Perhaps an adversary has just challenged you to a steeple chase run, or maybe you need a fast, and practical mode of transportation as you are pursuing an enemy’s plane down a dirt runway. Or, better yet, one of the most beautiful women you have ever seen has just come riding up the beach on horseback.
Whether your needs are pragmatic or romantic, this one skill will serve them both, so you had better be ready and skilled in the art of horseback riding. Horseback riding is one of the most unique experiences you will ever have. Consider the fact that horseback riding is an activity that you never do alone; it is always you and the horse.
This is a huge, thinking, breathing creature, and unlike other skills or activities where you are simply relying on your own skills and knowledge, in this situation the horse might have something to say about it too.
The Art of Good Horsemanship
A large part of the art of horseback riding is establishing a good relationship with the horse. Unlike the simple mechanics of learning how to drive a car, riding a horse is very different because your riding skills will have a lot to do with your communication skills.
You are essentially communicating your commands to the horse, through the actions of your body, and you need to be sure that you are communicating correctly so that the horse responds in the way you are anticipating. Good communication will ensure that you can have the most enjoyable and exciting experience on horseback.
And one of the beauties of horseback riding is that it’s an activity that you can do anywhere; at home, on vacation and anywhere around the world. So in this chapter, we will do what we always do, we are going to give you a good overview of horseback riding, and provide you some tips and techniques that will separate you from the absolute beginners.
We’ll help you get a leg up, figuratively and literally. We are going to get you ready for your first day on horseback; we will discuss the training you can do to get yourself prepared physically before your first day on the horse; we’ll talk about clothing and how you should show up on your first day of riding; suggest ways to find a stable that gives horseback riding lessons, and then we talk about the different styles of horseback riding which are western style and of course English style which obviously we will focus on a little bit more.
We talk about how to approach the horse and tell you how to avoid some common mistakes that most beginners make. We talk about the saddles, how to climb up into the saddle, about basic horseback riding, how to grip the reins, different riding styles such as walking, trotting and canter and of course how to stop. Grab your riding boots and let’s go horseback riding.
Already Know How To Ride?
When I first began to work on this chapter, I thought it was going to be a walk in the park. After all, I had been horseback riding before, and I knew pretty well how to ride – or did I? The truth is, I had a good basic idea. While I had been on horseback before, what I had really done was trail rides, which I assumed was the same thing. But, the more I explored horseback riding for myself, the more I realized there was a big distinction. Horses that are trained to give “trail rides,” have done it over and over and will follow the trail from memory.
The last time I was on a horse was with a large group; everyone mounted up, and when it was time to head out, there was one rider who took the lead. The other riders followed along and when it was my turn to start walking, my horse just began to walk on his own. I really didn’t do anything to get him moving.
I did get to exercise some control at certain parts of the ride; at certain moments the horse did tend to wander on its own a little bit and I had to lead him back in the right direction, but aside from that the fact was pretty clear, the trail ride was a little bit more than a glorified pony ride.
Now of course there is nothing wrong with trail rides, I’ve done trail rides before and I will do them again. But the simple fact is, I still had a lot to learn about horseback riding, and we are going to share those things with you here. You’ve made the choice to take a horseback riding lesson, what can you do to prepare yourself?
Where to Learn
So you are in pretty good shape, you’ve got your clothing down pretty well, the next thing you need to do is to find a stable that provides lessons. There are three basic types of stables: Boarding stables which are where horse owners can keep their horses. Training stables primarily for horse training and there are lesson stables.
Lesson stables are essentially riding schools, which will offer you the opportunity to take lessons using the horses that the stable owns. This is where you would go to take a lesson if you don’t own a horse which most likely we don’t. Finding a good lesson stable is fairly simple, and you can find one in almost any area across the country.
You can look them up in the phone book or you can look online. Two great websites I came across were www.newhorse.com and www.horse-riding.net. Both sites have very extensive directories of stables across the country, and even worldwide.
Western versus English
When it comes time to take your lesson you might be asked which style of riding you are interested in; Western or English style. It’s not critical that you choose correctly, as you can always change styles later, and the basics of horseback riding are universal.
