Some riding instructors will tell you that the aim of horseback riding is to keep the horse between you and the ground. However, there’s a bit more to riding a horse than that.
We’ve gone over all the details you need to know to learn how to ride a horse.
We cover everything, from safety considerations to how to prepare your horse for riding. We also share some helpful tips on how to succeed in your horse riding journey.
6 Steps to Riding a Horse
Step One: Saddle the Horse Correctly (Tack Up)
Ensure the bridle and saddle fit the horse comfortably. The saddle should rest two fingers behind the horse’s shoulder, with the reins being long enough to reach over the horse’s mane to rest on their withers.
Step Two: Mounting the Horse for the First Time
With the horse fully saddled, step up to the horse, raising your left foot and placing the toes in the left stirrup. Push off with your right leg, rising along the horse’s left side as you swing your right leg over the saddle seat.
While mounting it is a good idea to grab the reins and a handful of the horse’s mane to help you balance and go with the horse if they should walk off. Once your seat is resting on the saddle, place your right foot in the right stirrup.
Allow your legs to hang softly around the horse’s sides. Hold the reins loosely in one hand for Western-style riding, or hold the reins in two hands for English riding. Be sure to apply as little pressure to the horse’s mouth as possible while you find your balance.
Step Three: Adjusting to Movement
When the horse begins to move forward it will feel strange to both the horse and rider. Remain calm as horses are prey animals, and if you are panicked, your horse may bolt with you.
As a beginner rider be sure to choose a horse that is safe to ride. Seek the guidance of a more experienced rider or take lessons with a qualified trainer to help you find your saddle seat and establish your balance.
To find your balance, allow your body to lean slightly forward, then let your body tilt backward as you find the center point of the saddle. Next, sway gently from side to side, while the horse is moving. This will help you realize the importance of your feet in holding you up.
Avoid holding onto the saddle horn as this will weaken your center of gravity. Keep your eyes focused between the horse’s ears to prevent your head from dipping, which can cause you to fall from the horse.
As the horse moves, feel the nodding movement of the horse’s head.
Step Four: Movement Control
Now the horse is moving along nicely in a walk, practice bringing the horse to a stop. Gently pull backward on the reins, while you gently squeeze the left rein with your left hand. This will make the horse slow down.
Other riding skills you should develop include turning the horse and retaining good core strength to keep you in the saddle. To turn the horse, sit deep in the saddle, pushing your seat bones into the saddle seat.
Signal the horse to turn to the left by gently sponging on the left rein while at the same time, pressing into the horse’s rump with the opposite leg. The horse will bend away from your leg pressure. This will encourage the horse to step away from your leg, turning their body to the left.
Add to this aid by leaning slightly forward towards the direction you are going. The horse will step under you as a result.
Riding horses isn’t simply about a kick and a pull while you yell ‘yeehaw’. It’s about helping the horse, learning about their movement, and letting them learn about your movement.
To turn, you can also use neck reining. This is where you combine gently squeezing the left rein with laying the right rein across the horse’s neck to push the horse’s head to the left.
Experienced riders will use more refined aids to ask their horse to turn, stop, or go, but you have to start learning somewhere. Each horse is also different, and while some horses will stop at ‘whoa’, others will require gently pulling the reins to stop.
Step Five: Learning the Gaits
A horse has several gaits or ways of movement.
The easiest to sit is the walk, where the horse moves slowly and sways their body rhythmically. Sitting the walk well leads to the other gaits. Keep your body loose and let your hips move with the movement of your horse.
The next gait is the trot. This two-beat gait averages around 8 miles per hour, it’s fairly slow. Yet it can be really difficult to sit. While some horses have really smooth trots, other horses have bouncy movements in the trot, making these horses unsuitable for beginner riders.
The horseback rider needs to learn how to sit each stride of the trot gait. A trot requires the most practice as you will have to rise to the trot with each stride, sitting in between each stride. Proper boots are really handy here as they help keep the rider’s feet securely anchored in the stirrups.
Be sure to keep the reins loose to prevent hanging on the horse’s mouth. The rider needs to use their core strength to rise, and also to prevent themselves from flopping down on the horse’s back or over the horse’s neck.
A faster gait is the canter. It is usually a three beat movement, which has a rising, suspension, and landing phase. A deep seat will help you remain balanced during the canter.
To signal a canter to the right, place your left leg against the horse’s left side slightly behind the girth. This will signal the horse which leg to start their canter with. For a canter to the left, use the opposite leg. To aid in the transition to a canter, the rider may use their left hand to sponge the horse’s head to bend to the left.
When cantering for the first time, try not to lean forward as this can cause the horse to run into the canter, and it can upset your balance, leading to a fall.
Step Six: Dismounting
After a ride the rider needs to dismount from the horse. This can be challenging as your legs may feel like jello at this stage. With a Western saddle, you can hold onto the saddle horn to help you stay upright and not fall as you swing your right leg over the horse.
In both English and Western riding, it is advisable to remove your left foot from the left stirrup before you start to swing off the horse.
Your horse could decide to take off or run while you are trying to get your left foot free from the stirrup. Always remove your foot from the stirrup before hopping off the horse.
