“Don’t copy the people you ride against. You have to do better.” George Morris spoke these words at a Horsemastership Training Session in Wellington, and, as usual, they ring true.

From show bridles to competition boots, a glance around the schooling area on major show circuits will reveal a glaring trend of cookie-cutter similarity, but to say that not every horse is the same would be a glaring understatement. “Different” stands out, but the riders who are adjusting to their horses—and not the other way around—are being rewarded.

Last year, Lauren Tisbo caught eyes when she jumped the then-11-year-old Holsteiner stallion Mr. Visto in the Saugerties $1 Million Grand Prix, finishing fourth without a bridle, which she replaced with a rope bit, or a “war bridle,” as it’s also known. A month later, when she turned up at the American Gold Cup CSI 4*-W with another stallion, Coriandolo di Ribano, she had a bridle, but this time, a saddle was missing—at least a conventional one. Tisbo rode the big-bodied bay in an exercise saddle used for Thoroughbred racehorses, and the pair finished third in the $216,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping North Salem. Tisbo finished eighth in the Longines FEI World Cup North American League standings, just a point behind Todd Minikus, who won last week’s $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Ocala with Babalou 41. Coincidence? Maybe not.

“I guess there are two schools of thought, more or less: that you have a program and you get a horse and you expect it to fit into your program or, the way I look at it a little bit, in that horses are like people,” Tisbo said. “They’re all different individuals, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses and personalities. I think if you can play to to their strengths and figure out what to do that best suits their personalities—whether it’s something as simple as giving a lot of turnout or handling a difficult horse a certain way from the ground—it really brings out the best in your horse.”

Tisbo didn’t debut her unique equipment last year; she’s been riding in a racing saddle since 2013. In fact, she now rides every horse in her barn in the lightweight tack at home and says she only shows two horses in a traditional saddle. At WEF 9, she could be found jumping Stephex Stables’ 8-year-old Jeleena de Muze in the 1.40-meter division in the exercise saddle—and jumping clear.

“The longer I ride in it, the more horses that seem to go in it,” Tisbo said. “[Originally], I had a mare that had pretty big shoulders and pretty big withers as well. I was trying to figure out a saddle for her, and I’d either find one that gave her the freedom in the shoulder but would pinch her in the withers, and it affected her mouth, and she would get a lot stronger. Or, I’d find one that gave her the wither clearance, and she would have trouble with her lead changes in the front, because it’d be sitting on her shoulders. So, I was kind of beating my head and trying to get her to these shows. Finally, a friend of mine suggested the racing saddle and brought me one to try.”

“It really made a difference with her, but what I really noticed was how much her back changed,” she continued. “The one I ride in is just a half-aluminum tree, so there’s no gullet, and there are no panels that aren’t sitting flat on the horse, so their back is a lot freer. She developed a lot of muscle in a short amount of time. So, I started riding other horses in it, horses that kind of always had some chronic back issues, and it really made a big positive difference in their lives. I got comfortable in it, and when you’ve got a sales horse in or a young horse whose back is changing, sometimes it’s just easier to throw that on and wait until they develop a little bit. If I have a saddle that fits a new horse, and they’re comfortable in it, that’s great. If they’re not, I try that, and so far, I haven’t had a horse not like it.”

So, what’s it feel like to jump a 1.60-meter fence without so much as shaped seat, knee rolls, or saddle blocks? Aside from an Ogilvy half-pad, there’s very little material between Tisbo and her mounts.

“It felt weird at the beginning, but to me, it’s kind of like riding bareback with stirrups. You feel everything. I use a nice, squishy Ogilvy pad. Otherwise, you really feel everything, because there’s not much there! It’s very comfortable with that Ogilvy pad, and the pad is great for the horses’ backs, so that’s a bonus times two. The more I rode in it, the weirder it feels to ride in a normal saddle, to be honest!”

Tisbo says she never hesitated when approached with the non-traditional training method. The same could be said when she was introduced to the war bridle as an option for Mr. Visto.

“I had a lot of trouble finding the bit with him,” Tisbo said of “Vinnie.” “He doesn’t have a bad mouth, but he can get very strong, and when he gets strong, he pulls. When a horse gets strong, you think you need more bridle, but he gets very insulted by that and starts thrashing his head around, and it makes it very difficult to ride him. [When] a friend of mine suggested a war bridle, I was like, ‘Okay,’ because I’m really open to trying things. You never know what you’re going to learn.”

