Welcome to #BitlessJourney Diaries
This is the first of a series of guest blogs, getting to know the makers behind the bitless bridles which we use, review and take on tour with us. Our first story is written by force free horse trainer and designer of her own bitless and treeless saddle range, Vikki Spit from BuckYou.co.uk
More than a feeling
Prior to having my own horses. I worked at stables and schools to be around horses and to get to ride. These were all traditional places, bits and whips and pressure and release, horses mostly stabled, they had ‘a job to do’. To be honest, at the time I didn’t give it much thought. I tended to ‘lose’ the flash strap on nosebands, or do them up so loose they flapped, I didn’t like them, I don’t think I really knew why. As I wasn’t working or riding horses that were mine, I followed the rules of the yard, I used the tack provided. I remember when I knew I would be moving away and hopefully, getting my own horse telling someone ‘I’m going to go bitless’. Then, when I did move away and was able to get my own horse, that’s exactly what I did.
Bitless wasn’t enough
I did a fair bit of research into bits and I was pretty horrified when I understood fully how they actually worked. I had a gut intuition they weren’t nice, I’d a habit of riding on a loose rein rather than a constant contact as it made me feel uncomfortable. Once I really got how at best, uncomfortable and at worst, very painful they could be, that was it. No way I was ever going to put one in the mouth of my shiny new horse!
After about 3-4 weeks of being with me, bitless, treeless saddle, barefoot (all the right ideas…) said shiny new horse started coming out of his shut-down state rather… explosively! He started being VERY difficult to mount, and if you did manage to get on, you were on for a fast, uncontrolled gallop down a road. Over a metal gate. Until you fell off. There was just TERROR. Should really have taken the hint when he objected to being mounted 😀
The short version is my horse Cato was just 4, not nearly 5, and hadn’t been ‘lightly backed but had been hunted as a 3-year-old in a saddle that didn’t fit, kicked to go, yanked to stop/turn, whipped on. So, what I got was a horse realising the tools of pain which had been controlling him had been removed, and he started to express his fear, terror, rage and unhappiness.
It would have been so easy to put a bit in his mouth, carry a whip, make him behave. After all, I’d ridden the school horses in that manner without yanking on their mouths and smacking the hell out of them, and they were happy… weren’t they? Big NOPE.
Cato was MY horse. His entire life was MY responsibility. I could make him do as I wanted, return him to the subdued horse who was hard to catch, would flinch when you approached, would hold his breath and break out into a full body sweat when handled, that he was when he came to me, or I could see his behaviour as communication and try to understand and respond in such a way as to create a friend.
I always thought riding was really important to me, but with Cato, with a horse who was allowed to show his feelings, not one who just ‘did for a quiet life’ , I began to understand how much we put them through with such little consideration. I realised that riding was less important than my horse being happy, feeling safe, liking me. (I should quickly add, initially Cato lived with an elderly pony called Timmy, and a few months later, we were joined by Jango, same age as Cato).
A new chapter
So began months and months and months of reading, researching, learning and not riding! I discovered positive reinforcement and that fit perfectly into what I was seeking. There is a misconception that people (women) who use +R are weak, soft, let their horses walk all over them can’t say no… I call bullshit on that. I’ve been at the ‘don’t let him get away with that’ end of the spectrum, I used to ride bucks until the horse got tired, I did all that stupid shit to prove I could best a horse. I grew away from that more and more, until by the time I got Cato I was about as far across the spectrum as I could be. I knew anyone could force a horse, but not everyone has the patience or desire to inspire a horse.
After the best part of a year, I was ready to attempt sitting on Cato again. I was scared, so was he! But, we did it, and nothing happened. Nada, non-event. Perfect.
Using fully force free methods, we started expanding our repertoire. The horse who was hard to catch is now always first to gallop over. The horse who was so terrified of being ridden will now literally perform some kind of freestyle ‘Airs above Ground’ complete with fart soundtrack in a big circle around me if I ride Jango on the Fell. The horse who would bolt, blind with terror can now give pony rides to total newbs tack free on the open moors and think nothing at all of it. The difference in him is quite astounding. It’s not just him though, my journey with Cato was followed by Max Easey of horse charming, who asked if I would like to coach others, Hard YES!
Cato accidentally creates a business
Then, because this wasn’t enough, Cato demanded I find him a more structured bareback pad. We had given up all saddles during our re-starting process, and of course, had gotten his back sorted, but he still worried about anything resembling a normal saddle. After about 3 months of searching, I found a factory who could help me create my vision… only problem was, I couldn’t just buy one for Cato, I had to buy 30.
Cato insisted though, so I did. And there was a terrifying wait for them… and then they arrived…. and Cato… was VERY happy. We’ve been using the pad from the original batch since early 2017. Cato (and Jango) has a perfect back, he is happy with his pad, and the other 29 people who ended up buying the other pads were also very pleased.
Then people started messaging me ‘Where did you get your pad?’ ‘Do you have any more?’ so I took some deposits and ordered more. A few months later, I ordered more. It kind of snowballed.
By July 2019, I had a pre-order list of over 15 pads, and people asking about them, but not wanting to wait up to 2 months for it to be made, so I took a plunge, and I went ‘proper’. BuckYou became an official brand. (I was a bassist in a punk band for a loooong time and the punk sensibilities might influence my brand, ethos and language….After all, screw what society expects! Do what feels right! Rebel, my equine compadres! Buck the system!) I got a website, a logo and I placed a BIG order for pads, and also, designed a rather lovely vegan Sidepull bridle.
My dream is to add to my range of products, more bareback pads, more bridles- I have two new blingy bridles arriving for early December, one converts from Crossunder to Sidepull and has a western style to it, the other is braided paracord and crystals and is VERY pretty.
I hope to add numnahs designed for bareback pads and treeless saddles, with adjustable shims in the new year, and more basic bareback pads too. I have some other ideas that we are working on also.
Bitless is kind of like a gateway drug
My bridles are pretty and cheap. The idea is to get people to try bitless by providing an attractive and affordable option. Bitless is kind of like a gateway drug. For many people- myself included, when we remove the bit, we start to look at what else we’ve just accepted as normal with a more critical eye, and once we start questioning the status quo, that phrase ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ gets thrown away in favour of ‘what does my horse feel about this?’.
I am exceedingly proud to be a part of the new wave of ‘Force Free Equestrianism‘, where the horse is valued as a family member, not just a piece of sports equipment. The community of people who feel this way is expanding exponentially. I truly believe the horse world will be vastly different, and vastly better in a couple of decades, and it’s all down to the people providing alternatives to the norm, offering information, insights, facts and help such this very site, equine partnership, and of course, the force free training group I am a coach with, Horse-charming.com, and the company founded by a Connemara pony (ok, he’s 15.3 but he’s full Connemara!) BuckYou.co.uk
You can also follow the exploits of Cato, Jango and Spartacus the Shetland BOSS on Facebook and also see and buy all my lovely bareback pads and bridles there.
Also, lots of terrible jokes, bad language, pictures of my smalldog, lots of cats and ducks and chickens.
Thanks for reading!