Horses are beautiful, majestic creatures. They have an air of elegance about them that is hard to beat in the animal kingdom.
So why isn’t everyone buying a horse and taking horseback riding lessons?!
Horseback riding isn’t a hobby you pick up over a weekend. It requires grit (riding will harden muscles you didn’t know you had). It demands patience (horses can get moody). And it involves an emotional, nearly spiritual connection between human and beast that goes beyond just learning technique.
In this article I'll share with you the basics you should know about how to ride a horse:
- Have the right mindset
- Gear up
- Start riding
The domestication of horses, or if we’re being fancy, Equus caballus, is estimated to date back all the way to 4200 BC. Riding, which is obviously faster than walking, became a means of herding livestock. Then came the chariot-riding for sport, the load-bearing for supplies, the combat-riding for wars, and the jousting for honor. Horse history sure is action-packed!
*Perhaps you’ve heard the term "Equestrian" but thought is was the term for some made-up, alien language. Nope, it’s just the term for horse-rider. As mentioned above, the term "Equus" is Latin for horse.
2. Born to be Wild
Part of a horse’s appeal is that it needs to be tamed. Horses are free creatures and it takes a lot of devotion, time, and horse sense to make a horse want to carry something on its back (i.e. YOU).
Fear not; the horses you’ll ride will have already been tamed. They won’t try to buck you off (unless you’re actively doing something to deserve it!). But it is wise to always be on your guard and aware of the situation.
For such giant beasts, horse are quite skittish. In fact, when you’re in proximity, horse trainers will encourage you to make soft noises. If you’re grooming a horse, it’s advised to place a gentle hand on the horse and trail the hand along its coat to make the horse aware of where you are.
Nevertheless, there’s a reason why the term "horsepower" is a measure of power. The term was created to compare the output of steam engines with the power of draft horses. In other words,horses are a lot stronger than us!!
Takeaway: Consider it a good thing when you start getting comfortable around horses but keep this in the back of your mind: horses are nearly 7x heavier, much stronger, and while they might be domesticated, every horse likes its freedom. Always be aware and respectful!
Before you actually sit atop a horse, have you been near one? Or, let’s put it this way: have you smelled one?
Horseback riding, while an elegant and dignified hobby, is not all peachy. Horses are generally kept in boarding stables that are like close-quarter, apartment complexes with no doors.
Basically, you smell everything.
I’m sure I don’t need to go on about the different smells you might encounter, but there is a degree of acclimatization that occurs. Stables tend to attract flies in the summer time and stray cats are omnipresent.
Takeaway: Before you commit to riding, make sure to visit a barn or boarding stable and feel, or rather, smell things out. If you have allergies (i.e. hay, cats, dust), you may want to reconsider. If allergies won’t stop you, then all the more power to you. Just bring your EpiPen.
4. The Approach
Now, I’m going to get a little abstract on you. Horses can pick up on our feelings and intentions. If you’re approaching a horse and you’re sweating bullets and deathly afraid...the horse might take pity on you but most likely, it won’t care enough to stand there until you pull yourself together.
That isn’t to say that horses aren’t caring! They’re extremely affectionate animals and once you they get to know you, horses will make it known that they love you back.Plus, there are specific boarding schools built for equine therapy as found on here. The philosophy is that clients can see self-improvement because horses are typically non-judgmental and are good at reflecting back the attitudes and behaviors you bring to the table. If you’re being stubborn, your horse will be stubborn right back!
But let’s get back to the approach. I’ll walk you step-by-step:
- Eyes/ears: If you’ve got at least one eye and one ear facing you, the horse is aware of you and you’re good to enter its space.
- Arc: Just like you shouldn’t stare directly into its eyes, you shouldn’t walk straight up to a horse; it can take both gestures as a sign of aggression. Walk in an arc towards the horse.
- Offering: If you have a carrot or horse treat, you’re at an advantage. If not, offer your hand just like you would to a dog or cat. Let the horse acknowledge you by your scent. If acknowledge, you can place a hand on its neck/shoulder and start petting away.