“He really took to it really quickly,” she continued. “When I started using it with him, I experimented with every other horse in my barn, just to see the reaction. It is such a different feel, because they really have to turn from the shoulder. You can’t turn them just by turning their neck. That’s not going to happen. It really helped a homebred that I have to understand the flat work a little bit better. I had another horse that went well in it, so I’d throw it on at home once in a while when I needed to change something up. It took him a couple days, and he was really happy with it.”

Catching On

Since Tisbo emerged as show jumping’s boldest trendsetter, others have caught on to her philosophy, or at least had the gumption to compete in the show ring with a different look. After returning from her maternity leave, Ashlee Bond won both the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Thermal and the $75,000 Osphos Grand Prix on horses—Chela LS and Cornancer—that didn’t wear nosebands.

“I tried showing them [that way], and it was better than with [a noseband],” Bond said. “They were lighter, and they weren’t as strong.”

“It lets them focus more on their jobs, because they’re not looking back at you,” she added. “They’re looking where they’re going; they’re looking in front of themselves and at the job. I definitely feel that, when you have something constrictive on your face like that, it’s a lot of pressure. It definitely can be distracting, if not very comfortable. I think that the happier they are, the more they’re going to be willing to jump more clear rounds and do their jobs better.”

The mastermind behind the tack adjustment was Bond’s father Steve, who kept all of Bond’s horses in shape during her time out of the saddle while pregnant. Cornancer was the first experiment. Then the tactic was tried on the rest of the barn.

“Cornancer didn’t really like any pressure on her face, so he took the noseband off of her while he was flatting her, and she got so much better,” Bond explained, “so then he tried on the other horses, and they seemed to be really happy without it. Then he was just jumping some small jumps—just up to 1.20-meter to keep them fit for me—and they seemed to be going really well [without it] as well.”

Bond now rides all of her horses without nosebands, including the six she currently has competing at HITS Coachella—two 5-year-olds and the FEI horses: Cornancer, Chela LS, Agrostar, and Ace of Spades. A new mount, the 6-year-old Donatella, scheduled to arrive from Germany this month, will also be ridden that way.

“He was shown in a snaffle, so I’ll probably end up just taking the noseband off him,” Bond said.

An Ongoing Process

Kevin Babington isn’t removing any equipment, but he has made changes to what’s already there. Babington changed the bit in his mount Shorapur’s mouth this winter, equipping the fiery mare’s bridle with a straight leather piece. The new bit played a role in the duo’s strong contributions to an Irish victory in the $100,000 FEI Nations Cup CSIO 4* at HITS Ocala.

“I’d had [Shorapur] in a hackamore bit combination but found it became almost too much at indoors in Las Vegas, so I wanted to try her in something different,” Babington explained. “I jumped her in [the leather bit] at the four-star Holiday and Horses week in Wellington. I figured she would either really like it or completely run away with me in it, and she ended up loving it. I found that she gets strong no matter what she’s in, but as long as she is happy in her mouth and likes the bit, she is rideable.”

“[Shorapur] is a very hot and opinionated horse, and the reason it works for her is that there are very few pressure points, so it gives her less to argue with, which allows her to focus more on the jumps than fighting the bit,” he added. “I also use a bridle on her that doesn’t put poll pressure on her to help avoid argument.”

The search for the right bit for Shorapur was a lengthy process, filled with much trial and error.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve tried every bit in the barn,” Babington said. “We’ve even changed bits between the first round and the jump-off. This one has stuck, though, and I don’t foresee changing it in the near future. She told me that it took me long enough to find this one for her!”

For all riders open to more unconventional tack choices, it’s a process of constant evolution and adaptation—one that Tisbo believes is essential to success.

“I think [trying new things] is really how we all learn and get better in the sport,” she said. “If you’re not willing to try new things, I don’t think you’re going to get anywhere—not only in the equestrian industry, but everywhere. Everything changes, and things evolve. You have to always stay on top of things, and you never know what you’re missing out on if you don’t try something.”

A World Cup victory? A $1 million purse? A Nations Cup win? It’s a deep attention to detail and the boldness to be innovative that is no doubt helping these three riders bring the best out of their horses at the highest levels of the sport.

-Photos by Erin Gilmore.