Horseback riding has been a popular activity throughout human history. Archaeologists believe that man first rode horses sometime around 4500 B.C., though there is some evidence to suggest that we were riding as far back as 6000 B.C.
It’s been a sport, a hobby, and a vital means of transportation that helped shape our modern world. And a wide spate of equestrian sports helps to keep that tradition alive today.
But many would-be riders don’t grow up in proximity to horses, and the thought of learning how to ride can seem daunting to beginners. And even veteran riders can sometimes stand to brush up on the basics.
So whether you’re going trail riding for the umpteenth time or are a novice just learning the ropes, we’ve compiled this list of tips to help new riders have a safe and fun experience on your next outing.
1. Always Greet Your Horse
Though much of the history of horseback riding centers on their use as transportation and labor, it’s vital to never forget that horses are living animals that can have wildly different personalities. Even well-trained horses can sometimes get skittish around new people, which is why the polite thing to do is to give them a proper greeting when you’re first introduced.
You can do this by what’s called the horseman’s handshake. You stand a close but respectable distance from the horse, extend out your arm with your palm facing outward an offer it to them to smell. Wait for them to touch their nose to your palm, and the handshake is accepted.
It’s much the same idea as greeting an unfamiliar pet for the first time. It gives the animal a chance to settle down and get acclimated to your presence.
2. Mount Up With Confidence
Having greeted your horse, now it’s time to mount up. And this is where a lot of novice riders struggle their first couple of times.
Horses are sensitive to body language, and if you approach your mount nervously it could spook them as well. That’s why it’s important to approach them confidently, even if you don’t especially feel it.
Horses are typically trained to be mounted from the left side, for beginners, you can usually expect your guide to be holding your horse’s head while you mount. So, just fit your left foot into the stirrup, hold the reins with your left hand, and propel yourself up with your right leg.
Try to move as smoothly as possible. You can rest your hands on your horse for balance, but avoid pushing down on them as this could hurt them.
3. Sit-Up Straight and Relaxed
Nevermind anything you might have seen at the racetrack or in a western movie; you’re not a professional rider yet and you won’t be tacking your horse full-tilt on your first ride.
Instead, you’ll want to sit up straight and tall with your back relaxed. Hold the reins gently, and avoid pulling too hard to keep from hurting your horse.
Moving your horse is a matter of gently guiding them with the reins. To go to the right, gently move the right rein in that direction in a similar motion as opening a door. To go to the left, just do the same with the left side. And stop by gently pulling back and pushing your heels down.
4. Avoid Raising Up Your Hands
Speaking of reins, one common mistake beginners make is raising up their hands and extending their elbows while riding.
Sticking out our hands or arms is an instinctive response whenever we feel insecure about our balance. However, this would cause you to leave the reins too long and give you almost no control over your horse.
Instead, keep your hands around hip-level, and rely on your core and learn to follow your horse’s movements to maintain balance. And avoid holding on to the saddlehorn for balance. It’s okay to hold on to it, but relying on it as the basis for keeping balanced will put you in a poor position to stay upright if you need to.
5. Don’t Grip Tightly With Your Legs
Riding is about balance, and as such your muscles will be active to help maintain that balance. What this should mean, though, is using your legs to grip the sides of your horse.
For one thing, this will fatigue you far faster than if you were riding properly. And for another, your horse might think you’re telling it to speed up, which is an easy way for accidents to happen if you’re not prepared for it. Tension in your body can also affect your horse’s attitude, making them more difficult to keep control of.
6. Keep Your Eyes on the Trail
Many beginners make the same mistake that they did when they first learned how to ride a bike. Instead of watching where they’re going, they end up looking downwards at their horse.
Even going at a modest clip, you never want to lose sight of the trail. An easy fix for this is to use your horse’s ears as a visual marker for where you’re going. If you’re looking straight through them while keeping proper posture, you should be fine.
7. Don’t Forget to Breathe
When learning a new skill, it’s common to find yourself holding your breath while you focus. Especially when the task is something like riding where you’re focusing on keeping your muscles engaged so that you can balance.
Even experienced riders can catch themselves doing this from time-to-time. To fix it, try humming a simple tune or taking breaths in time with your horse’s steps.
Get Ready for Your Horseback Riding Adventure
Humans and horses have lived and worked together for millennia, and it feels like there is an inextricable bond between our two species. That’s why even in a time when trains, planes, and automobiles are ubiquitous, people are still drawn to the venerable pleasure of horseback riding.
These tips are just the jumping-off point; there’s far more to learn about the sport. To take your next step in becoming a skilled rider, check out our riding lessons for beginners of all ages.