Holly Coetzee is certainly a showjumper with a difference. The Dubai-based rider competes all her horses without a bit and keeps them barefoot, while at home she rides and jumps her horse Prince completely without tack.
“I regularly hack out in the desert with just a neck rope — he is a very special horse,” says Holly, who competes in both eventing and showjumping in the UAE.
“One of my best moments was galloping along the beach and playing in the sea tackless with him.
“While not all horses will be able to do this, I do think with enough time and patience most horses could be taught to be ridden tackless or bridleless because if you are riding correctly, from your seat and using your body not your hands, your horse should listen for those cues without needing to be told with reins. The key though is time and patience and in my experience a lot of riders today want immediate results.”
Holly’s conversion to the benefits of bitless and barefoot management came in 2015 when, after two successful seasons of competing at 1.25m in the UK, her 17hh 11-year-old German warmblood Connor was diagnosed with gastric ulcers, navicular disease and laminitis.
“I was advised by vets to put him down unless his condition drastically improved within the next two weeks, which of course was devastating,” says Holly, who grew up in Derby before moving to the UAE and has trained with Corinne Bracken, Nick Burton and later worked as a coach at the Emirates Equestrian Centre.
“Although my three previous horses had all been kept successfully barefoot and I had been riding them bitless, I was convinced that because Connor was a ‘proper’ showjumping horse I couldn’t possibly keep him barefoot or showjump him without a bit!
“Despite my own doubts and fears I knew I had to try something different, because conventional shoeing had so far failed me. I agreed to give this more natural approach a try and when I returned to Dubai the following year he came with me newly barefoot.”
Connor was given a year off work and put on a new low-sugar, low-starch diet and “became a new horse” and has since always ridden in a Dr Cooks bitless bridle.
Holly’s most recent “project horse” Prince is a thoroughbred ex-racer.
“I rode him bitless from the word go with no issues,” says Holly, who works as a freelance rider and coach based out of Al Ruwayyah Stables in the Dubai.
“Prince took to schooling and jumping very well and I quickly realised he was going to be a brilliant brave cross-country horse. He moved up to the open class — Dubai’s ‘biggest’ eventing class — after a few months with no issues and he continues to improve at every event.”
Holly now regularly gives talks, workshops and demonstrations on bitless and barefoot riding and competition in the UAE.
“Before setting my clients off over fences, I ensure that they are riding their horses straight, into a steady contact from their leg and are able to use their body, seat and legs effectively to control their horses,” Holly explains. “Many of my riders are now competing successfully in showjumping, eventing and dressage — for national dressage a snaffle bit is used — and we are now well-known on the competition circuit for our extremely competitive bitless and barefoot team!”
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