But, here are some factors you can think about when making your choice. Western style evolved as a practical means of getting work done on a ranch. You won’t find very many cowboys around these days, but you will still see western riders at the show ring, the rodeo and some ranches.
English style also has a long history, part transportation, part sport, part pleasure, and part art form. It is the kind of riding that the cavalry and the foxhunters still do, and you can still see English riding in the Olympics.
While the basics of horseback riding are still the same no matter which style you choose, there are a few distinct differences, such as the gait. A gait is the foot movement naturally employed by the horse at different speeds.
In other words, walking, trotting, and galloping, are all examples of gaits. While walking is very similar in both English and Western style riding, the trot and the canters can be slightly different, and all the attire is also different. You would wear traditional western hat for western riding, shirt, jeans, western style boots etc.
And if you are going to ride English you would wear a traditional style hunt cap, a fitted jacket, britches, the tall boots etc. The real difference between Western and English style riding are the different activities and sports related to both styles.
For example in western you could do more rodeo style activities, penning, cutting, reining, trail riding, roping etc., while in English style you would do more jumping, more hunting, dressage competitions and even polo. Of course that is later in the game if you decide to get serious and really pursue horseback riding as an activity.
One last thing about riding styles, at this point you might be thinking which style of riding would James Bond use? Is this a trick question? Nope, the obvious answer is English style riding. How do we know this for sure?
Any time I’ve seen James Bond on horseback he is riding English style, and the most obvious way to know for sure is the saddle.
The saddle is different for western and English style riding. You can spot a western saddle easily because of its parts, specifically the horn which is that vertical protrusion in the front of the saddle. If you were ever a kid on a pony ride that was what you held onto.
You can also tell by the seat of the saddle; the stirrups which are what’s dangling down on either side that you set your feet on and the fenders which are the wide pieces of leather that you rest your legs against.
The English saddle is a little bit different. First, the English saddles doesn’t have a horn, this is one of the key differences between English and western saddles. Also, the English saddles don’t have skirts, which give them less bulk and are more suited for activities like jumping, fox hunting, and racing.
Getting to Know The Horse
It’s important to establish good relationships with the horse from the get go. Horses can smell a beginner, they know when a rider doesn’t know what he or she is doing and if you are not comfortable with the horse, the horse might not be comfortable with you.
The Correct Way to Approach a Horse
It’s always a good idea to walk up to the horse, pat the horse, and take a second to become a little bit acquainted. One interesting thing to keep in mind is that like all plant eaters, horses have their eyes on the side of their heads not on the front; it will typically move its head slightly back and forth so it can actually look ahead from a side view.
This is also important to know later down the road as your riding becomes more advanced and you learn the limitations of what the horse can do. You will learn that jumping is actually now a pretty tricky endeavor, since the horse can’t see the obstacle coming toward it.
The rider can’t just sit back and let the horse do the work. The horse doesn’t know when the obstacle is right in front, and this maneuver will require the rider and the horse to work together. But for now, it’s just good to know that the horse can see you best from the side, so as you move around the horse be aware that the horse wants to know where you are. You may want to get to know the horse, but the horse might not want to get to know you.
How to Avoid Getting Kicked
If you must walk behind the horse, be sure to go around with your hand on top of the horse at all times, and keeping your body very close to the horse’s, maybe about six inches away at the most. By doing this, the horse will know where you are at all times, and will be less likely to get spooked.
Also, if the horse does decide to kick, then he won’t have room to wind up. Getting kicked by a horse feels like… well, getting kicked by a horse. But if you stay close, he won’t have room to build up a lot of thrust, and you will get pushed away, rather than getting a good solid kick.
When it comes time to mount the horse, you want to mount up the horse from the left. Why is that? Ever since the days when men were wearing swords on their left sides, they have been mounting the horse from the left, so to this day, horses are used to being mounted from the left.
Again, you want the horse to feel like you know what you are doing. Hopping up into the saddle is one of those moments that can be slightly intimidating, because it’s got the potential for a very embarrassing situation, but like everything else there is really nothing to it.
How to Mount the Horse Correctly
Your instinct might be to grab the saddle and pull yourself up. The correct way to mount is to grab the mane of the horse; that’s right, you want to grab the hair on the back of the horse’s neck. Don’t worry; the horse doesn’t feel a thing. By grabbing the mane, you are letting the horse know where you are, and that you are about to saddle up.
