If you’ve just started horseback riding lessons and feel overwhelmed over the number of things you don’t know, don’t worry. At some point, we’ve all been there. Being a beginner horseback rider comes with its challenges, but it’s also an integral part of becoming a true equestrian.
By listening to your instructors and researching more about horses, you may start to get a better grasp of the horse world. It’s important to recognize the areas you need to improve in and do what is necessary to overcome these obstacles.
Without further ado, here are 15 tips for beginner horseback riders to improve your riding:
First and foremost, don’t ever be afraid to ask you horseback riding instructor questions. A good instructor will welcome questions from every level of rider; if you have an instructor that doesn’t like questions, then you need to find a different one.
A good instructor wants to communicate with you thoroughly and help you to understand what you’re asking of the horse. It can be frustrating when the instructor is telling you to do something, but you don’t understand why. By asking questions, you may be able to receive the full picture of what you’re trying to do as a rider.
As a horseback rider, constructive criticism should be welcome. It’s the only way to know what you’re doing wrong and how you can correct it. It is perfectly okay to ask your riding instructor to critique you and to let you know where you can improve.
Different people have different learning styles; one explanation can make perfect sense to someone but no sense to someone else. If you’re having trouble understanding what your instructor is asking you to do, ask them to clarify or explain it a different way.
Recognize a Horse’s Body Language and What it Means
Recognizing a horse’s body language and understanding what it means will help you to remain safe around horses. Whenever there’s an incident of someone without any equine knowledge getting injured around a horse, it’s usually because that person failed to recognize what the horse was telling them through body language.
Horses can’t speak, so they’re limited to communicating with you through body language. This will include the movement of the ears, the swishing of a tail, stopping of hooves, and looking at you a specific way.
If a horse’s ears look as if they’ve been pinned to the back of the horse’s head, this means that the horse is mad. If their ears are up and pointed to you, that means that the horse is paying attention to you.
A tail swish can signal annoyance while hooves pawing the ground can signal boredom. If a horse is wide-eyed and nostrils flared, then they’re probably nervous or anxious. If their eyes are half-closed while they chew their teeth together, then they’re relaxed and comfortable.
Research Proper Tack Placement
When you first start riding, it can be challenging to figure out how the tack is supposed to go on the horse. There are so many different tack pieces to remember: you have the bridle, girth, saddle pad, and saddle. Each piece has specific rules on how and where it should go on the horse.
The saddle pad will go over the horse’s back and slightly over the withers. It’s important to make sure that your saddle pad stays even on both sides as to not create any tugging on the horse’s back.
An English saddle pad will usually have a tag towards the front-end of the pad. If not, another way to tell which part is the front of the pad is by the billet straps. The end with the billet straps, two nylon velcro straps on either side of the blanket, will be the front of the pad.
Make sure that the end of the pad with the tag and the billet straps are pointed towards the horse’s head.
The saddle will go over the saddle pad. Make sure that no part of the saddle goes over the saddle pad. This can cause pinching and discomfort for your horse.
The saddle should be placed on the horse’s back just behind the withers. The saddle’s placement should not interfere with the movement of the horse’s shoulders.
Once you place the saddle on the horse, be sure to pull the front of the saddle pad up and away from the horse’s withers so the pad won’t rub. You can also take the saddle pad’s billet straps and attach them to the billets on the saddle. (the billets are the straps you hook the girth too.)
The next piece of tack to go on the horse will be the girth. The girth goes around the horse to hold the saddle in place. It’s important that the girth be not too far back and not too far forward on the horse.
A good way to judge the proper placement for the girth is to measure four inches from your horse’s elbow. Wherever the four inches lands should be where your girth is centered in placement.
When attaching the girth to an English saddle, attach the non-elastic end to the right side of the saddle. Next, go to the left side of the horse to tighten the girth up. The elastic end of the girth should be on this side. The girth should be tight enough so that you can only fit four fingers between the horse’s side and the girth.
Bridles can seem very confusing because of all the separate straps and parts. With the English bridle, you’ll have a bit that goes in the horse’s mouth, a browband that crosses over the forelock, a throat latch that goes under the horse’s jaw, and a noseband that goes around the horse’s nose.
