Last weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Stacy Westfall work her horses and riders in some demo rides during Ontario's "Can-Am" weekend event. It was fabulous to watch her and listen to her words of wisdom. My take-home from her sessions: safety around horses is essential at all times.

You've probably already seen her 2006 video. You know, the one with her amazing horse Roxy going bareback and bridleless during an unforgettable ride that she dedicated to her then recently passed father. I'd be willing to bet that most of us didn't have a dry eye once it was over. The ride was emotional, sensational and technically correct enough to win them the championship at that show. If you haven't already seen it, here is the ride:

Shortly after the video became a YouTube sensation, many people thought it was a good idea to try and do this with their own horse.

Can you predict what happened after that?

Well, people got hurt.

The reason? Not all horses we ride are trained as impeccably as Roxy was, nor are we all Stacey Westfalls (although maybe we are in our wildest dreams).

I'm not saying that you should never try riding without a bridle. And riding bareback is surely on the bucket list for most riders as they grow and develop their skills. There is simply no feeling like sitting directly on the horse's back while he goes through his paces (assuming the horse has kind and accommodating withers).

Coming out of the sessions, I was reminded yet again about the themes that become evident to me every time I consider safety around horses, regardless of riding discipline.

Before you jump on the "no tack" bandwagon, please consider the following three questions so you can be very, very careful. You might decide that riding without tack might simply be a long-term goal to be risked only after you have considered the following stipulations:

1. Are you going to be safe?

This one is a no-brainer! Chances are, if you sit on someone else's four legs - without tack for balance and communication - you might part ways! Before you throw away your saddle and bridle, please consider: can you get your horse to do everything you need without the use of a bridle?

Would your horse respond to you during unpredictable situations 100% of the time? Can you stop him before he spooks/rears/bucks/spins? Until you can, play it on the safe side. Wear the saddle so you can balance better. Keep the bridle on so you can use it if necessary. And wait until your horse is ready.

2. How will the horse's quality of movement be affected? 

We might not want to hear this, but that doesn't make it less true: not all horses are built well enough to carry the weight of a rider. This means that if we throw away the bridle and saddle, we are pretty much guaranteed that these horses will have more trouble moving correctly under our weight.

We use tack to direct the horse's movement, whether to flow energy forward or to contain movement. We can reduce tension, stiffness and imbalance through correct riding, which is usually easier to do with the help of our equipment.

Consider what less-than-perfect conformation will do to the joints, muscles and skeletal body if ridden poorly over long term. Then, you might opt for the tack before you get on.

3. Will your own riding position be compromised?

There is a purpose to stirrups, saddle seat design and saddles sized to your derrière: balance. The stirrups are not just to keep you from falling off; once you have achieved basic torso control, stirrups help you maintain optimal balance while your horse moves underneath you. Let's face it: without a saddle, you rock 'n roll on your horse's back more than it appears to the observer.

Of course, with a little practice, you could probably stay on the horse (most of the time) when riding bareback. But as your balance shifts in the movement, the horse's balance also changes. You might get thrown forward/backward, your knees might rise or you might lean to one side to counteract the effects of gravity.

The horse might fall to the forehand or tighten his back in response. His footfalls may become heavier or more labored, and he might need to drop the base of his neck (and lift his head and neck) to keep you both from really losing balance.

Well, you get the idea. The point here is to consider all the consequences of bareback and bridleless riding. If you want to be the next Stacy Westfall of your riding discipline, go through a step-by-step process that can keep you safe and your horse healthy. 

Keep in mind what it will do not only to you, but (almost) more importantly, to your horse.

Because although you have a choice in the matter, your horse does not. 

Have you ever seen Stacy Westfall and what was your take-away?

*Please note: The opinions in this article are solely the author's and do not represent any promotion or endorsement for either Stacy Westfall or the Can Am event.

*****

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13 Comments

  1. There is another thing to consider, that is the temperament of your horse. My horse and I fulfill all of the criteria, yet she does not like the RESPONSIBILITY of being bridleless. We can do it,for a little while, but then she gets annoyed when she realizes she is without headgear of any kind and will then refuse to move. My other horse is totally accepting of riding bridleless, even on trails. So personality type definitely comes into play as well.

