Riding Bareback and Bitless–BLISS That’s NOT Just for Kids Anymore!

The release of the new TSB book RIDING FREE got me reminiscing…the cover alone reminds me of carefree days in my youth when I was long on confidence and short on fear. From my earliest days on a horse, I was just as likely to clamber on board without a saddle as I was to stick my foot in the stirrup. I was just as comfortable steering my horse with a couple lead ropes tied to the halter as I was with leather reins and a bit in his mouth.

RIDING FREE is actually for REAL horse people. Andrea and Markus Eschbach explain that with correct training and preparation, a piece of metal across the tongue isn’t necessary to control a horse, and a piece of leather over the back isn’t needed to keep your seat. If you have spent any time asking yourself why it takes so much equipment between you and your horse in order to get close to him, then this book will speak to you. Our horses can be happier and more comfortable if we take the steps to communicate with them at the most elemental level, and the riding relationship that can arise from that can defy your expectations.

On my beloved first pony Misty, at age nine, with just a halter and lead rope (and yes, I should have been wearing a helmet).

Besides, it can be good for YOU as a rider to gain the seat necessary to control your horse’s direction and speed without a bit, and to stay in place without a saddle. In his bestselling book HOW GOOD RIDERS GET GOOD, USEA Hall-of-Fame Inductee Denny Emerson asks us if it is “possible to be a centaur in the suburbs.” He describes what it may have taken for young Plains Indians to become “part” of a horse in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries: “They learned naturally, by simply letting their body accommodate to the movements of the horse, and they didn’t have a saddle between them and the animal to use as a crutch, or in any way to impede their total feel of the living entity beneath them.” Denny says that today you can still learn to ride as well as the Plains Indians, “but only if you recreate those same conditions.”

Pretty much the only time I got my little brother on a horse---bareback (just halters and lead ropes) on Asil and Katrina. This was our favorite way to hit the trail.

“I’ve always been thankful that I had all those bareback years, galloping over the hills on [my first horse] Paint with only a halter and a lead rope,” writes Denny, “because I think even now, fifty years later, hip replacement and all, I could still gallop around bareback comfortably and confidently.”

So that security gained by dealing with, perhaps, the momentary insecurity you might feel riding without a bit or without a saddle, is a feeling of being able to really ride that never leaves you. But it isn’t just about being able to “stick” that appeals, it is indeed the “centaur” sensation that is more likely to be achieved when the saddle is shed. Bareback is about as close to being “one” with the horse as we can really get.

There were actually bareback equitation classes at the 4-H shows I attended as a kid--here I'm on Asil (the gray) at the Midstate Riding Club in Randolph, Vermont.

“I’ve never spent a lot of time on a horse bareback,” says TSB Managing Director Martha Cook, “but a winter doesn’t pass (at least not yet), when I don’t indulge in a few short rides without a saddle. There’s something wonderful about slipping onto a shaggy, warm horse on a cold, snowy day. The heat that radiates through my seat on a cold day is like putting on pants fresh from the dryer. It feels good!”

In this day and age of merchandising and marketing it is so easy to think the trappings are what riding is all about. It might actually be difficult for many people to imagine taking a lesson bareback, or riding their horse on the trail with a bitless bridle, or bringing their horse in from the pasture, on board, with nothing but a lead rope looped around his neck. The thing is, really, truly, this shouldn’t be hard to imagine. It should be what we all dream about constantly—is it not the epitome of all that a horse-and-rider partnership should embody?

Misty was in her late twenties when this picture was taken...an all-out gallop across the field below my house, no saddle, no bridle. Nothing better.

I would never have thought twice about hopping on my horses without tack when I was a kid. It wasn’t just youthful bravado, it was that I could think of absolutely nothing better in the world. Bare legs on warm coat, muscle on muscle, and no ulterior motives…just friendship in a common space and time.

Bliss.

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