Sunday, November 26, 2017

Only with a Neckrope. Meet Melanie Ferrio-Wise!

When  I saw the stories of Melanie Ferrio-Wise and her horse Wings jumping bridleless at the Washington International Horse Show, I just had to contact Ferrio-Wise and ask her why and how she does what she does?

We have all seen the occasional bitless rider or people that ride without bridle and saddle. But to jump a whole course with just a neck rope really made me wonder if it would be doable for us all and what advice Ferrio-Wise could give us. 

Hi Melanie,

1. You jumped into the world media because you were the first person to ever compete completely bridleless at the WIHS Adult Jumper Championship. You exited the ring in tears. What kind of feelings were prevalent in such a situation?

"I am not sure I will ever be able to explain the feelings I had to the fullest, but when I exited that ring I had feelings of pure joy, excitement, and accomplishment. All I could think was that I was so proud of my horse. Bridleless has been a passion of mine for some time now, and I guess the thought that I took a horse that I never thought would be a good bridleless horse to the biggest show of my year was just an amazing feeling of accomplishment. This was the first time that I jumped the last fence on a course and didn’t look straight at the scored board! I had no emotion toward where we placed, but only that my horse just gave me his all during that course!"

2. How did you get involved with horses? Have horses always been your passion?

"I started riding when I was 4-5 years old. My best friend, at the time, was obsessed with horses. Me, I really didn’t care for them. Until one day I took a lesson on a little pony, named radar, at a local barn and from then on I was hooked! This quickly grew into a passion/hobby/life style. I was known as a “barn rat” at the local stable, since I spent every moment I could riding or working there. I didn’t care, as long as I was at the barn. I was given my first horse when I was 8 years old, and I have owned horses ever since."

3. When did the horse Boyd come into your life and what did he come to mean to you?

"Boyd arrived at my farm March of 2013. Boyd was my best friend. Him and I overcame so much together. He was not a classic case of troubled horse. He was well cared for and, for the most part, pretty easy to handle and be around. It wasn’t until a month or so after owning him that I had my first “episode”, as we called it. I quickly found out Boyd had a serious human aggression problem. I was in the pasture with a friend when Boyd attacked me for the first time, splitting my head open when he reared up and bit me on the top of my head. He was a horse that didn’t like authority, and I am guessing this came from his young life as an orphan foal. These episodes happened more than a few times, and it got to the point that no-one but me would go in the pasture with him. I can understand why, because I would not wish the fear that I had of Boyd on anyone! He was my only horse at the time so I had no choice but to just keep working wth him. My husband, who is a trainer, would not even enter the pasture unless I caught Boyd first. It was not worth the risk to him. I feel like the journey with Boyd alone gave me enough experiences that I could right a book on it!

I would ride Boyd daily, and I just learned to “work around” Boyd’s issues, rather than confront them directly. But as we became closer as a team I trusted him with my life. I would ride and do anything on this horse. We performed at expos and events with my husband, always bareback and bridleless, since that was our routine and normal way of doing working. I was devastated when I lost Boyd. Not just because I was loosing my horse, but because I lost a best friend. I always felt happiness when I was with him; like we understood each others problems. I know it sounds corny, but it really was how I felt. I knew when he was having a bad day, and on those days I would just leave him be. I got to the point that I could read him as if he were speaking the words to me."

4 . You say that you are self-taught. Can you please specify on that.

"Well, I took lessons when I was very young, but not for long. Only long enough to get basics, since my parents didn’t have the money to keep me in lessons. After that time I basically just rode anything I could sit on. The horses taught me what they were able to. I fell, got back up. Fell again. But I really didn’t care what I was doing, as long as I was doing it on a horse. I never really trained under anyone, but I was a good watcher. I loved to watch trainers ride, and that is how I had the opportunity to learn what I could. I would watch people around me ride, and then I would go to the farm and try to apply what I was seeing. This taught be to be a rider of feel. Meaning, I could maybe get the job done, but I could never tell you how I did it. I spent my whole riding life like this. “Watch and learn” was the lesson of my life."

As I got older people would come into my life that would help me here and there, but nothing formal. When I met my husband he opened up so many doors for me to learn from others. I am still really doing everything on my own, but now I have people to talk to and help guide me in a good direction. I still don’t have the ability to have a trainer to work with regularly for showing. My husband helps me on the flat. But over fences, for better or for worst, I am all I have. I sit and watch show jumping all the time because that is how I learn. I consider watching the greatest show jumpers in the world live online truly a gift! They may not be teaching me directly, but in a way they are. I have tried to work with a few people here and there, but none truly fit for Vlad and I. He is quirky, and  has his own style. I have to trust him in his style. When people start changing the way I ride and the way I work with him he starts to get very upset, as would anyone that is put outside their comfort zone. But with the lack of time and funding to pursue working with someone regularly, I can’t really afford for him to be upset by constant changes. I remember doing a clinic with Joe Fargis and he told me Vlad was a spas! Yup, he said that to me right in the clinic. I giggled, and knew that sometimes this was very true! Joe gave us very helpful things to work on in that clinic. 

