that and going to a doctor when your brain isn’t working quite right? All it can do is help. As with the hypothyroidism, I have struck a great stride with balancing my mental health and making sure I stay stable, happy, and sane. I don’t take on more than I can handle anymore. I know my limits well. I follow my heart.
Eventually, my horse education brought me down a path to a dream of riding bridleless. My mother always told me I walked to the beat of a different drummer, and this wasn’t just true for me as a child; it is true of me as an adult who is a part of the local equestrian community. I definitely have “my way” of doing things, and I want to make sure it is clearly communicated that this is who I am; this isn’t who I am telling you to be. If it speaks to you, great! If it doesn’t, that’s ok! We’re just different. Anyway, I wanted to show the horse community that you didn’t necessarily need to increase the severity of the bit and use multiple devices to make your horse do something.
When barrel racing, which was my first love, I noticed a lot of riders using devices that caused their horses a lot of unnecessary pain. But it wasn’t purposeful. These riders loved their horses. They didn’t understand why they had alley issues, setback, reared, danced, acted agitated, etc. I remember watching one girl get really mad that her horse was blowing through her 'woah' command. She decided to really be clear the next time they ran. This horse was so cool, too. He ran a great pattern for her, and as they approached the timer, she pulled so hard on his mouth that she pulled herself out of the saddle, and to keep herself on the horse, she dug her feet and legs into his sides. He launched forward, then setback, then launched forward, then setback, then finally stopped and she released. He didn’t understand at all what had just happened. And she had no idea that she was squeezing the tar out of his sides, communicating go while simultaneously telling him woah! So, he was trying to do what she wanted. That’s what the launching forward and rocking back was. He was trying to stop and go at the same time for her. What an incredible horse.
She was frustrated with him. Angry that he wouldn’t listen….but she never stopped to think that she had miscommunicated. I don’t think horses are self-aware, but I do know what it feels like to try and do what’s asked of you and your efforts go unnoticed. I’m sure this hurt the horse's confidence. I’m sure it made running the pattern a whole lot less fun. I wonder if he eventually started refusing altogether, and what may have happened to him if he did.
Our Horses Deserve Better
Moments like those made me realize that there has to be better ways to communicate with our animals. They are willing partners, and you didn’t have to force a willing partner. This is when I decided that I was determined to run without spurs, crops, over and under, or anything more than a snaffle bit. I discovered new ways of doing things, like implementing the french link snaffle bit. I did this with English riding too and taught all of my students these new methods. Most took to it great, but it did take a lot of patience.
My Opinion on the Bit
I eventually found that it wasn’t good enough to need to ride in a bit, no matter how gentle. Does the bit have its place? Yes. I still go back to mine frequently to better communicate new things or to refresh. I am not anti-bit. I chose not to go the bitless bridle route because I couldn’t get over how sensitive the nose is. Between the trigeminal nerve and the fact that there are parts of the cartilage in a horse's nasal passage that is so delicate you could break it with the touch of your finger, I thought I would be regressing back into using pain and possibly causing my horse damage at some point because my hands are not perfect.
Nobody’s hands are. Who hasn’t failed to release over a jump? Your horse has never stumbled and you accidentally caught their mouth? They’ve never spooked and you accidentally caught their mouth? Never? Yeah, me either. Sometimes I still get tense in the saddle and squeeze my reins more than I meant to. I’m human. To be human is to err. Please understand that your horse isn’t asking you to be perfect. I’m not asking you to be perfect. I cannot be perfect.
You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to go Brideless
In fact, the reason I went brideless is because I could never be perfect. When you look at brideless riders and the Stacy Westfalls of the world, you do think perfection. You think otherworldly. But they’re not perfect. They’re amazing, and she really inspired me when I was younger to one day reach this goal. This seemingly impossible, odds stacked against me, life constantly getting in the way of its goal. It made me a better rider. It forced me to learn how to take my communication skills with my horse to the next level.
I’m going to be honest with you- I’m not a natural communicator. Ask my husband! This was really difficult for me. But it opened my mind to things I never could imagine. Taking away the “cheat sheet” that can sometimes be the bit was so mind-blowing. I had to really put my training to the test and make sure that 90% of my communication was really, truly, coming from my seat and legs. I found I couldn’t afford to be distracted. I used to take my phone with me and check it occasionally while I rode. I can’t do that anymore. Skye demands all of my attention, because the moment I’m distracted, I tell her the wrong thing. Skye has become more relaxed, more willing, more excited to go to work. She will even put her head through her neck rope if I hold it up. This isn’t a trick I taught her. This is a decision she has made. She’s telling me I’m on the right path.
I Believe in You
I want to share what I have found with the horse world. I want you to feel what I’m feeling; to know what I know. I want you to reach your dreams, to have that amazing connection with your horse that regular non-horse people just don’t understand. I want you to know that you can go slow. A quote that always brings me such intense emotion is, “It is never too late to be what you might have been,” by George Eliot. It took me and Skye 13 years to get here. It will take another 13 years to do everything I want to do bridleless. Eventually, I want to ride sans the neck rope! I want to event! I want to change the rules that require certain headgear for horses in certain disciplines. Right now Skye and I can only show in jumpers without a bridle. I want to show in Eq and Hunters.
I recently adopted a little two and a half-year-old mustang I named Scotty, through the BLM for $25. I am excited to work with him because he's Wild. He reminded me of Skye when she was a baby, so I couldn’t say no. When I look at him, I know that I can bring him a better version of myself than I was able to bring Skye at that age. And when he’s 13 and I’m 45, we will be so much more than what we might have been. My hope is a future like that for you too.
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