Clicky

Horse Riding: Thoughts On Learning How To Ride A Horse

If you’re buying horse for the first time, you’ll find there are lots of articles online that provide step-by-step, “insert slot A into slot B” sort of instructions on how to ride a horse. While these are interesting in terms of technical knowledge, the fact is you cannot learn to ride a horse by reading articles, no matter how thorough and detailed they are.

Riding a horse is a learn-by-doing activity, and it is far more about your relationship with the horse than your technical knowledge and physical skills. In this article, we will discuss the importance of building trust and bond with your horse, and we will suggest some ways of doing just that. We will also provide a brief overview of the skills you will need to develop to learn to ride successfully. Read on to learn more.

Get To Know Your Horse

To truly learn to ride, developing a rapport with your horse is essential. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that you have a horse of your own or are leasing one long term. If you are renting a horse for a day trip or for short organized rides at a public stable, no amount of good horsemanship will help you. Horses that are subjected to this type of use typically learn to follow a specific route in a specific manner. Attempting to alter their routine is an exercise in futility.

With your own horse, the most important thing you can do to improve your riding skills is spend a lot of time on grooming, groundwork and simply talking to your horse. Even if you did ride your horse a bit when you selected him or her, when you take possession of the horse, you should spend a good month simply getting to know each other.

Remember that if you have just purchased your horse, he is not just adjusting to you. He may also be adjusting to a whole new living situation. This can cause health issues such as stress, anxiety and potential behavioral issues.

Groom your horse daily at feeding time so that he or she can become accustomed to being handled by you. Body brushing, mane and tail combing and hoof cleaning will also give you an opportunity to learn your horse’s sensitivities and work through them.

Groundwork can include activities such as lunging, but for relationship building, it’s enough to just spend time walking with your horse and talking to him. Always lead from the left (near) side.

Maintain a calm, quiet demeanor. Use consistent verbal cues when you want to move forward, turn right, left, stop or back up. This will give you an added way of communicating with your horse when you are in the saddle.

After you have spent a couple of weeks getting to know your horse, introduce his new tack. Saddle and bridle him, (keeping the halter and lead rope in place) and continue walking with him and handling him as you have done. This exercise gives you an opportunity to make sure saddle and bridle fit well and are comfortable for your horse before you mount up. It also gives your horse a chance to get used to this equipment and your style of tacking up.

When you’ve built a rapport with your horse and are ready to begin riding, be sure to have someone trustworthy on the ground to help keep your horse calm and under control. Have your helper hold your horse as you mount up and lead the horse around familiar areas as you simultaneously use your reins and verbal cues to guide. This gives you and the horse an opportunity to get a “feel” for one another.

When you feel secure and familiar with your horse, fade out the helper and ride quietly in the areas your horse already knows. This will help eliminate any surprises or sudden frights that might make your first ride an unpleasant and stressful experience and memory.

Now that you are mounted, continue the routine that you have set up with daily quiet rides and groundwork. Keep this up for a week or two and then gradually begin adding challenges, such as a little more distance, new paths and riding areas, trotting and eventually cantering.

The time you have spent with your horse will serve you well because you will know each other. You will be able to anticipate your horse’s responses to stimuli, and he will be able to understand your signals and guidance. There are various equestrian mobile apps these days that will help you create a system for all this.

But How Do You Ride?

This is a difficult concept to put into written steps, but basically, here’s what you do – our horse riding tips for beginners.

1. Decide upon your riding style

Will you ride bareback, English or Western? Many old-fashioned and skilled horse men and women believe that it is best to learn to ride bareback first. There are a lot of good arguments to be made for this. When you ride bareback, you are close to your horse. You can feel what the horse is thinking and anticipate his or her actions easily.

Learning how to ride bareback properly helps you develop good balance and posture and a strong seat. Even so, many modern instructors believe that it is best to learn with a saddle, and your location may very well determine the type of saddle you use. If you are in England, English riding is only natural. If you are in the United States, you may have to argue with people every time you ride with an English saddle.

The difference between these two common ways of riding lies in the structure of the equipment and the level and type of skill required. English saddles are more streamlined and require better balance and a stronger seat. Because you maintain more constant contact with the horse’s mouth via the bit and reins, you must be light-handed, or you risk injuring your horse and causing him to have a “hard” mouth.