Preparing For Your First Horse Riding Lessons
Before you get on a horse, you should prepare yourself for the ride. This means getting the right attire, footwear, and mindset.
For starters, be sure to wear comfortable but flexible riding clothes. While you can hop on in a pair of jeans, a set of riding jodhs will be much more appropriate. These riding pants will also help provide extra grip along the saddle pad and saddle sides, keeping you on the horse better.
Also look after your feet. Wear boots with a round toe and a half-inch heel. This will ensure you can comfortably get a grip on the stirrups and prevent your foot sliding over the treads of the stirrups and getting tangled.
The next item on your rider checklist should be a riding helmet to ensure that if you do fall off (and we all do at some point), you don’t suffer serious injuries. Some riding schools will insist that their new riders wear riding helmets.
What To Expect From Your First Riding Lesson
Surprisingly, some riding instructors don’t let their students even get on a horse for their first lesson. Instead, the first lesson is spent learning some safety precautions, getting to know the horse, and working on basic grooming and posture principles.
Your first ridden lesson will usually happen in the confines of a round pen or arena. It is not about galloping off into the sunset, but rather about learning to sit comfortably in the saddle and learn to follow the horse’s natural movement.
The instructor may walk next to the horse and if you progress to the faster gaits, your instructor may run next to you as the horse trots along in a straight line.
Future Riding Lessons
Follow up riding lessons will be more challenging, whether you are learning about riding Western style or perfecting the trot like the English riders who compete on TV.
There will be some differences between how Western riders ride and how an English riding school might teach you. In the end, both styles are about learning about the horse’s movements and how to sit a horse well.
Your riding lessons will include how to make a horse stop and how to turn a horse. In the end, you should be confident enough to go riding bareback, out on a trail ride, or even compete in shows.
Horse Riding Tips
When learning how to ride a horse, it is important to listen to the advice of an experienced rider or to attend a riding school for lessons. The following tips will also help you gain confidence and keep you safely on your horse.
In Western Riding
The idea of Western riding is to ride comfortably in a Western saddle where you can loop the reins around the saddle horn or hold onto the horn when your horse is becoming a bit worked up.
- Lean slightly forward to make the horse move off or apply leg pressure to the horse’s sides but don’t kick unless it’s necessary.
- You can hold onto the saddle horn for stability and hold the loose reins in one hand.
- Neck reining is more preferred by most horses, so try signaling a turn by using the reins across the horse’s neck.
- Use sound to urge the horse to move forward and also to stop.
In English Riding
Mostly used for showing and competing in sports such as dressage, jumping, and eventing, English riding is about refined communication with your horse.
- Ride with the reins in both hands, holding the reins loose enough to feel the horse’s mouth as a slight pressure on the other end.
- Lean forward when going uphill on trail rides, and lean slightly backward when going down hills.
- Gently pull the reins to stop, or fix the reins in position, letting the horse feel the resistance to make them stop.
- When you ride a horse, think of it as a communication process: ask, listen, receive.
- When riding horses in the English style, always make sure there is a straight line from the bit to your elbows.
General Horse Riding Tips
Whether riding English or Western, you should keep in mind that horseriding is supposed to be safe as you want to ride tomorrow again. Learning about your horse will help you remain safe as you build a partnership.
- Learning how to ride a horse is a dangerous sport, and you should take care to wear protective clothes and wear proper boots that are suited to horseback riding.
- Develop a deep seat by sitting with your legs long and at the same time, gently hug your horse’s sides with your legs.
- Spend as much time on the horse learning about riding and the horse’s natural movements.
- Each horse is different, so ride the horse you’re on, not the horse you rode yesterday.
When You Get Into Trouble With a Run-Away Horse
While you may want this to never happen with you, at some point, you will be on a run-away horse as horses are prey animals and it comes naturally to them to flee.
- When a horse runs away with you, remain calm, sit deep, keep your head up, and your heels down.
- Apply leg pressure behind the horse’s shoulders, helping them understand you want them to stop.
- Remember, as the horseback rider, you are in control and need to clearly ask for what you want from the horse.
- If you are in a Western saddle, sit back, hold the saddle horn, and gently pull back on the reins to get the horse to stop.
What To Do When Jumping With A Horse
While out horseback riding, your horse may decide to jump across a river or a log with you. Jumping is scary as you really feel the power of a horse. Both the horse and rider need to be in balance to jump successfully.
- Lean slightly forward as your horse prepares to jump.
- Keep your hands still on the reins to not pull on your horse’s mouth.
- In a Western saddle you can keep your hand on the saddle horn to help you go with the horse’s movement.
- Western riders tend to rely on the horse’s power to cross obstacles in a jump while English riders lean forward, following the horse’s movement, scooping the energy of the horse with the reins as they jump.
- When landing, be sure to use leg pressure to keep your seat out of the saddle and not flop down onto the horse’s spine.
- If a horse is reluctant to jump, use your legs to gently squeeze the horse’s sides.
Learning to ride a horse is not easy. It is definitely more involved than just sitting on the horse’s back. All horses are different, but it is important to choose a horse that is safe to ride when you are still learning. A horse learning to be ridden is a bad choice for a beginner rider.