Benefits of Bareback Riding

This is an article I have on Horseman’s U.com, but it remains one of the most popular articles so I thought I’d post it here.

Learning to ride without a saddle has multiple benefits

Bareback riding (without the saddle) was always something kids did. You grabbed your pony from the field, hopped on and away you went.

Today we barely function without saddles. While saddles help us look pretty or be more functional, bareback riding has many benefits for both posture AND confidence.

Bareback riding allows you to feel the true movement of the horse, and sends the rider information that is imperative for higher training. It is this very idea that correlates to English saddles having as little leather between the horse and rider as possible, especially in dressage saddles, where the flaps are thin and flexible.

This style is not particular to any discipline, and all disciplines and levels of riders can benefit from it. I ride bareback one day a week, and it not only improves my riding performance, but also tends to tune up the horse as well, as he/she is able to feel softer, subtle cues instantly, without the interference of leather.

Bareback also allows the rider to improve balance, strength, posture, flexibility and a side benefit of added confidence. As the horse moves, you are able to feel the muscle groups respond, and you gain a sense of where the horses’ feet are placed in each movement. Part of being a good horseman is the ability to connect with the horses body and feet. Many great riders will tell you that they feel as if they become one, almost like a centaur.

Riders are athletes. Regardless of the amount of riding you do, you need strong muscle groups. And strong muscles must stretch to be fully functional. Stretching while riding bareback gives you more room to move and gives the rider a better sense of balance. It cannot be done while your legs are glued to the horses’ sides. You must be free of tension, sitting with balance and freedom.

Longeing
This is a great way to begin, and remember to use a safe horse! Some people like to use the reins, but I find it best to tie off any equipment and just concentrate. Should the horse make any movements that are uncomfortable or alarm you, get off. Too many accidents happen because the rider stays aboard. If you find the horse may be quiet but not suitable while longeing, have the handler walk you around. Also, perform this within the confines of a roundpen, arena or any fenced area with softer ground. Never push the experience with an unsuitable horse. And wear a helmet! Many falls will dump you very close to the horses’ feet.

A great exercise that will prepare you for emergencies and give you better coordination is to practice dismounting. While walking, place your hands on the horses’ neck, push up and swing your leg over and jump down. If you do this enough times, you will remember it instinctively when you really need to dismount in a hurry. If the horse stops when being dismounted, reward him. You want to teach the horse to stop in case you fall off.

The weight (fat) of the horse will either provide comfort or be a hindrance. Thin horses provide a direct relation to the muscles, while chubbier horses provide comfort. Both will give you results, and while the middleweight horse may be best, if you have access to different body types you will only improve your learning. Overweight horses do tend to throw the legs out improperly, and you will lose the truer sense of balance, so use the chubby horse less frequently.

When you first start out on the line at a walk, concentrate on feeling balance. Are you tipping to one side? Try shifting your weight until you feel centered. It also teaches you how to make contact with your seat bones. Try to ‘match’ the movements of the horse, as opposed to being stiff and tight. While walking, do stop/walk transitions, again ‘feeling’ the legs beneath you and the muscles around you.

If you have a quiet horse, close your eyes and ‘feel’ – this practice will fast-track information to the brain, and if you do this regularly, you will find your improvements will come faster.

The trot and canter
Move slowly, at your own pace through the gaits. Never let anyone move you faster than you are comfortable, as you may lose all confidence and never ride again.

Often when you begin the trot, you will be thrown forward and back, sending mixed signals to the horse. If you work consistently, your balance will improve faster than the horse can be damaged. Remember, everything you do with your horse is training, even trying to ride bareback! Perfect practice makes perfect.

Speeding up
If you find the horse trots slowly in a saddle, but speeds up bareback, it is likely because you are gripping and moving your legs around and back. If that is the case, go back to the walk and regain balance by stretching and doing more exercises. Whenever you have a problem, go back to the slower gaits and work it out there.

Don’t use the reins to balance
Another problem that comes up with bareback riding is the use of the reins for balance. If you start to lose balance, grab the mane instead of the horses’ mouth. A horses’ mouth is a sacred place that should never know abuse, so try not to get into the habit of reaching for the reins.

Jumping Bareback
Jumping allows you to experience one of the more thrilling aspects of riding without a saddle. Before you venture into this, make sure the horse is capable and confident over small fences and poles. Start with ground poles or Cavaletti, moving from a single pole and gradually adding as you gain confidence. You can eventually do gymnastics on the longe line, but if you have progressed enough to begin jumping, you may want to ride free of the longe line.

Confidence
One of the best things you will walk away with is added confidence. Bareback riding involves a level of trust between you and the horse that riding in a saddle won’t teach as deeply. There is a sense of freedom, oneness and an exhilaration that’s hard to equal in any other sport. As you progress, you will find that you begin to learn balance intuitively, and I always state that in order to ride really well, you need to be able to move intuitively as opposed to mechanically. The only way to achieve this is to get out there and keep doing it. It’s like riding a bike: once you learn it’s with you forever.

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2 responses to “Benefits of Bareback Riding

  1. I totally agree!!! I had to learn how to ride bareback because mum couldn’t afford to buy me a saddle right away. I used to enter and win bareback equitation classes when I was still showing. My big 15.3 hh quarter horse gelding used to show the judge just how good I was and would squeal, round his back and rock. LOL There was only one time I didn’t win a class and that was because the judge made us dismount and remount. Yeah, I’m 5′ tall, horse was 15.3 hh and it didn’t happen. I had to get the ring stewart to give me a leg up, so because of that I placed 3rd or 4th.

    Just for future reference, I looked it up in the CEF rule book and dismounting and mounting should not have been a placing issue. It was against the rules to ask for it to be done. oh well!! We still had fun!

    • Ha ha Susan, I had friends like you who were 5 foot nothing and dreaded being asked to mount and dismount. I think they asked us this, only if there was someone shorter in the lineup! I remember a squealing horse when I rode in the bareback classes. Do you think the judges and the horses had a secret pact going? What was also funny were the kids who were tall enough but had really fat horses. They would jump up and roll off the other side! We had so much fun then.

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