A western saddle is rather easy-chair-like. It provides more support and more security for the rider. Many western riders develop the very bad habit of hanging onto the saddle horn for support, so learning to ride with a western saddle can interfere with developing good balance and a firm seat.

Riding western style involves keeping the reins rather loose and held only in the left hand, so there may be less potential for injuring your horse’s mouth when riding western, if you are light-handed.

Of the two types of tack, an English saddle is lighter weight and easier to girth up. A western saddle can be heavy; although, modern western saddles made of synthetic materials can be quite light. A western girth is rather like a Chinese puzzle, and you must take great care to be certain it is properly tightened for safety.

It’s worth noting that you can have the best of both worlds by choosing an Australian stock saddle. These saddles provide the comfort and security of a western saddle with an English style girth!

Types of Australian Saddles

2. Tack up

No matter which type of saddle you choose, be sure to make all of your adjustments before you mount up. Girth the saddle and saddle pad initially, then bridle up. Double-check the girth and tighten it if your horse has exhaled and made it loose.

“Blowing up” is a common trick played by experienced horses. They inhale when you first girth up and then blow out the air, loosening the girth. If you don’t catch it, you could easily end up on the ground while your horse runs off with the saddle hanging underneath.

Check the length of the stirrups by holding them up under your arm. Your fingertips should rest on the top of the stirrup leather, and the bottom of the stirrup should touch your underarm. This should be just about the right length stirrup for you; although, you may need to adjust it a bit. Be sure to do any adjusting while you are standing on the ground, not while you are mounted.

Western and English Tack

3. Mount up

Just as it is correct to lead from the left, it is also correct to mount and dismount from the left. If you are riding bareback, you can use a mounting block or similar sturdy object to gain a little height so that you can swing your right leg over your horse’s back and settle in.

If you are agile and your horse isn’t too tall, you may be able to spring up and get your waist over the horse’s withers (highest point of the back) and then swing your right leg over. If you are able to learn how to do this, you won’t have to worry about being able to get back on if you are thrown or have to get off for some reason during your ride.

Be sure to practice this maneuver with a helper on the ground to hold your horse. If your horse is unfamiliar with being mounted in this way, it could startle him.

When mounting with either an English or western saddle, don’t grab onto the front and back of the saddle and haul yourself up. This causes your saddle to slide to the left, and it hurts your horse’s back.

If you are mounting from the ground, position your left hand (with the reins in hand) on your horse’s neck just in front of the saddle. Facing toward the back of the horse, turn the left stirrup toward you and place the ball of your left foot in the stirrup. Position your right hand on the front of the saddle (on the horn swell or the pommel depending on the type of saddle).

Don’t use the strength of your arms to haul yourself up. Instead, spring lightly upward without putting any weight on the stirrup and quickly sweep your right leg over the saddle in one move, settling into place.

This type of graceful mounting takes quite a bit of practice. If you are not in good physical condition, it’s best to use a mounting block until you have developed the strength in your legs to be able to pull this off.

If your horse does not like to stand still while you are mounting, always have someone hold him. Don’t tie him while you are mounting as he could pull back and break his lead rope or halter causing both you and him a great deal of injury.

Never tie your horse by his bridle reins. They can easily snap. Always use a proper halter and lead rope for tying.

This video shows good mounting technique and provides some sound, general information. Oddly, this trainer dismounts to the right. This is not generally recommended, but if it’s how his horse is trained, it’s alright.

Riding Your Young Horse for the First Time

4. Check your seat

You should be sitting squarely in the saddle (or on your horse’s bare back) with your weight resting mostly on your “sit-bones”. Your back should be straight and your shoulders squared.

Your hands should be near your horse’s withers. Your thighs should rest slightly forward, and your calves should hang straight down. Your toes should be pointed just slightly outward and up with your heels down and away from your horse’s sides.

Remember this old horseman’s ditty, to maintain a good riding seat.

Your head and heart keep up.
Your hands and heels keep down.
Your knees close to your horse’s sides,
And your elbows close to your own.

5. Walk on!

When you are ready to move out, give a little squeeze with your calves, raise your reins a bit and cluck your tongue or use whatever verbal cue you have taught your horse for moving forward. “Walk on!’ is an often used phrase.