5. You mentioned that you love troubled horses and like seeing them bloom. How do you define a troubled horse? Why do you think horses become troubled? What advice would you give the readers in order to see troubled horses bloom?

*First let me start by saying that I am not a professional, I do not teach, nor do I want to at this stage in my life. But I can offer advice based on my own personal experiences with some of my horses. Troubled horses, to me, are horses that have either been physically or mentally broken or burnt out. It can be as simple as a horse that cannot deal with emotions, or one that just needs different hands to bring out the potential in a horse that has been over worked or is just burnt out from its job. If troubled horses have taught me one thing its that all horses are different, and though is good to train with the a similar mindset for most we approach, some just need the rider to be a little creative. Go outside the box to give that horse the best shot at greatness.

My advice to readers for working troubled horses is to take the time on the ground teach them to speak the same language as you are before trying to climb on their back. Most of the time troubled horses become that way because they are confused, in one way or many. This does not mean always mean “natural horsemanship” type stuff (though that does have its place, and works very effectively in its purpose), as much as it is just getting to know them and teaching them all the things essential for life as a riding horse. Teaching to handle their emotions. How to form a critical thinking process that enables them to work through lessons that you are teaching. Like young human minds, horse minds have to learn “how to learn”. Intelligence is wasted if it is not taught how to process information and how to form the habit of learning. Learning the language that we are speaking to them, and then learning how to think critically are essential to taking a horse that is broken and burnt out, and turning it into something  confident and special again.

Also, something to keep in mind is that, depending on the problem, it takes time! Normally, lots of it! It’s a marathon. Not a sprint! There is a huge flaw in modern riding culture that says “whoever gets it done fastest must be the best”. This couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to horses. Yes, those with the skill to communicate consistently and clearly can accomplish many things quickly. That is a great goal to strive for. But, we’re dealing with more than just the horse learning concepts. We’re also dealing with the developing of minds and developing bodies. This takes time to build, and should be treated more like creating a cathedral that will stand for centuries, rather than a temporary shack. The horse is an athlete, mentally and physically. It needs the time to develop both physically and mentally. The patience of the the rider to let the horse develop to mentally and physically to match the level of education is much more valuable than the skill that allows someone to get the job done quickly. This could not be more paramount than with troubled horses. 

6. You talk about not micromanaging your horse Vlad. Can you please tell me a little bit more about this.

"Vlad can be a very hot ride when it comes to the jumper ring. But though a hot ride, he is also very very adjustable, which comes from the emphasis we put our a high level of flat work. This makes my job as his rider very hard since there is a very fine line between a correction and over correcting. For example: Vlad is known for pulling rails on skinnies during the course. So when I ride to a skinny I tend to hold too much trying to make him be extra careful. This creates a very slow pace for Vlad, and since he is small it makes his job much harder. Most of the time this over correcting, trying to make him be careful, creates a choppy gait while approaching the fence, rather than a smooth building approach. He used to leap in the air with his front end during that choppy gait, over collecting, if you will. Though he is much better now, he still can get tight and short strided to the fences if I use my reins too much."

7. What are your thoughts on bitless riding? Do you ride all your horses bitless and why do you do it?

"My thoughts are to do what is right for your horse. I have seen horses do great bitless. But I have also seen horses hate the pressure that bitless bridles and hackamores make on the nose, jaw or chin areas. It really depends on the horse and what it likes. It also depends a lot on factors of the rider, their hands, and their ability to effectively communicate with whatever they are using. I do not ride any of mine “bitless” at the moment, unless I am riding in a simple halter on the trail, or bridleless all together. This is not because I don’t like bitless, or don’t see a use or benefit to it in some cases. It just means I don’t have a horse that prefers to ride that way at the moment."

8. How would you recommend starting off with bitless riding? What if the horse is very spooky like my horse, or there are horses that might easily run off with the rider? Does the horse have to have a certain temper for this? Or can you ride any horse bitless?