The first step to putting the bridle on is to hold the bridle in both hands. The bit will go in the horse’s mouth first. Sometimes, you may need to stick your thumb in the horse’s mouth to get them to open and take the bit.
Once the bit is in the mouth, you can pull the bridle over the horse’s ears. Make sure that the browband stays in front of the ears over the forelock. Once the bridle is over the ears, you can fasten all the other straps.
The throat latch should be loose enough to allow four fingers in between the jaw and the traps. A noseband should be tight enough to allow one finger through.
Your bridle should be tight enough so that there should be two wrinkles at the corner of your horse’s mouth. If this isn’t the case, you can adjust the cheek straps on either side of the bridle.
A great way to properly learn how to tack up a horse is to watch videos on tacking up. This way, you’ll get to see how the tack is placed on the horse. This will also give you something to work on between riding lessons.
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Work on Balance
Balance is an important aspect of horseback riding. As a rider, you staying on a horse should not be dependent on stirrups, a comfy saddle, or reins. Instead, it should be dependent on the balance that you have on a horse.
When you first start riding, you may feel like you bounce all over the place. When the horse trots, you’ll bounce left and then you’ll bounce right. You may feel that if the horse made one wrong move, you’d be thrown off balance and fall off.
There are a few great exercises you can do to help yourself gain balance on the horse. The first one is simply to get a feel for the rhythm of your horse’s gaits. Take time to focus on how the horse is moving under you. Recognizing and being familiar with these movements will help you to know how to shift your balance while riding at these gaits.
The second exercise would be to ride bareback. This is a great exercise for building balance and muscle. When you ride bareback, you learn to rely more on balance than you would on your stirrups or reins.
Stay Straight In the Saddle
Staying straight in the saddle means having your weight evenly balanced across the horse’s back. Even experienced riders tend to put more weight to one side; this can not only through the rider off-balance, but also the horse.
When you’re riding, take a moment to notice if you feel like you’re leaning into one stirrup more than the other, even while riding on a straight line. If so, you can make the proper adjustments.
Address your position; is there a straight line from your shoulders through your hip and to your heel? Sometimes a beginner’s leg may slip forward out of this line; if this happens, just adjust your leg position back under you. This will help you keep the proper position in the saddle.
Next, check your reins. Hold your reins so that you can tell if the rein length you’re allowing your horse is equal on each side. If one of your reins is longer than the other, adjust them so they will be the same length.
If one of your reins tends to be shorter than the other, it means that you cue the horse more with the shorter rein. Reins should be equal in length in order to keep your horse on a straight line and to have the same effect on both sides when pressure is applied.
Learn About Pressure and Release
If you’re a beginner horseback rider who dreams of one day being a horse trainer, then you should know that learning about pressure and release is essential to communicating with a horse.
Horses learn by pressure and release; what this means is when you ask a horse to do something, you use pressure. As soon as they respond correctly, you release the pressure and relax in order to reward them.
For example: When you ask a horse to stop, you pull back on the reins. This is considered the pressure. As soon as the horse stops and stands still, you release the pressure or relax your hands to tell the horse that they did the correct thing.
What most beginners do is keep applying pressure even when the horse has responded correctly. Like in the above example, a beginner may ask the horse to stop, but when the horse stops, they continue to pull on the reins instead of relaxing the pressure. This would cause the horse to back-up. Soon, you have a situation where the rider is frustrated with the horse for “not listening,” even when the horse is just doing what it’s being asked to do.
Understanding pressure and release will help you communicate better with the horse. It will also help you to ride with softer hands and more aware of your actions in the saddle.
This is something many riding instructors repeat over and over to new riders. Beginner riders tend to look down at their hands and the horse’s mane. This is understandable when you’re first learning to maneuver the horse and use your reins; however, it will help you and your horse is you establish looking up early on.
There are a number of reasons you should be looking up and ahead while you’re horseback riding. The first and most obvious reason is to look up so you can see where you’re going. Yes, the horse may keep going even if you look down, but if there’s something you’re not expecting that pops up, you can easily be caught off-guard and fall off.
Another reason to look up and to the horizon is to help your horse understand where they need to go. A horse can feel any body movement you make while you’re sitting on their back. When you look where you want to go, your body position adjusts to look that way.