  2. A round pen is a good place too fool around with no tack. I believe bareback riding in a safe environment improves seat real fast, and shows a person just how much depends on that balance. Maybe on the longeline, for safety

  3. Hi. I have watched for this sort of commentary because I wonder why use gear? Westfall demonstrated that a rider and horse can coordinate without gear. You and Jane Brown addressed the question very well….

    Thank you for this essay.

  4. The article hits the nail on the head. Aspire to ride well and choose appropriate tack for every stage of your and your horse’s learning curve.

  5. I’m all for a safe environment for both horse and rider and you article gives good advice, however there will be very few riders and even fewer horses capable of emulating the achievements of Stacy Westfall and Roxy. To get to that standard WITH TACK would be an achievement in it’s self. WITHOUT TACK a near impossibility for most riders. Have said all the negative stuff, it is possible if the right horse came along, and one was blessed with a wonderful natural horse trainer, this happened to me as a six year old child, I had been riding bare back and bridle-less since I was 4 years old on my little 11 hands Welsh pony, I was on the floor more than I was on her back lol but my granddad put all that right getting my body and my legs in the correct position at walk trot canter and gallop but with a head collar and reigns. At 6 years I was quite good, and was invited to help with the birth of my next pony, what granddad called the bonding, I was the first person the foal saw, smelled and toughed when he came into the world, Black as night we named him Jet, he was my 6th birthday present, he was big for a Welsh Cob and over the next 4 years he grew to 15.3 hands, and in that period we were both trained in every discipline, granddad being a natural horseman trainer he only used his hands ,voice and his finger and thumb, much like a clicker is used today clicking it against his palm, no bits no whips no shoes, my job on the farm was to fetch the cows in at milking time from the 100 acre common, and even though i’d never fell off Jet we taught him to kneel so I could mount him, just in case, ( but really to please my mum ) but it never happed, if I close my eyes I can still see us galloping across the common bare back no bridle just an old grain sack to sit on jumping over a 7ft ditch on the way, then a slow walk back with the cows, neck reigning him from side to side with his own 2ft long mane, We rode to hounds bit-less but with a saddle, he was never shod, and remained entire all his life we did dressage, and ridden classes at shows where we were aloud to compete at bit-less, And here’s a funny thing, we were often pulled in first in ridden classes but when it came for the judge to ride him they would see he was bit-less and refused to do so, but the ones who rode him were amazed how he responded with the lightest of touch, and how much control they had, you might think that strange but in those days natural horsemanship was unheard of because it was before it became fashionable, i’m 73 years old now, so the moral of the story is, ” It can be done but with the right horse and the right training.” P S jet lived to the ripe old age off 43 and I still miss him. Will there be another like him ? I don’t think so. Have I trained any to be like him? not quite but very near.

  6. I’ve noticed a lot of younger riders doing this recently. While some seem very capable of it, the majority do not and it worries me greatly. Especially when they seem to think that the mutual “trust” between them and their horse makes them (and their horse) immune to injuries. What worries me even more is how often the horses are showing signs of being uncomfortable or agitated, and the riders ignore those signs. It seems like a very dangerous trend to me, for the horse and the rider.
    Personally, my horses withers are much too prominent for me to ride bareback comfortably, and I’m not sure she’d be too keen on the idea any ways.

  7. This is a great post.

    Something I have however seen, which was very effective at that, was a sort of program this riding school had once. They had this pony, she was so well trained! Tiny, tiny little kids would hop on her and ride around the round pen without a care in the world – they had nothing to hold on to, not even a halter on this horse. They were given a whip. This horse was trained in the way that she will turn away from the whip if you sort of flash it to her eye.

    It was such a great confidence builder – this horse has the smoothest gaits – little kids realising that they can do everything like that without a saddle or bridle, that NO, you are not going to fall off. No one has ever fallen off her in the round pen. She seems to read minds of what you want to do. People who think control comes from a bridle will hop on her, think STAHP! and she does.

    Ok, ok! Tiny bit off topic. But it just made me think lol

  8. Before I started galloping no tack, no arena, no helmet, I got my trainer to lunge my horse bareback so I could practice. It’s a great idea if you’re not confident because you can easily fall off without hurting yourself and keep control if you’re trying to work on your position and staying balanced.

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