"To be honest, most of these training questions would really be better answered by my husband! But I will do my best to answer them with what experience I have. I always tell people in conversations about this topic that whether riding with a bit, bitless, or bridleless always ride with the same expectations. For example, if you do not want your horse to lean on your hands then you actively have to work on things to make them supple and responsive to those actions. They are not just going to magically be light in hands. If your horse is spooky, and they maybe want run off, then not having a bit in the mouth is probably not going to improve that because they are often going to be that way with or without the bit. Always look back and make sure you have all the “tools” to help them understand that it is not ok to spook and run off, whether they have a bit or not. By tools, I mean prior training to make the aids and concepts you need to effectively handle and fix issues that may come up. If someone is dealing with a situation like a spooky horse that has the desire to run off, it would be extremely important that you take the time to train and be very confident with what ever tack, or lack there of, you are using. You need to have the confidence that you no matter what, that horse will respond to what is being asked. Bitless is a little bit different because you still can place a lot of “motivating” leverage on the horse, but if you are going bridleless… I wouldn’t recommend putting your horse in any situation that you haven’t sufficiently prepared for. I spend a lot of time schooling on the flat bridleless, in the same way I would with a bridle. The same flat work, the same dressage movements, and the same requirements of bend, balance, and control… perhaps even more so bridleless. That way, when I take the horse out of the arena, I have confidence that I can handle situations that may arise. I find it is also really important to me to work outside of the arena, when I believe the horse is ready. I don’t want my horse to think that the arena is the only place I have high expectations and requirements for the horse’s response to my directions. It’s important to me that Vlad understands that nothing changes when I step outside of the arena. I still require the same level of response and discipline from him. Sure, we may waltz down the trail casual and enjoy a relaxing ride. But at any time I could ask him to perform a maneuver, and need him to respond professionally. So spending time working on the horse’s training outside the arena, when the horse is ready and safe, is extremely important to me.

That said, I don’t think just because you have a bit you should rely on that to have more control, when I started bridleless with Vlad he was a run away! But I had to systematically spend the time teaching him how to respond correctly bridleless, so that he knew what I was asking him. No, I don’t feel you need a special temperament for bitless or bridleless riding,. I think you just need to teach the horse clear aids and, of course, have a horse that doesn’t mind the different pressures of the bitless bridle or bridleless. I believe that with effective and correct training, almost any horse can come to a high level of education… with or without the bridle."

9. I tried to ride my horse bitless but I felt it created some more pressure on the forehand. Would you recommend just using a neck rope or are there any bitless bridles that you feel work well? And how did you end up using just a neck rope?

"I’ll say this first: I do not believe a neck rope is not going fix the horse’s problems. Just like a bitless bridle is not going fix your problems! It’s not magic. If you have chosen to ride a certain way, you just have to take the time to help them understand and give them the tools to be successful at their job. If your horse is on the forehand, it is not because of the bit, bitless, or bridleless. I would believe that it is most likely because he needs the tools and conditioning to learn to travel in a better balance that accepts more weight to the hindquarters which lightens the forehand. Whether that be movements and exercises to help him achieve that balance, or just a better understanding of what the bridle means. Achieving that balance is possible, and should be required, whether in the bridle, bitless or bridleless. It is all teaching the same thing, but perhaps from a slightly different angle, and sometimes a slightly different language.

Now, that said, there are times that my husband and I have come across horses that get so distracted by bit pressure, that they have trouble learning and achieving goals because of that distraction. In these cases, supplementing their education with bridleless riding has been effective for them. We still have the same requirements, and teach the same things. But it takes away the distraction, and sometimes discomfort, of the bit until the horse comes to a better and understanding and education. A great example of this can be horses that have become “evasive” and very “overflexed”, whether that is by their own doing, or bad riding in the past. Rehabilitating the horse that has become overflexed and evasive of the bit can take a lot of time and patience. Often requiring returning to the very basic of lessons for an extended period of time, completely re-teaching the correct response to bit pressure. We have also seen that some of theses cases may never fully come back to a good interaction with the bit. So, in these cases, supplementing or even switching fully to other means of communication, such as bridleless, can be very effective for those horses. It’s all about finding what best works for the horse, without compromising on the expectation of the education and effectiveness of communication. Bit, bitless, bridleless… in the end do what works best for that particular horse!

I don't have a Bitless bridle that I prefer, and I honestly have not worked with them enough to be able to give an educated opinion on specific kinds. I started using the neck rope when I started to work on bridleless stuff, it took some time for me to ride on neck rope only. He was very unsure when I first started.

10. When you rode at WIHS it looked quite unreal that you were jumping such huge fences without any bridle. How does it feel and what aids do you use when you are not using any bridle? Do you feel that you have the same balance with just a neck rope? And how do you steer the horse?

