All in a day’s work: the bridleless rider, Shuna Mardon *H&H Plus*

  • Shuna Mardon on the mare that led her to compete without a bridle – and breeding a quarter horse dynasty

    My first memory of horses was when I was three, escaping my nanny in the nursery to lead a Clydesdale from his cart to the stables. We also had a gorgeous miniature Shetland and my siblings and I would play all over and around her.

    Our mother instilled in us our love of horses and always supported us. When I came back from a trip buying horses with my boyfriend, now husband, Philip, I told her, “Mum we got engaged.”

    She replied, “Oh good God, is that all? I thought you’d bought another stallion.”

    I believed horses could be ridden by telepathy, but it took a chance meeting with cowboy and country and Western singer John O’Neill to convince me that bridleless riding was possible. Philip and I met John on honeymoon in Bermuda and he became a great friend and mentor. A few years later, when we went to stay with him and his wife in New York State, he showed me how he rode one of his horses without a bridle.

    I told John about a horse, Strathdon, who was highly sensitive and resisted conventional forms of control. John convinced me I would be able to ride her without a bridle. I tried it with great success.

    Other riders were not always impressed. My sister, eventer Lorna Clarke, says, “We have bridles, why not use them.” I can remember one day hunting Strathdon with the Duke of Buccleuch’s. A woman rode up to me at the meet, looked askance at “Don’s” naked head and said, “I think you’ve forgotten something.”

    I wrote a book about my experiences, but I haven’t competed without a bridle since the late ’80s because you cannot get insurance now. When I showed without a bridle, I would always take one for the judge as they wouldn’t have known how I communicated with my horse.

    In a lifetime of riding and competing, I am most proud of the fact that I was able to compete in open affiliated showjumping, eventing, Western riding and endurance, as well as hunting a horse without using a bridle. Strathdon was such a difficult mare when she arrived but she did give me her complete trust, and went on to become Western and pleasure horse champion of Britain dozens of times.

    Waccubuc, whom I also rode and competed without a bridle, was my horse of a lifetime. He was British champion of the American Quarter Horse Association UK and quarter horse performance champion of Britain several times, advanced medium in dressage and jumped at Foxhunter level. He also covered more than 30 mares a year.

    As far as I know, there were only six or seven quarter horses in the country when I began importing them in 1970.

    I started breeding them because of their temperament and versatility. I bred two of the best at the time in Zero Depth Charge, who was breed champion a few times, and Rocky Mountain Zero, having chosen the sire and dam out in America.

    The biggest lesson that horses have taught me is to listen. People don’t listen enough. If a horse doesn’t enjoy working, they will never give you their best.

    I have a Fjord pony here that got into bad habits with her young rider – she loves jumping and liked to take off after a fence. The first time we jumped a fence, we went around the school three times before she could stop. It seemed she had been doing everything on the right rein, so I rode her around the school for three months with two hands on the left rein. She was bored with dressage but she enjoys TREC and has had some success in this.

    I’m 79 this month and still compete in dressage but my back is playing up and I think it came from the effort of staying on difficult young horses. I used to take horses in and charge £25 a week if they were unbroken, £10 a week for the others. The horses we were well paid to back were usually ones someone else had failed to break in.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 10 December 2020

    Watch the Horse & Hound Awards 2020 virtual ceremony