Standing at the in-gate for our first 3-foot jumper course, YouMightBeARedneck (Rory) turns his head to my right foot and I scratch his big blaze. Then as I ask him to trot in and canter to the first fence, everyone stops to watch. Rory was in a serious trailer accident in April, which left him with a displaced fractured upper jaw and unable to wear a bridle. After the surgery to repair and stabilize the fracture, I decided to try riding my green, 5-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred without a bridle, and it has been a success. We now are showing in local eventing, jumper and dressage competitions with just a simple neck rope. It certainly catches people’s attention.
After the surgery, Rory lost significant weight and I struggled to put it back on him because his diet was limited since he had “braces”—his jaw was wired. A friend recommended a feed that helped her Thoroughbred and put me in touch with the local representative, Lindsey Williamson. Lindsey came to the farm and we discussed Rory’s needs. We switched him to a new feed and watered it down to a liquid that he would drink. I also liquified hay pellets and fed him every four hours. We were all so happy when he felt good enough to go back to free-choice hay.
As a bit of background on Rory: I bought him sight unseen from a good friend, Jen Ruberto, in the fall of 2015 in the hopes that he’d be my 2016 Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover horse. I knew from his first ride that he was special, but I had no idea how special until after the accident forced me to start this unconventional journey. I’ve learned just how physically hard it is to ride a young, green Thoroughbred without a bridle and how to let go and trust him completely. If he doesn’t want to go somewhere or do something, there’s nothing I can really do but keep suggesting what I want with my seat, leg and voice. Luckily, 99 percent of the time Rory and I are on the same page.
I’ve also realized how much trust he has in me, even before the accident. I discovered this when trying to put another rider on him bridleless and he was instantly tense, upset and unresponsive. That was interesting to watch and showed me how deep the bond we have goes. He will follow me anywhere and everywhere and nickers and gives me kisses when I walk into his stall. Basically whatever I ask of him, he willingly says, “Let’s do this!” For example, after the accident, he followed me onto a second trailer on the side of the busy road where the collision occurred.
To not shake Rory’s faith in me, I have to be very aware of his reactions to things and make sure he is never overwhelmed. Without him trusting me, we cannot accomplish anything since I truly cannot make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. Luckily, he seems to enjoy everything I love—eventing and doing tricks. Rory has become quite the ham and loves to learn new things whether it be under saddle or on the ground.
People always ask what the hardest part of riding bridleless is, and I always say it’s trying to stop him from constantly grazing on cross country. In reality, the hardest part was getting on for the first time and saying, “Let’s see what we can do!” while letting go of any reservations and goals. The first few rides were nerve-wracking to say the least, even though Rory was a perfect gentleman. I had to build my trust in him just as he learned to believe in me. The relationship we have is unlike any other I’ve had with any of my previous horses simply because we have to rely on each other’s willingness and cooperation so much. It is truly a partnership.
We are still planning on competing in October at the RRP Makeover, but I no longer have the goal of being super-competitive. Instead, my goal is to let Rory have a lot of fun showing off what he does best: jumping without a bridle!
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.