Brian Boru relaxes beneath me during warmup.


Stepping Into the Ring of Natural Showmanship: Brian Goes Bare and Bitless

By Katie Derer

A day in the life of a natural English rider, except today was no ordinary day! It was July 4 and the first show of a 16-hand thoroughbred/Connemara gelding named Brian Boru, whose task of carrying his rider just got lighter and more comfortable. Brian had never been to a show before this one, yet I have been to many shows. Never having been to a show with Brian, everyone was anxious and ready for anything! I was equally excited because I was to show in a not-seen-everyday way. To the naked but observant eye, Brian was outfitted in a bitless bridle, a Balance saddle, and no shoes.

Showing in an English ring 'completely natural' was a tough approach. There was of course the heresy to not being traditional, and of course there was all the work that accompanied the goal to show naturally. However, the impressive results made it all worth the dedication. Nothing felt better than seeing the relaxation in Brian's facial expressions and movements.

Using the bitless bridle was an entirely new experience to my previous riding style. However, within a couple of weeks of riding without the bit, the realization of how well the horse responds to the same signals without it overwhelms your curiosity to continue riding bitless. Especially, to see how much easier it is for the horse to think and react to your commands without trying to swallow and breathe around a bar of metal in his mouth. During the show, I do not think anyone realized that Brian's mouth had no bit. When I directed their attention to it, no one could believe it; they all just assumed that he had a bit in his mouth like the other horses. However, Brian had a lead on the other horses! He was entirely comfortable and un-pinched in any aspect. If Brian behaved so admirably at his first horse show without the hassles of a bit, think of how much pressure that takes off his mind. (Plus, not to mention we placed in both classes - above other riders with bits in their horses' mouths!)The bitless bridle truly amazed me and I know I will never ride with a bit again.

Please note: Tighten girth, especially with this BALANCE saddle.

Just look at that healthy frog!

The other commonly overlooked hindrance to a horse's natural movement is the saddle. Uncomfortable saddles inhibit the horse's shoulder movement, often lead to back problems, and cause uneven musculature, all leading to poor performance. Brian's saddle is a Soft-Option BALANCE™ saddle (modified tree) which was made specially for him, and he and I LOVE it! The saddle allows his gaits to be pain-free, flowing, and above all, natural!

The other factor that improved Brian's gaits and movement dealt with the most important part of his body, his bare feet! The show ring footing was definitely softer footing than at his home, so for Brian and every horse, the barefoot option is totally conceivable on show footing. Shoes hinder performance and are NOT natural. But I want to say that Brian has always been barefoot and we ride over rocks, mud, concrete, and every other turf you can find and he has never been troubled with any of it! There were so many horses I saw in the show ring that had shoes on because it was what the owners had been taught to do if they wanted to show. When I told some people at the show that it was intended to ride Brian barefoot in eventing, they all nearly had a canary! It just so happens they have never been taught another way, to take up a new and improved tradition.

There is something about being barefoot that keeps Brian much more sure and alert. I actually learned that there are sensory tissues in the heel of the hoof, which act almost comparable to whiskers on a kitten. The sensors allow the horse to be surefooted and balance his weight easily. With shod feet, the horse's heels are suspended off of the ground distorting his depth perception. The bottom line with horses is that they are much more surefooted when barefoot!

What a thoroughly surprising and satisfying day it was in the show ring, with an all-natural horse. I have been to many shows with green horses and no other green horse has been so well behaved, not even my own! Beginning all natural is a totally new experience and is making a huge impact on my life. Next issue, I will begin to explain how I came across and learned all of these techniques in only one month!

About the author:

Katie Derer is a member of the 4-H Berks Saddle-Ites Horse Club and is 17 years old. She enjoys riding, showing, and learning about natural horse care. She hopes to pursue a career in eventing, naturally.

We didn't expect ribbons, and we were equally excited about our accomplishment!