Place your left foot firmly into the left stirrup, place your left hand on the base of the horse’s neck area, grab some of that mane, and position your right arm over the back of the saddle, holding onto the right side of the back of the saddle. Give a couple of bounces on your right leg, and then bounce yourself up, throw your right leg over, and sit yourself down into the saddle.
Put your right foot snugly into the right stirrup, make sure your weight is distributed over the center of the horse, and just make sure you are comfortable. You have now correctly mounted the horse. If you anticipate having trouble getting onto the horse, you can always use something called a mounting block.
A mounting block is essentially small wooden steps that will help you get onto the horse. Most stables will have several mounting blocks scattered around which can make life easier for both you and the horse. You can either move the mounting block over to the horse, or you can lead your horse over to the mounting block.
Once you are up in the saddle, the horse might decide it’s time to start walking on his own. It’s right about now that you want to establish your relationship. The horse needs to understand that he should wait for you to be ready, and not go until you have asked him to go. Once you are comfortably on the horse, you are ready to ride.
The Basics of Horseback Riding
You use a combination of the reins and your legs to communicate commands to the horse. You move in the direction you want to go by pulling the reins to the left to tell the horse to go left, and you pull the reins to the right to tell the horse to go right. You also use the reins to stop the horse by simply pulling the reins towards you. You don’t need to apply much pressure.
The correct way to hold the reins is to grab them from the outside, so that you can see the top of your hands. The reins are going from the outside of your hands, from your pinkie area, toward the mouth of the horse, and you grab it in a spot where you take in the slack. When your forearms are rested in your lap, the slack that goes from your hands to the horse’s mouth should be taught. A simple dip in your hand gesture will apply a moderately gentle pressure on the horse’s mouth, signaling your command to the horse to go either right or left.
You shouldn’t have to pull with your arms at all; just this slight change in pressure with the flick of your wrist should be all the horse needs to understand your command.
The same goes for stopping a horse. Applying pressure with both wrists will signal to the horse that it’s time to stop. Gentle pressure with a backwards motion with your hands is all you need. Hold that pressure until the horse has obeyed your command, and has come to a complete stop. You should do this in a motion that is gentle but firm.
To make the horse go, you use your legs. Squeeze gently, or bump your heels, to ask the horse to move forward, and as soon as the horse responds and starts forward, stop kicking and remain conscious of your leg movement. Be conscious of what your legs are doing because your legs are communicating to the horse.
An inexperienced rider might kick the horse once, sending the horse into a trot, and then the rider will just start bouncing along, not realising that the legs are constantly hitting the horse and telling the horse to go faster.
One gentle kick should be fine, and then keep your legs steady. In addition, you don’t want to tighten your legs around the horse in order to stay on; you stay on the horse by keeping your weight centred in the saddle and using your balance.
Keeping your legs tight around the horse sends mixed signals, and it can make him uncomfortable, and you don’t want to be sitting on top of an uncomfortable horse.
How To Control Our Speed
If you remember earlier we used the word gait. The gait is the movement of the animal’s feet so when we talk about different gaits we are talking about the different speeds and movements of the horse.
The slowest gait is, of course, the walk; a slow, steady, four-beat lateral gait. “Four beats” implies that all four of the horse’s feet move off the ground separately. When one foot is lifted the other three feet are still touching the ground. The horse’s front foot will start to move forward, followed by the opposite hind foot, then the other hind foot, and then the other front foot.
The next gait is a little quicker and more brisk. The trot is a two beat gait where the diagonal pairs of legs move at the same time. The right front and rear left leg move forward at the same time, and then the front left and the rear right move forward together, and then both the front left leg and the back right leg also move forward together. When you listen to a horse trot you will hear that “clop clop” sound, which indicates two beats.
The canter is what most people refer to as the “gallop.” The canter is the fastest of the three basic gaits, and it is an asymmetrical three beat gait. If you listen to a horse canter is sounds as if there is only three hooves hitting the ground. The hind foot hits the ground first, followed by the other hind foot and its opposite front foot together, then the final front foot hits the ground, and then there is an audible pause when all four legs are in the air before the next stride begins.