"Honestly it feels amazing! My horse is free to make the changes and adjustments he needs to get over the fences, and I as his rider just have to be clear on where we are going and to make sure he knows I will be with him whatever decisions he makes while jumping. When I am bridleless its all about seat and leg. The neck rope is there to help, but I have to be aware that my body says a lot to the horse, just like if you were in the bridle. I can honestly say that I feel you can achieve the same levels of balance with the neck rope that you can with bridle. I may even go as far as saying that perhaps for many horses it would be easier to achieve those balances, with systematic and clear education.  I know working bridleless on the flat with Vlad has been amazing, and he is more balanced now than I have ever had him before! The means of steering the horse is up to the rider when going bridleless. There is no training book or manual that say you must do it one way. Bridleless gives you the chance to create your own language. Vlad steers with neck rope, but Boyd rode with only 2 dressage whips to help with speed control, bend and shoulder balancing, and then turned from leg. My husband rides one of his horse with nothing at all but seat and leg. Different horses like different things, and I know for now Vlad still gets nervous about me having 2 whips, so I use the neck rope. I think that eventually I would like to get Vlad riding without the neck rope, just with the two dressage whips. But we’ll get there when we get there! There’s no rush. 

11. Do you also do other things that are associated with bitless riding such as keeping horses barefoot or out in active paddocks?

"I am not partial or bound to anything. Again, for me this all comes down to what that particular horse needs. I try to stay as natural for them as possible for their health, but Vlad wears 4 shoes, just like my other jumper. But my husband’s QH and Andalusian go barefoot. Whatever is best and most sound for the specific horse that I’m dealing with. I try to let my horses live out as much as I can. But again, it is a horse by horse case. Vlad hates bugs!!! He is ready to come in first thing in the morning all summer, and in the winter he will live out, but always has a blanket because he is shivering when its 50 degrees at night! Vlad was raised in warm weather, so a little bit chilly in this region is wintery death to him! Just like a person from Florida would be freezing in Michigan during the winter. Whatever suits the horse best, that what we look for. Sometimes that’s very natural. Sometimes not."

12. What is the most important advice that you would give to anyone handling and riding horses?

"Not sure there is a right answer to this, honestly! My advice is to have fun and work hard to continue learning and growing as a rider. Horses are amazing animals and just like we expect them to learn and grow we must always strive to be better for them."

13. Is there anything else that you would like to tell the readers?

"Have fun! Never take yourself too seriously. Don’t be afraid of failure. Learn everything, and use what you find works best for you and your horse. Nothing is forbidden as long as it is safe for the horse!" 

14. What will be your next steps and what are your dreams for the future?

"My next steps for us as a team are to continue showing bridleless so we can improve and get better, and hopefully qualify for the big indoor shows again next year. If I had to tell you my big picture dreams it would be that I would love to someday be riding in the Grand prix. I really don’t have any goals of becoming a trainer or teacher, as I sadly was not gifted with the ability to relay what I do on the horse into words. That may change over time, but for now I just want do what I love!"

Also see these videos of Melanie Ferrio-Wise presenting horses at a recent horse show.
Video 1
Video 2

Other bitless and equine teeth articles on my blog.
Also read: 
Lähikuvassa Annika Schulman

"Currently, the Washington International has no rule that says jumpers must wear bridles. Hackamores and bitless bridles are also accepted and are becoming more common, but no one has ever ridden completely bridleless – until this year. In October, Melanie Ferrio-Wise and her horse Vlad entered the arena with just a neck rope. The pair finished in 24th place but, according to Ferrio-Wise, this was a huge accomplishment that marked the end of an amazing journey.

Vlad was born in the Dominican Republic where he was trained in both jumping and dressage. After being deemed a difficult ride, he was shipped to the United States where he faced an unknown – and potentially tragic – fate. Luckily, his new owner, Ferrio-Wise, was up to the task. “He just couldn’t handle the life, so they gave him to us and he’s just been a really tough ride,” says Ferrio-Wise, who now trains the 14-year-old gelding with just a neck rope. They gallop on the track and trail ride for long distances, all completely bridleless." - Equine Wellness Magazine


  1. Wow! Amazing and extremely interesting interview - thank you Kia so much for this!

    Melanie makes it look so easy and effortless. She has a truly good balance, doesn't disturb the horse and the most unbelievable thing is that she's learnt this mainly by herself - what a natural talent.

    It is so good to hear about these wonderful people who have their own way of doing things, who dare to think outside of the box and see each horse as an individual and adapt their own doing to match the horse.

    Have a lovely weekend!
    Maarit L. ��

    1. Say no more. It sure is an amazing story. Glad you liked it and hope you are having a lovely weekend as well!