My Journey with Mercy by Nina Heller

greetings bitless supporters! here is the unedited version of the story that was featured in the may issue of DRESSAGE TODAY magazine! you can find the edited story on page 66 in the transitions section of the may issue...

I found Mercy in a pasture, injured, thin, and sullen, hiding behind another mare, as if hoping that no one would notice her, and I almost didn’t. I wasn’t looking for a horse for myself. I already had one, and was quite happy with him, training, showing, and working toward various year end championships. But, something drew me to mercy; I felt a strange, overwhelming sense that we were supposed to be together. 

She was a small filly, with a huge head, and even
bigger ears, an upside down neck, hind legs set on askew, one permanently scarred, and the size of a tree stump. None of that seemed to matter to me, as the feeling of something completely destined drowned out my usually logical nature. There was a sadness about this little mare, a broken innocence. In her three short years, Mercy (then known as Mert), had seen far too much. Living in four states, she had watched thousands of miles unfold from a trailer window, traveling up and down the map between racetracks, passed off from stranger to stranger. After a brief and unsuccessful racing career, she, and several other discarded mares were picked up by a quarter horse breeder to be surrogate mothers in Southern California, but, before Mercy received her embryo, she was seriously injured, and suffered a terrible infection, thus disqualifying her as a candidate for their program. She was sent out to pasture, with an uncertain fate. The day we met, I was shopping for a school horse, not a baby, and certainly not one with so many strikes against her, but, strangely, with all of her bad luck, she was sound, in body and mind, calm and cooperative, especially for a young racehorse. Against all reason, I trusted my feelings, and took her home.

I let Mercy be a horse for a while, and then the training began. From all that she had shown me on the ground, I assumed she would be an easy training project, I could not have been more wrong. I have had some challenging horses in my life, but, Mercy was absolutely confounding. She worked beautifully and cooperatively on the lunge line, quickly learning and responding to voice cues, but under saddle, she was miserable, as if she thoroughly resented being ridden. She tolerated the walk, but, became anxious at the trot, and horribly agitated at the canter. Most days I felt as though I were torturing her. I began to feel that she despised me, or at the very least, held me in utter disregard. The harder I tried to work through our difficulties, the more she shut down, our relationship became frustrating and joyless. I knew we both felt the same way, disgruntled, and hopeless. I’m sure some would have given up, but, I would not. I truly believed there was something beautiful to be unearthed, in both of us, for both of us, if we could just find a way out of this dark hole. I tried many things, supplements, body work, saddles galore, and our situation improved as we found the right combinations, but, the biggest change occurred when I decided to try riding Mercy without a bit. Many ex-racehorses have mouth issues due to their training, and/or lack thereof. Gadgets like tongue ties, also, leave scars, mentally and physically. I wondered if this was part of the problem. I had no experience riding without a bit, and did not know what to expect. I felt apprehensive. Was this safe? Was this crazy? I was out of ideas, so, I took the gamble.

From the first ride it was a noticeable improvement, not just to me, but to everyone who had witnessed our long struggle. Once bitless, it was as if a weight had been lifted from Mercy, her tension melted away, her gaits became looser and more free, she felt forward and willing. She felt happy. 

I soon noticed some things about myself. Over the years I had become a lazy cheater, depending on the bit more
than I had ever realized, now the bit was gone, and, a complete renaissance in my horsemanship commenced. I truly began riding with my body, seat, weight, and mind. I let mercy be my guide; she became an astute trainer, sensitive and communicative. The bitless bridle was making Mercy a better horse, and in turn, making me a better rider. An upward spiral had begun. Now, several years later, Mercy and I are dear and loving friends, we enjoy each other in and out of the saddle, and riding has finally become a joyful experience. From the beginning, our relationship has been a magical mystery tour, filled with challenges, and an enormous amount of growth for me as a rider and person. When I decided to commit to riding Mercy bitless, I expected we would never see a show ring, as not even our local schooling shows will permit bitless bridles, not even hors concours. Happily, my love of showing was not to be dampened, thanks to, an internet show site out of the UK; we were welcomed to begin our show career. Mercy and I are part of only a handful who show bitless, but,
we are not judged any differently from the majority, who do compete in a bit. Interdressage has not had any difficulty integrating those who ride bitless in to their shows, and their judges, all British listed, have no trouble scoring those without a bit. To create this level playing field, they have substituted just one word in their dressage tests, "acceptance of
the bit" now reads "acceptance of the aids". One small word, it was that simple.

Just recently, we completed our first show season. In a
field of over 300 international horse and rider combinations, from Estonia, to South Africa, and Japan, Mercy and I ended the year as the reserve champions of their senior dressage league! I have won many awards in my riding life, but, this victory has a meaning of unparalleled depth for me. We still have such a long way to go, but this award will be a constant reminder to never give up hope, and, with patience, perseverance, and a respect for the individual needs of your partner, that any horse can be your champion!