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August 11, 2008 | | Comments 0

Riding Horses Bareback to Become a Better Horseman

Riding Bareback

Written by: Sarha Williams

For centuries, people across the globe have created relationships with horses for various reasons. In ancient times, horses provided valuable means for transportation, farming, and labor, and in modern times, people have began to appreciate horses for more recreational purposes. Still, one thing has remained constant throughout the ages, a good horseman is a person who understands both the psychology and physiology of their equine partner, and bareback riding is one of the best ways to achieve this understanding.

My first introduction to bareback riding came when I was just eight years old. I had been riding for almost two years, but had been taught primarily by my father on a small pony that I had gotten for my sixth birthday. From the beginning, I was a naturally good rider, but as I got older, I became interested in riding as a sport, and thus began taking riding lessons. My first instructor was an older lady of American Indian descent, who had more wisdom and knowledge about horses than I could ever hope to learn. I was fascinated by learning everything she had to teach from the very first lesson. When I arrived for my second riding lesson and headed for the tack room to retrieve my saddle, she informed me that we would be riding bareback.

It was the same week after week, and even though I fumbled in the beginning I eventually learned some priceless skills. The first thing that was improved was my balance. I learned to ride with a more centered body that was actually connected to the horse instead of simply “sitting on top” of it. Through subtle movements and changes in the muscles beneath my seat and legs, I began to learn when my horse was anxious, excited, frustrated, or comfortable. I also learned to actually “feel” whether or not my horse was on the correct lead at the canter, instead of having to look down. I learned to sit the trot and to post the trot, and even how to jump properly without a saddle.

As I grew and got more involved in equine sports, I would often draw upon the things that I learned from the bareback lessons. When I started to show Arabian Reining horses when I was 13 years old, I can remember learning how to properly sit when my horse was “sliding”. It was quite difficult in the beginning, but I started to practice bareback, and once I got in sync with my horse’s movement everything else seemed to come naturally. Some years later I moved on to riding Dressage, where the focus is on proper communication through body language, and having a foundation that was built around really “feeling” my horse’s movement made it quite easy for me to relate to the techniques necessary to perform many of the “high school” maneuvers. So, from Western to English, from extreme to extreme, bareback riding gave me and edge.

Now I am the horse trainer, with 15 years of experience under my belt. All of my young students and novice riders, and even some experienced riders who are looking to gain more insight in to how to become better in the saddle, go through at least a month of bareback riding instruction. The first thing that I stress to my students is the necessity of proper communication between horse and rider, which doesn’t come from the hands or other “aids”, but from the rider’s body. A good rider should be able to communicate with his horse without anyone being able to “see” what he is asking…the basis of this is best learned through bareback instruction.

The best way to begin learning through bareback riding is with the help of another responsible horseman or a trainer. You should start out with a horse that has easy and comfortable gaits, so that you can gain your confidence without having to worry about a horse that is too “forward” or too “bouncy”. I like to start students off on the lunge-line so that they can focus the majority of their concentration on feeling the rhythm of the horse and learning to control their own bodies without having to worry about directing the horse.

Riding Bareback Partner

No matter how experienced of a rider you are when using a saddle, you must start from the beginning…that means with the walk. Balance is gained through “muscle memory”, and once your body is accustomed to being on a horse without a saddle your balance will improve. Move forward slowly with all of the gaits, until you can comfortably walk, trot and canter your horse without using your reins or gripping your legs for stability. Your body should be relaxed, and you should concentrate on the movement and rhythm of your horse. When you are able to do this comfortably, you can move on to some more advanced techniques, including riding without reins, working over obstacles (poles and cavaletti), etc.

One of my favorite exercises when riding bareback involves riding without reins as well. Students are put on a lunge-line and reins are tied in a knot, so that they can be grabbed by the rider if necessary for safety, but so that they won’t get in the way. The rider then puts his or her arms out to the sides as though they are wings. This can be done at each gait, and is the best way to teach a rider to balance without using hands (the worst mistake that a rider can make is to balance off of the reins, which is essentially off of their horse’s mouth).

Once you have mastered riding “with wings”, you can move on to exercises that require you to move your body while maintaining your balance. I often ask my more advanced students to start with their “wings” and move to “dips”. Riders bend at the waist, maintaining proper leg position, and attempt to touch their toes. In addition to being beneficial to balance, this will also strengthen the core muscles of the body, which will aid in maintaining proper body position. You must be careful when doing this exercise, as you can easily lose your balance. It’s best to begin slowly at the walk and to do all movements slowly and in a controlled fashion.

Perhaps the best feeling in the world is going back to riding in a saddle after spending time learning to balance without one. No matter what equine sport you are in to, or whether you are simply interested in riding for pleasure, riding bareback will improve your posture and positioning. Additionally, it is a tool that can be used frequently to “maintain” your balance and skill level. Ideally, I like my students to ride bareback for at least one hour per week in order to make the most out of what they have learned.

Mastering the art of riding bareback will make you a better rider. You will become a rider who can “feel” what your horse is trying to tell you instead of having to figure it out from his actions or behaviors. You will have better balance and you will be more fit. Best of all, you will be learning things about your horse that will give you insight many people don’t have.

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