For example, if you’re sitting on the horse and you look to your left, you turn your neck. Your horse can feel that, and it signals to them to go left. So if you look up you tell them to keep going straight. If you look down, you’re essentially telling your horse to stop.
Many new riders have difficulty getting the horse to move forward; however, it’s mostly due to the rider looking down. When you look up, you’ll notice that your horse is much more willing to go forward.
Keep Your Weight In Your Heels
Do you find that your foot is constantly sliding out of the stirrup while you’re riding? The reason for this would be that you’re not keeping your weight in your heels. The way to keep your heels down is to allow your weight to focus down to your heel.
Keeping your weight in your heels will not only help keep your feet in the stirrups, but it will also make you feel more secure on your horse. If your weight is focused down into your stirrups, it will be much harder for you to fall off of the horse.
Keeping your heels down will help your leg to fall properly on the horse’s side, making you more effective in your cues and in the rest of your general position. When your heels are down, you secure your seat because the weight has to travel through your hip and leg to rest in your heel. This will help keep you properly in the saddle.
While keeping your heels down is important to your riding position, make sure you are not thrusting your legs forwards when putting your heels down. Your heel should still stay directly under your shoulder.
Keep Your Lower Leg Still
This brings us to the next point. While horseback riding, it’s important to keep your lower leg still so as not to confuse your horse with cues. Horses think that when the lower leg moves back and forth against their side then they’re being told to go faster. This can result in a runaway horse with a terrified rider.
A steady still leg will make a steady horse. Usually, the reason a new rider’s lower leg tends to swing back and forth is that they are pinching the horse with their knees. If your knees are locked to your horse, then you have no control over your lower leg.
The way to keep your lower leg still is to loosen up your knee. When you do this, you will automatically change the point of contacts to the inner thigh and the inner calf. This is the correct riding position.
You will also notice how more secure your seat feels hugging the horse with your inner thigh and inner calf rather than pinching the horse with your knee. By making this one adjustment, you can feel new and better security in the saddle.
Learn to Move Your Seat With The Horse
Many beginner riders are taught that the reins mean stop and your legs mean go; however, did you know that your seat can control both of these factors?
Your seat’s movements are controlled by your hips. If you want your horse to move out more, you will move your seat more using your hips. Your seat will go with the motion of the gait. If you want the horse to slow down, you will slow your seat by moving your hips less.
By using your seat in conjunction with leg pressure and rein pressure, you will feel much more in control and your horse’s transitions will seem easier. Next time you try bringing your horse to a halt, try to stop moving your seat to see how well they will halt.
Once again, a great way to practice this would be to ride bareback. You can feel the movement of the horse much better bareback than you can in the saddle. You’ll learn to move your seat with the horse.
Learn Diagonals and Leads
Another thing that beginner horseback riders struggle with is picking up the correct diagonal or lead. The diagonal is the beat you rise up with during a posting trot. When you post trot, you should always rise up when the outside front leg rises up and you should always sit when the outside front leg hits the ground.
A lead refers to a canter lead. The canter lead is determined by whatever front leg lands on the third beat of the canter stride. If you’re tracking right, then you will want the right canter lead or the right front leg as the third beat. If you’re tracking left, then you will want the left canter lead or the left front leg as the third beat.
Sooner or later, you’ll get to a point where you’ll be able to tell what diagonal or lead you’re on just by feeling the horse’s gait. For now, the best way to tell what diagonal or lead you’re on is to glance down at the horse’s shoulder.
Just to reiterate; as mentioned in a tip above, you should never stare down at the ground while horseback riding. However, you can glance down a few seconds at the horse’s shoulder to tell what diagonal or lead you’re on.
If you want to know if you’re on the correct diagonal, you will glance down to the outside shoulder of the horse. You must be post trotting to the beat of this leg. When the leg lifts off the ground, you post up. When the leg hits the ground, you post down.
To know whether or not you’re on the correct canter lead, glance down to the horse’s inside shoulder. If this leg is not the third beat or if it’s not extending farther than the outside shoulder than it’s the wrong lead.