Here’s a nice video to capture the essence of my steps. Note the dramatic and inspiring music!
Takeaway: Approaching a horse is similar to approaching any animal (or person); be mindful of what they’re doing at the moment and whether they’re receptive to meeting you.
5. Body Language
This step also applies to approaching a horse but goes further into all the little horse cues you’ll encounter while handling a horse and riding.
Some people just get it. They’re comfortable around horses, feel a connection, and can read a horse better than they can read people.
But the majority of people don’t grow up around horses. Having "horse sense" is not only picking up on a horse’s body language, it’s picking up on a horse’s energy.
The way to pick up on energy isn’t easily taught and comes from the deep, intuitive part of you. It also comes from spending hours around horses and adding up all the small body cues to arrive at a general decision: is this horse receptive to me or not?
The ideal relaxed horse
Let’s review body language by mood, from most ideal to least:
- Soft look to the eyes (normal blinking), may be partially closed
- Head is lowered
- Muscles are relaxed
- Ears pointed forward or neutral (not focused in a direction)
- One hind leg may be bent
- Sighing or licking of the lips
- Ears pointed to where eyes are looking
- Head/neck are up
- Tail elevated Bright/attentive look in the eyes
- Pinned ears
- Tail is swishing
- Tossing or flinging of the head
- Grinding of the teeth
- Head elevates to avoid rider’s hands
- Stiff body
- Head/neck held high
- Tensed muscles
- Whites of the eyes showing
- Tail may be tucked between hind legs
- Grinding of the teeth
- Pinned ears
- Curled upper lip
- Cold, hard stare
Please refer to this site for more information.
Takeaway: Many of these body cues apply to similar moods in other animals, humans included! Always approach with caution and put your needs second. You want a willing animal, not an angry one.
At this point, we should be on the same page in terms of mindfulness when being around horses. Now let’s get to the physical contact part.
We’ve established that horses are mind readers, err, I mean, good at picking up what we bring to the table! When you touch a horse, their reading of you gets even stronger.
Let’s pause for a second and ask a rhetorical question.
Do you like it when strangers touch your face? I think not.
You’ve probably seen other people, either in person or on television, pet a horse right along its forehead and nose.
That’s okay when the horse knows you. But once again, think about how you’d feel if someone you just met greeted you with a handshake on the forehead.
Before we move forward, a note of caution:
Many riders, of all levels, tend to assert control over their horses. Sometimes this assertiveness leaks into how we handle (or rather, mishandle) a horse, and the first signs show up in how we touch them.If you find that the horse is not receptive to you, either to your approach or your touch, your stubbornness may kick in. You may force the issue and make the horse tolerate you but beware. They will not forget.This is why the the human-horse connection is so powerful. Earning their trust and reception is a special moment, just like with any animal. But especially with horses, they will mirror back your stubbornness, anger, or any negative emotion. So watch yourself!
Let’s take a cue from how horses greet one another and learn their language. After all, horseback riding is a partnership and an ongoing dialogue between the two of you. Not only are you feeding off of each other’s energy and emotions, but you are learning each other’s languages.
When a horse, Prince, initiates contact with another, Lexie, they stop a short distance before they reach the other horse. Can you guess why? For the exact reasons we mentioned already. For respect and receptivity.
Now, let’s say Prince has Lexie’s acceptance and moves closer. Generally, Prince will tilt his head towards Lexie’s neck and look at it, or may actually touch her neck. He is asking for permission for mutual grooming. If there is any resistance, they will move apart and go about their own business. Look, it’s Prince & Lexie!
So what does this mean for you? When you go to touch Prince, let him sniff the back of your hand and, if he’s receptive, move your hand to his shoulder. If he bends into your hand, keep doing what you’re doing!
With a horse you know, walk up appropriately and lay a flat palm on his shoulder and wait for his move. This shows you are confident and dominant.
Now, you might be asking, dominant? I thought you said to be respectful and careful and not step over any toes, err, hooves!
It is a constant exchange of power, between horse and human. If you do not show that you can be a dominant rider, the horse will not respect you and will not listen. As with most things in life, there must be balance.
