Free ≠ abandoned

(“A worthwhile skill to develop is the ability to bluff.”)

If your reaction is “Oh, yeah, everybody knows this,” then simply congratulate yourself. If you are an event rider, a foxhunter, or a trail rider, then what I am about to say ought to be second nature. But especially if you are late to riding and in particular to dressage riding, and even more so if you have acquired a schoolmaster to pursue your dream, then listen up!

For the better part of 50 years, a holiday tradition of mine has been the Christmas Day trail ride. Long ago we would foxhunt on Christmas morning. Over the years as we have progressively ossified and increasingly pickled ourselves for the occasion, the ride has devolved into a more casual stroll around the neighborhood…. leading me to this observation: While I am totally in favor of technical riding, the notion of having your horse “on the bit” should be a matter of choice, not a reflexive defense mechanism every time you put your foot in the stirrup, especially if your intention is to have a leisurely trail ride.

It’s about letting go, about teaching your horse (if he doesn’t already know) how to deal with freedom, about trusting him, and about not micromanaging every step that he takes.

Yes, at times of your choosing you may wish to school your horse out in the open, and you should be able to put him on the bit anytime you want. But that is entirely different from riding out always on a tight rein, the horse on contact, and his neck shortened and flexed. Perhaps you do it out of habit, perhaps from lack of confidence. Either way, the message you transmit to your horse with restrictive forearms and clenched fists hardly invites relaxation!

Constant restraint equates to pulling. You pull. He pulls. It happens in the arena, and it happens on the trail. Just as every half halt should be an interruption and a momentary release (his reward), so must the advices you give him when riding out. “Check then allow and repeat as necessary!”

Here’s a tip: a worthwhile skill to develop is the ability to bluff, to fake it. I can think of times when a horse I was on was actually running away with me, but as long as I didn’t reveal that fact to him, he didn’t really use his advantage, and I was able to regain control.
So if you hack it out, just survey yourself. Suck it up and remember, “on the buckle” means more than letting the reins be 2 inches longer!