Always start out at a walk to give your horse a little time to warm up and to be sure that there are no problems with tack, lameness or any other detail that might ruin your ride and/or endanger you.

6. Guide your horse

These days aspiring riders are often taught how to “steer” a horse. This is poor terminology. Remember that a horse is a living being. Riding is a relationship. You are not steering. You are guiding.

That said, guiding your horse is a matter of common sense. You use a combination of your voice, your reins, your legs and your weight to let your horse know what you expect. When you are really in tune with your horse, you can use your thoughts.

In English riding, you use a method known as “direct reining”. You hold the reins in both hands using the middle three fingers of each hand. To guide your horse to the left, you pull the left rein slightly to the left. Simultaneously, press your right calf gently against your horse’s right side. To go to the right, use the right rein and press with your left calf.

In western riding, you hold the reins in your left hand. If your horse is trained to “neck-rein” you would simply lift your rein hand slightly and move it to the left or right depending on the direction you want to go. Use your calves as described above.

In the following video, the presenter does a good job of demonstrating the concept of neck reining. Realize that he is just demonstrating and explaining the concept. He is in a very safe environment (a round pen) on a horse in training. Because of this, his movements are exaggerated.

When you are actually riding in an open space on a well-trained horse, your reins would not be anywhere near this loose, and you would not hold your rein hand so high.

Instead, you would keep your reins just loose enough that you are not putting any pressure on the bit. You should be able to rest your rein hand lightly on the swell of the saddle and signal your horse by simply turning your hand to the right or left or tilting your hand back or forward slightly.

Neck Reining Tutorial

He also presents a lot of fancy stuff (i.e. the spin) that you needn’t worry about right now (or at all). Do notice that this rider has a superb seat and posture and that his right hand is always kept comfortably at his side or resting on his thigh. He NEVER hangs onto the saddle horn, and neither should you!

If your horse is not trained to neck rein, you would switch to direct reining temporarily when you want to turn, or just use direct reining consistently.

Moving forward is described above in the “Walk on!” section.

To stop, pull back gently on the reins and lean back slightly. Use your verbal cue for stop. “Whoa!” is commonly used.

Common voice cues for right and left are “gee” and “haw” (respectively). These are usually used when driving; however, you can use them when riding if you want. You can also use any word you wish, as long as you use it consistently so that your horse knows what you mean.

Keep in mind that you do not have to shout your verbal cues. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Always speak quietly and maintain a calm demeanor for good results with horses.

Here is the first of a good three-part video series on basic direct reining:

Part One A – Reining for Beginners

You should be able to access the rest of the series when you get to the page.

This is the kind of gentle riding in a controlled area that is perfect for a beginner. The trainer’s commentary in this series is very informative, and the rider demonstrates good mounting technique,has good posture, a good seat and holds her hands correctly for direct reining.

6. Move into a trot

When you are ready to move into a trot, signal your horse by lifting your reins, leaning forward slightly and giving a couple of short presses with your calves. You may need to give a little kick with your heels, but save that until you really need it. Use your verbal cue (clicking your tongue commonly means “speed up”).

When trotting, you can choose to “sit the trot” or post. Sitting the trot involves settling securely into your position in a balanced way with your weight firmly resting on your sit bones and your legs comfortably in place. Keep your shoulders, elbows and hands down and move subtly with your horse.

If your horse has a harsh trot or your seat isn’t strong enough (yet) to sit the trot, you can post. This involves moving up and down in the saddle in response to your horse’s movements. When you feel the horse’s back rise beneath your seat, you raise up. This means you bob up and down throughout the trot. While this may sound tiresome, it is actually pretty easy and can make a hard trot much more comfortable.

In the past, posting was only done in English riding, and sitting the trot was only done in western riding or when riding bareback. These days, you can choose to post or not as you see fit.

7. Move to the canter and gallop

When you are ready to move from trotting to cantering, take some special training time in an enclosed area, such as an arena. Have an experienced horseman or woman on hand to teach you and to help you in case of accident. Practice this faster gait in a controlled setting until you are sure you can hold your seat and maintain control over your horse.

Never go dashing off across an open field or an unfamiliar area, especially if you are not experienced in riding at a canter or gallop. Generally speaking, these faster gaits are not safe in unfamiliar areas. If your horse shies at a high speed, you could be thrown or dragged. If your horse steps in a hole at a high speed, he could break a leg.