What the Different Gaits Mean to the Rider
Riding the walk is the simplest of the gaits. Good things to keep in mind when you are riding a walk; try not to be stiff and inflexible in the saddle, move your hips back and forwards with the horse’s movements, and stay light in your seat. It’s at this stage where you want to get comfortable on the horse, learn balance, and practice communicating your commands to the horse.
As a beginner, you want to have your walk down pretty well before you move up to the trot. Examine your own riding style and ask yourself: Are my hips moving with the rhythm of the horse? Is my upper body steady but not rigid and am I keeping my arms and legs still? It’s also important to keep relaxed.
Don’t forget, you don’t want your legs to bump against the horse when you don’t want them to, and you don’t want to be tugging on the reins when you don’t want to either.
Once you feel comfortable with these basic fundamentals, you will be ready to move up to the trot. When you attempt the trot, you will start to hear the term “posting,” which is when you raise your body up out of the saddle with the motion of the trot. How high you rise out of the saddle depends on how fast your horse is trotting. Posting is a means to help you move smoothly with the trot, instead of just bouncing.
This way you are avoiding every other bump by rising out of the saddle as the horse touches down with one diagonal pair of legs and then gently sinking back into the saddle as the horse touches down with the other pair of legs.
Posting can be like dancing; it requires a little rhythm so it is going to be a tricky skill to master, but with a little practice and a little patience it will all come together.
The fastest of the three gaits is the canter, which essentially refers to when the horse is running, but that is not to say that the canter has to be lightening fast. The canter can be done at a very moderate pace. As a beginner, be careful not to tense up when you start to canter. Tensing up or holding your breath could bounce you right out of the saddle. It is more important than ever to move with the horse in a canter.
Also, if you stiffen up, this could cause you to lean forward, which will signal to most horses to pick up their speed. The rider’s hips and pelvis area are the focus of movement in the canter. You need to relax your hips, and your pelvis should rock back and forth fluidly in a smooth, scooping motion.
Over time and with experience you are going to learn to use your seat to communicate cues to the horse the same way you would do with your arms and your legs. Getting into that one, two, three rhythm with your seat will communicate to the horse to step up to a canter; the horse will just follow along with that motion. And of course, over time and with patience you will begin to feel comfortable with all three gaits and you will be well on your way to becoming an experienced rider.
Of course, if you are going to be cantering on a horse, you had better be sure you know how to stop. As we said earlier, gentle pressure applied to the reins will signal to the horse to stop. Be sure to let go of the reins as soon as the horse comes to a stop, as continuing to apply pressure after the horse has stopped sends a mixed message to the horse.
You will learn over time that you can use your body to communicate these commands to the horse as well. For example, as you are riding you will try to be light in the saddle, but when you want to come to a complete stop, just sit heavy in the saddle and the horse will generally understand what this means. With enough experience over time you will eventually be using your entire body to communicate your wish to the horse.
Take your right foot out of the right stirrup, and stand in the left stirrup. Grab the mane and the saddle as you swing your right foot over until both legs are on the left side, so you are essentially standing with your left foot in the left stirrup, and then just drop yourself down.
Congratulations, you have just completed your first riding lesson. With a little bit of time and experience you will be able to ride a horse any time and in any part of the world.
Safety and Etiquette
Be sure to learn from and always listen to your instructor. Make sure you are always progressing at a pace that you are comfortable with. Focus on good horsemanship. Master the basics. Always be respectful and mindful of your horse. Remember to approach the horse gently and calmly. Do what you can to keep the horse at ease and always be gentle yet firm.
Lastly, always wear a helmet. Riding a horse is not like riding a bicycle, the horse has a mind of its own, and even if you do everything correctly the horse might have other ideas. It can take off quickly or it can stop short by no fault of your own. So keep your head protected, wear a helmet.
The resources I used to make this podcast were Horseback Riding For Dummies, also The Everything Horseback Riding Book (Everything (Pets)) and Illustrated Horseback Riding for Beginners. Last but not least,, I couldn’t have put this podcast together without a lot of help and guidance from Sandy Shepherd, lifestyle trainer and author of fEmpowerment, and an experienced horseback rider. Good luck and happy trails.