At last I have been able to ride Dee this week. We had a session in the arena and she was very well behaved and responsive. I am looking forward to riding regularly again now, and also to having more contact with Red again.
I have been interested in reading White Horse Pilgrim’s comments about bitless bridles and treeless saddles. I enjoy his blog and respect and value his expertise gained from long experience (much longer experience than mine I must say). However we do differ in our opinions about these two issues. I have had good results with both my horses with bitless bridles. Dee was a riding school horse and so probably suffered at the hands of inexperienced and inept riders, hence it is perhaps not surprising that she responded well to being free of the bit. She is a strong personality however and rather spooky, so it is worth comment that she is easier to control without a bit and no longer tries to take control. I think she is just so much more relaxed without a bit, that she listens more to me and doesn't panic so easily.
Red is a different personality – quite docile and very safe, but stubborn and willful at times. He will try it on with inexperienced riders – he once took ’ö-Dzin into a hedge – but we have not found there to be less possibility of taking control with the cross-under style bitless bridle than there was when he was in a bit. The cross-under (Dr Cook style) bridle does need a slightly different approach. Firstly it is necessary to ride with less contact than is usually taught in English style riding, and if the rider needs to assert control with the reins, a pull on alternate reins is more effective than on both at the same time. It is also essential that the bridle is correctly fitted fairly low on the face,
I have a friend who happily rides her excitable part Arab mare in one of these bridles – in fact it was she who first introduced me to the Dr Cook style bridle. I was using an English hackamore before then.
With regard to treeless saddles, I cannot pretend to have any expertise in this area. I love my treeless saddles and my horses are comfortable and well in them. But they are not working a great deal or being ridden long and hard, so I am not a good sample by which to judge the saddles’ performance. When I was researching treeless saddles prior to trying one, I discovered an account that said trees were first introduced into saddles in order to have somewhere to hang stirrups. Stirrups enabled less-than-expert riders to become effective warriors in the saddle so that the Mongolians could increase the size of their armies for mounted combat. This would suggest that the introduction of a tree was for the benefit of the rider, not the horse. I have no idea whether this is true or not. However I have a friend in Finland who runs a riding stables of 30 horses. Their horses are ridden in felt pads – what we might call bareback pads in the UK. They have always been worked in these soft felt saddles with no ill effect – and these are small horses carrying adults of all sizes.
On a different subject, I finding it interesting that although White Horse Pilgrim clearly is not convinced about bitless and treeless, he is an advocate of barefoot horses. At my yard I have received no negative feedback about my horses being in treeless saddles and bitless bridles, but quite a lot about Red being barefoot. A number of people do not think I will be able to continue with this indefinitely and keep Red sound. He has been barefoot now for 10 months and has never been lame. His feet are tough and in good shape. One thing that is most noticeable about bare feet (Dee is barefoot also on her hind feet) is that the hooves stay clean – mud and stones do not get stuck in the feet so that they hardly need picking out, whereas Dee often has quite clogged front shod feet with stones wedged in that can be difficult to remove. I'm sure the fact that barefoot hooves naturally stay cleaner must be to the horse’s benefit.
I expect the debate about these different approaches will continue ad infinitum. I would be delighted to hear other people’s comments or experience of the bitless, treeless and barefoot approaches.