I’ll divide this section into Novice Tack & Advanced Tack. Tack, of course, being the equivalent of “Gear” in the horse world.
The difference of novice vs. advanced is that when you are first starting, the tack needed on the horse (e.g. saddle) is provided by the stables. When you are advanced enough, you will have enough know-how and be able to prefer certain saddles, for instance, over others and can buy them on your own.
As mentioned before, horseback riding comes with the dust and grime of the stables. Plus, riding is a sport. So, when just starting out, aim to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.
More specifically, the shoes you want to wear should have a heel of some sort so that you’re able to stay rooted on the stirrups (the part of the saddle that you loop your feet into).
- Gym shoes usually don’t have enough of an arch.
- Boots, of any kind, usually have a slight heel and are preferred.
Horse riding boots can be short or long but you’ll usually see riders wearing taller boots to help with gripping the saddle and horse better.
What about cowboy boots?
Glad you asked. The boots I mentioned are more in style with English riding, which we will discuss in the next section. If you’re more inclined to start Western riding, then by all means, invest in some sturdy cowboy boots!
As far as pants go, or “breeches” in the horse world, be forewarned, yoga pants or athletic bottoms typically don’t have the grip needed to stay on the horse. It’s harder than it sounds!
That’s why you’ll need to purchase some nice riding pants that have grips on the inner thigh.
Prices generally go up from there based on company/quality. Here are some typical riding pants on Amazon.com.
Both English & Western riders have the option to wear jeans as well. You’ll find more Western riders wearing jeans, on average.
Saving the best for last: the helmet! Generally, stables will have loaner helmets. However, if you don’t want to wear a helmet someone else wore (and probably sweated in), then it’s wise to purchase your own.
Why do I need a helmet?
Great question! People fall off horses. All the time. ESPECIALLY advanced riders. It’s not a big deal unless you make it one.
Horseback riding is an intense workout. You’re engaging every part of your legs, core, and back to stay balanced and centered on the horse. Be prepared; you will DEFINITELY feel it the next day…and the next…and the next.
With a horse riding helmet, you don’t want to mess around. Go with the pricier selections if it means higher quality. It’s your brain that you’re protecting!
NOTE #1: Helmets that say “For Dress Only” or “Apparel Only” = STAY AWAY. These helmets have not passed the safety standards.
NOTE #2: For the right fit, you must, absolutely, try helmets on. For this reason, you’re safer buying a helmet in person rather than online.
For finding a location by you, you can google the term “tack shop near me. ” Tack stands for any equipment or accessories used when horseback riding.
When trying on a helmet, leave the throat clasp undone. The helmet should be snug. It should NOT slide forward or backward as you tip your head to the front, back, and sideways. When you clasp it, make sure it’s not digging into your neck or choking you!
The aim is to protect the head, but not squeeze the poor life out of it . If there are certain pressure points of your head irritated by the helmet…NEXT.
Prices generally start at $60-70 for the higher quality helmet. Remember, of any other gear you buy, the helmet is THE ALPHA of the gear.
If you’re doing a more leisurely, Western-type trail ride, feel free to don a cowboy hat or even a baseball hat. But if there are any jumps involved or anything beyond a walk, the helmet is a necessity.
Below is a typical riding outfit. You can style it to your own preference, of course, especially when it comes to what you wear on top.
But this is the typical outfit for a reason; each piece of clothing has proven useful and durable in the riding process.
NOVICE TACK LIST
- Boots ~$35
- Pants ~$20
- Helmet ~$70
- Total ~ $125
These are all averages of course, but it’s good to have an estimate.
Also, horseback riding tack is known to last through wear and tear, so you can be certain that what you wear will last you awhile.
Just like the reasoning for buying pants with gripping in-seams, half chaps serve to keep you tight on the horse and prevent chafing. Plus, they warm you up in the winter!
Half chaps simply loop under the base of your boot and then you zip it up. Easy peasy!
Prices start at $40.
Polo shirts can start at $10, with long-sleeved polos usually around $30 and up.
