Bareback Riding


bareback riding

Do you remember when you were a kid with your first horse or pony? Do you remember when you would gallop away, bareback riding across the field, down the trail, or even go swimming in the river? As I travel across the United States doing expos and clinics, I hear those types of stories time and again. And they almost always end with: “I wish I could still ride like that. I don’t know what happened.”

Excuses, excuses
After the above statement, the usual excuses then follow:

“I am not as young as I used to be.”
“I don’t bounce as well.”
“I can’t afford to get hurt.”
“I just don’t have the balance.”
“My horse isn’t calm enough.”

While these are all valid, the main reason adults don’t engage in bareback riding, and seemingly do not have the balance to do it anymore, is that they have lost the ability to use their core muscles. Core muscles are the ones inside your body that stabilize you while you stand, bend and reach. They give you the ability to balance your body better.

Oh, to be young again
As a kid you ran, jumped, twisted, turned, swung from monkey bars, kicked balls, played sports, sat on the floor instead of the chair, ran up and down stairs, and jumped through mud puddles. All those things strengthened your core muscles and improved the balance needed for bareback riding. You weighed less than you do now, of course, but what was really important was that your core muscle strength was at a much higher ratio to your body weight than it is now.

As an adult, you probably do not run and jump (for any particular reason, anyhow), swing from monkey bars, run up and down the stairs, etc. You might exercise on a machine for an hour, but it’s not the same and does not build the core muscles the way freeform exercises do. Neither does jogging down the road. While exercising is great, you need to do more than just ride a bike, walk on the treadmill, or do a few sit-ups or crunches. For bareback riding to be successful, you need to exercise your core.

Core exercises
Exercising your core and balance comes from doing freeform exercises, including weightlifting (as long as you do not use machines). There is a big difference between lifting a weight that is balanced by a machine, and lifting the same “free” weight. As you lift the free weight (barbell or dumbbell), your core muscles have to stabilize your body to balance the movement. Doing calisthenics such as jumping jacks, bend and reach, twists, squat thrusts, push-ups, and so on all help to build core strength and balance. Yoga and Pilates are also good, but don’t forget to do some fast exercises too, as your body needs to be able to keep up with the movement of the horse while bareback riding.

Get up and ride!
As with any other sport, exercise only does so much good, and then it is time to actually participate in the sport. It would be silly to believe that you are going to improve your bareback riding balance through exercise only. You can’t expect to improve your balance very much if you are sitting in a saddle with your feet in stirrups, using them to compensate every time you are off balance. At the Spanish riding school, they ride for months without stirrups to learn balance.

Selecting the right equipment
When it comes to bareback riding, you need to have a bareback pad for your horse’s benefit, and your own. Many people think that riding completely bareback is better for both, but it isn’t. When you ride without a pad, your seat bones start to create pressure points, because they continuously work in the same area on your horse’s back. You don’t notice it because you sit on the horse’s soft muscle tissue. And no, it really doesn’t matter how much “padding” you have on your backside – the pressure still builds up and hurts the horse over time.

What to look for in a bareback pad:

• A good bareback riding pad needs to have a breathable, non-slip surface that contacts the horse. It is very difficult for you to work on your balance if your pad is slipping around. Cheap materials such as canvas and fleece slide all over. If your pad slips and you have to shift to get it back in place, your horse also has to shift to rebalance what you are doing, which in turn throws you off balance.

• A suede-covered pad does the best job of providing grip for you. Horse hair is slick, and a suede pad can help keep you from sliding around.

• A pad that allows the girth buckles to be low on the horse’s side, instead of where your leg makes contact, is important for your comfort.

My personal pad (www.horsethink.com) has these features, and has enabled me to start three colts without worrying about it slipping around.

Getting started
To make your bareback riding experience successful you will need the following:

• A horse that is relatively calm.
• A good friend (with the same qualities as the horse, preferably).
• A good bareback pad.
• A good lead rope.

 

Eight steps to bareback riding

1. Warm your horse up in your usual manner while he is wearing the bareback pad. If he is used to wearing a saddle, the pad should not cause any concern.

2. Leave the halter and lead on the horse, and put the bridle on.

3. Mount up. You can do this in a couple of ways: one is to use a mounting block, and the other is to use assistance from your friend (by way of a “leg up”).

4. When you mount up, your friend should have the lead rope and you should take the reins, as well as hold onto the pad’s handle.

5. Once you are up there, sit still for a bit.

6. After a few minutes, let your friend lead you around the arena. Have her lead you in straight lines. Do not let her lunge you on the end of a lunge line – that is the worst method for trying to learn your balance. A horse traveling in a circle constantly throws your balance to the outside of the circle, and you have to fight centrifugal force to stay centered.

7. Once you have done a long straight line, turn 90º and do another straight line. Continue to have your friend lead you for about 20 minutes (this is why you need a calm, patient friend!). This is usually enough to get you relaxed and let your body flow.

8. While your friend is leading you, do not steer the horse. The only reason that you have the reins is in case something happens and you need to stop the horse. During the 20 minutes of leading you do not need to do anything but concentrate on the movement of the horse, and how the horse moves you. Sit there relaxed, and think of relaxing things. The object of this exercise is to help you develop balance, but also to work on the core muscles used in riding.

Riding on your own
Start bareback riding by yourself at the walk only. Work on the walk for two or three weeks so that you can build your core muscles while working on your balance. After that you can work on the trot. Don’t be afraid to hang onto the handle attached to your bareback pad. There is no prize for falling off, so hanging on is perfectly fine while you learn your balance.

When you are ready, try the canter by going a short distance in a round pen or arena. Once you are proficient, you can ride bareback wherever you want, including the trails.

The secret to improvement
The real secret is to do a little at a time, have patience, quit early, and use a good bareback pad. Take trotting for instance; you are better off to trot ten correct, balanced strides, than 50 strides flopping all over the back of your horse. The more you bounce around, the harder it is for your horse to travel smoothly because you are hurting his back. And once you start bouncing, it is almost impossible to get back into the correct rhythm. If this happens, stop, get rebalanced, calm your horse, and try again.

You must have patience. Most of you only ride one or two times a week. Understand that practicing for 20 minutes twice a week means it will take awhile before you see improvement. The good news is that you can ride for 20 minutes using the bareback pad, and then saddle up and go for your trail ride if you want. Most of all, have fun, and don’t make it too much like work. Safe rides!


Scot Hansen is a retired Mounted Police Officer who travels throughout the U.S. giving clinics and performing at many major horse expos. His experience in training police horses is reflected in his horsemanship and sensory training clinics. Scot created an award-winning DVD entitled Self Defense For Trail Riders that teaches women about safety while riding alone, and has been interviewed on RFD TV and Horse City TV . To see all his training DVD s and clinic schedule, visit www.horsethink.com.

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