The best way to learn your diagonals and leads is to practice them. It will also help to watch a horse trotting and cantering so you can get a clear picture of what each task looks like.
Build Your Muscles
Building the correct muscles for horseback riding doesn’t happen overnight Recognizing the muscles you use most in horseback riding will help you to know what muscles you need to give attention to.
Your arms, core, lower back, thighs, and calves are all muscles that you use extensively for horseback riding. You’ll probably notice at least one of these muscles sore after a ride, which means you need to work on building them up.
You’ll find that after a while, horseback riding will naturally tone these muscles. In the meantime, if you’d like to avoid fatigue and soreness, you can work on increasing the stamina of these muscle groups.
Stay Relaxed…Even If You’re Not
Horses mirror your emotions. This means that if you’re getting nervous or anxious, you may make your horse nervous and anxious as well.
Horses can sense your emotions when you start to tense up in the saddle. Many times, a horse will get spooked about something. Instead of the rider staying calm and relaxed, the rider will tense the body, lean forward, and shorten their reins, expecting their horse to blow up.
When a rider does this, they are encouraging their horse to become more spooked. In this scenario of a spooked horse, a rider should remain calm, their body relaxed and weight down in their heels. Their hands will stay steady but not tighten on the horse’s mouth. The horse will soon pick up on the rider’s calm demeanor, telling the horse that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
In these moments of an out-of-control horse or a scary situation, you may not always feel relaxed, but that doesn’t mean you have to portray that to your horse.
The best way to keep a relaxed stance with a horse is to breathe slow and deep. This will cause your body to remain loose and your heart rate to remain slow, both things that the horse can pick up on.
Like mentioned above, horses pick up on your emotions. If you lack confidence, your horse will know it, and it will cause them to lack confidence as well. Confidence is a big hurdle to jump over for any level of rider, but don’t let that stop you.
Confidence comes from trust. If you don’t trust your horse, then you’re not going to have confidence in them. Learning to trust your horse will not only build your confidence, but it will also allow your horse to then trust in you.
If you’re a beginner rider, be confident. Be confident in what you’re asking the horse to do, even if you’re doing it wrong. Be confident in how you look, even if you look like you don’t know what you’re doing.
The great thing about being a beginner horseback rider is that you have an instructor to correct you when are wrong. So if your instructor isn’t telling you how to fix something, then, by all means, be confident.
Be Assertive With Your Horse
Assertive doesn’t mean abusive. Being assertive means that you don’t let the horse get away with things it shouldn’t be doing.
You’ve probably noticed how lesson horses love to walk slow, stop frequently, and not go when asked. This is mainly because beginner horseback riders aren’t assertive enough to get these horses to pay attention.
Horses will test you to see what they can get away with. If they realize that they can get away with one thing, they’ll make sure that they work that one thing into their routine as much as possible.
To get your horse to listen, you have to be assertive. Going back to pressure and release; being assertive means that you apply the pressure until the horse responds correctly. If the horse doesn’t respond right away, then you increase the pressure.
If you ride a lesson horse that loves ignore you while you ask them to go, being assertive may look like one big kick to the side. If they don’t respond, then you take your hand and smack them on their rump.
Once you get after your horse once for testing you, they’ll know that you mean business. The more you correct bad behavior, the more your horse will respect you and respond quickly.
Is Riding A Horse Good Exercise?
Horseback riding is a great exercise, and if you’re new to the sport, you can expect to be sore afterward. Being somewhat physically fit will help you to stay more balanced in the saddle because you’ll have the muscle to grip the horse properly.
You will get a workout in your arms, core lower back, thighs, and calves. By doing some stretching before and after your ride, you can reduce the risk of soreness and stiffness.
What Should I Wear to Go Horseback Riding?
The best outfit for horseback riding should be one that is comfortable for you. You should wear form-fitting pants with boots that cover at least your ankle. This will prevent any pinching or snags in your clothes.
Your boots should have a one-inch heel that will keep your foot from going through the stirrup. You always want to wear a good sturdy pair of boots when around horses in order to protect your feet.
It’s important to always wear an ASTM riding helmet. A helmet will protect your head in the case that you fall off. While they may seem uncomfortable at times, horseback riding helmets have saved many lives.
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