If you go on to compete and exhibit at shows, you’ll want a show or hunt coat as well. Prices start at $80.
Here’s a nice polo shirt from Amazon.com.
Once again, there’s a lot of dust everywhere, even when you’re grooming your horse. Gloves can be used for grooming but they are also useful for gripping the reins tighter.
Can you guess what the theme is for horseback riding attire yet?
It’s all about the grip!!
You basically want to invest in some gloves that have some grip on the inside and are flexible. You don’t want your hands stiff on the reins; your horse will definitely not appreciate the pressure on the bit, which we’ll talk about in a few steps.
You don’t necessarily have to go to a horse supplier to buy gloves. But they are rather fancy-looking, don’t you think?
Prices start at $15.
Bad riders misuse their crop; they use it for punishment. Bullying your horse into submission will not work.
Good riders use their crop to give cues to their horse when the horse is just not getting something, or is hesitant.
Crops should also be the last resort. A good rider should be able to cue a horse by leg pressure, the pressure of how much they sit in their saddle, and with their voice before they use the crop. These cues will be talked about more in the next section.
Usually, simply holding a crop is enough to get the horse’s attention. If they need more encouragement, a slight tap on their shoulder should get the message across.
Here’s a crop option from Amazon.com
14. Saddle & Pad
An all-purpose saddle will do well for both jumping and flatwork (a term for walking, trotting, and cantering). START HERE.
Close-contact saddles are mainly for jumpers and English riders.
If you plan on pursuing dressage, a type of exhibitory and competitive art meant to show horse obedience and training, then you’ll need a dressage saddle.
Along with the saddle, you should buy a saddle pad to put under the saddle. The goal is to minimize chafing and discomfort for both rider and horse.
Western saddles have a few key differences: they’re larger, heavier, and they have a horn in front for working with cattle. The Western saddle covers more surface area on the horse, which spreads out your weight and allows for longer periods of riding (or herding cows if that’s your cup of tea!).
Saddle prices start at $350 . Saddle pads start at $15.
Putting something metal in one’s mouth might sound…unethical. Don’t worry, the bit is placed behind the horse’s teeth.
If the bit wasn’t there, you’d have no way of controlling its head and riding would not exist.
Each bit is unique because it has different grooves to apply different pressure in the mouth. Once you have a grasp on your horse, experimenting with different bits and the way the horse responds to you is a MUST.
Prices start at $20.
A halter goes around the nose and loops behind the ears. When you tack, you’ll attach cross-ties to either side of the halter to make sure the horse doesn’t stray away in the process.
Halters are usually provided at the stable. So are lead ropes, which we’ll talk about next.
Prices start at $25.
20. Lead Rope
- Tote: to carry all of the supplies.
- Rubber curry: an oval or circular brush you apply to places with a lot of dirt and grime.
- Body brush: to be used as the finishing touch to brush away dust. Some people invest in face brushes (only for the face) and hard-bristle brushes (for dirtier areas).
- Mane/tail comb: choose a wide-tooth comb so it won’t break as easily as you brush out the hair.
- Hoofpick: used to pick out accumulated dirt and muck in the horse’s hooves. Yes, this may also mean picking out manure!
- Sheepskin mitt: used after the last brushing for extra shine on the coat.
- Sweat scraper: a tool used after bathing (or excessive sweating) to wipe away moisture.
- Mane & tail conditioner: for the exact reason humans condition their hair.
- Footwear ~$40
- Top ~$30
- Gloves ~$15
- Crop ~$10
- Saddle ~$350
- Saddle Pad ~$15
- Bit ~$20
- Bridle ~$55
- Martingale ~$95
- Girth ~$35
- Halter ~$25
- Lead rope ~$12
- Reins ~$40
- Grooming kit ~$30
- Blanket ~$60
- Trunk ~$400 ________
- Total ~ $1232
25. Trail Riding
- It’s relaxing
- It’s another way to bond with your horse
- It’s a way to hang-out with friends in the outdoors
26. English vs. Western
English riding requires closer contact with the horse. This means a tighter grip on the reins (and the bit in the horse’s mouth) and a close-contact saddle. English riders also hold the reins in both hands.