Save high speeds for arenas and controlled activities such as hunting and jumping, barrel racing, polo and other activities performed in maintained, enclosed areas.

8. Troubleshooting

When you are walking with your horse or riding, you may sometimes have problems with your horse balking. When this happens, don’t try to force him forward. For one thing, he is much stronger than you are so you will never win. For another, he may have a good reason for not moving forward.

Look around to see if something is scaring him or if there might be potential danger. Look for scary things such as blowing cloth or plastic bags, uneven footing, potential hiding places for animals, etc.

If it’s possible to change direction and avoid the perceived danger, do so. Just be sure that it’s clear that you are making the decision to change direction. Don’t let your horse make this decision for you, or you’ll have a bad habit to break.

If it’s just a matter of balkiness, try turning your horse in a tight circle just to get him started again. This usually works with most horses, donkeys and mules.

If your horse becomes agitated while you are riding, try turning him in a small circle to calm him down. Look around for the cause of the agitation and make adjustments as needed.

9. Vigilance

Just as with driving a car, you must always be vigilant to be safe. While you are riding or handling your horse, always be aware of your surroundings. Look far ahead to see anything that might startle your horse. Make adjustments to prevent problems.

It‘s a good idea to avoid riding altogether on windy days as horses are very likely to be flighty and nervous. You may not be able to see blowing debris quickly enough to prevent trouble.

Also, if you are pregnant, unhealthy or tired, it may be safer for you and your horse to reduce the frequency of your rides.

10. Dress appropriately

Always dress properly for safety from head to toe. The importance of a riding helmet and correct footwear cannot be overstressed.

When riding with stirrups, be sure to wear sturdy shoes or riding boots with a slight heel to prevent having your foot slide through the stirrup if you are thrown. This may keep you from being dragged.

When riding bareback, be sure to wear sturdy shoes that will stay on your feet securely. If your shoe falls off, it could startle your horse and cause problems.

When working with your horse on the ground, wear sturdy shoes with good traction to prevent slipping and falling or injuries caused by being trodden upon. Never go barefoot or wear sandals or flimsy shoes around horses. You could lose a toe if a horse accidentally steps on your foot.

Dress correctly for the kind of riding you intend to do. Wear long sturdy pants or riding jeans (not shorts) to protect your legs. If you are riding in the woods, wear a long sleeved shirt or horse riding body protector to prevent scrapes and scratches. You can buy also riding gloves if you need further protection for your hands. A good bra is also essential because of the motion of the horse that can cause pain. If you ride in a cold winter weather in some areas, you will need a good winter horse riding jacket.

Dress simply. Don’t wear jewelry or frilly, billowing clothes when riding. Extraneous items such as these can get tangled up in a wide variety of potentially dangerous ways. Additionally, billowing clothes can be frightening to horses, especially on windy days.

For longer rides or trails, you may need an additional storage to carry a few things with you. For that, having quality saddle bags is a great idea. If you want to record your rides, it may be also a good idea to buy a helmet camera for horse riding.

How Long Does It Take To Learn How To Ride?

There is no cut-and-dried timeline for learning to ride a horse. Because horse riding is a relationship between two individuals, it depends a great deal on the temperament of the horse and the rider. Your patience, willingness and ability to provide consistent care and interaction with your horse will have a great deal of impact on the amount of time it takes you to learn to ride well.

Once you know your horse and feel safe and secure in the saddle, you will surely realize that you will never know everything. As with any relationship, there is something new to learn every day when you ride a horse. Horses can like being ridden, but they need a great partner in you to feel safe cooperating with you and spending time with you. If you can achieve that, you’ll realize very soon that horse riding is good for you and can be even therapeutic.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


7 DAY FREE EMAIL COURSE ...

... to learn 7 mistakes I made (that YOU can avoid) when I started with horses






1 thought on “Horse Riding: Thoughts On Learning How To Ride A Horse”

  1. While watching others ride horses, I always got the feeling that it would not be that hard. Then I got onto a horse for the first time and that blew my mind. It took me a while to get used to it, but based on my experiences, your guide here is pretty good!

Leave a Comment

[NEW QUIZ] What horse breed is right for you?FIND OUT!