Western riding is less or no contact. Cues come from your weight and your legs primarily. Western riders hold the reins in one hand.
It is recommended to start with English riding because it teaches you the coordination between legs, reins, and balance.
Plus, there are a lot more cues to learn in English. It is easier to switch to Western than the other way around.
With any aid, being sensitive to your horse’s reactions are vital. You will need to adjust the pressure you use and where you use it, especially in the beginning when you are first getting to know your horse. Over time, the horse will understand the cues and that’s where the human-horse communication happens.
Here are the cues, listed from natural to artificial:
- Legs: are the main force behind getting a horse to move and increase power. Applying pressure from the sides, starting with your calf muscles should do the trick. For more pressure, dig in your heels. For the stubborn horse, kicking may be necessary.
- Hands: control the head and shoulders. Beginners tend to overuse their hands. Advanced riders can often ride without a bridle by controlling the horse with only their legs and seat. Food for thought. The hands are used to restrain a horse from moving forward, or to guide the horse in a direction. In western riding, reins are in one hand and are applied to one side of the neck or the other, depending on the direction you want to go.
- Seat: is the term for how much pressure you give in the saddle. At first, the most important thing to learn is how to relax into the seat and go with the horse’s flow. Advanced riders will actually tilt their pelvis forward or back and change their center of gravity. By doing so, they can encourage the horse to go faster or slower.
- Voice: is usually used for praise and encouragement, but can also be used to discourage bad behavior. Clucking is usually used to get the horse to trot. Kissing sounds will be used to get the horse to canter. It’s never a bad idea to bond more with a horse and your voice can help soothe your horse. On the flipside, being stern and even growling at the horse can do wonders for the most stubborn ones!
Take the horse out of the stall using a halter and lead rope. Remove the lead rope and attach the crossties to either side of the halter.
Then, grab the saddle, saddle pad, bridle, and girth.
Here’s the order on which tack to put on first:
- Saddle pad
- Girth (do NOT tighten all the way)
- Bridle (clasp the nose and throat bands)
Below is a great intro video on tacking:
After you walk your horse to the arena by the reins, you will need to adjust the tack. Stirrups should only be let down once you’re in the arena or else they will swing and hurt the horse’s belly.
The girth should only be tightened in the arena. Start on the left side of the horse to tighten. Make sure you can’t fit a finger under the girth.
Walk your horse over to a mounting block and swing a leg over. Now settle in, keep your posture straight and your core engaged.
The beginning walk is necessary for both you and the horse. You’re getting ready to work together and you need to center both of yourselves. Taking deep, calming breaths is recommended.
There should be minimal tension in the reins. Your feet should be solid in the stirrups and your toes pointed up to lengthen your leg.
To “ask” for a trot is to cue the horse correctly. Clucking your tongue and applying pressure in your legs will do the trick.
A “posting” trot is used in English riding and means you rise from your seat following the rhythm of the trot. You are rising and falling with each movement of the trot.
This video shows a walk, posting trot, and canter, which we’ll get to next:
You are usually sitting deeper in your seat for a canter and are matching the horse’s movements with your own rolling of the body.
Asking for a canter involves more leg pressure and even kicking sometimes. Kissing sounds can also be encouraging.
Like with all riding, your balance is vital. Your shoulders should be rolled back, or else you’ll tip forward too much and land on the horse’s neck.
See the video above for canter technique.
Due to the balance required and nearly all muscle groups involved, your body awareness will increase exponentially! You are essentially learning how to move your body to make another living thing move its body.
Like I mentioned in the first section, a horse is a special being. Not only are they used for therapy, but their presence is often calming and pleasing to be around.
Lastly, because you are achieving mastery over such a large animal, you can be certain that you’ll be more self-confident yet sensitive to the moods around you, also known as empathy.
After all, you are making a horse trust you by respecting its space and learning whether it is receptive to you or not.
And this is just the iceberg! Happy riding!
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.