Horseback Riding Mistakes
If you’re new to riding, there are more than a few mistakes you can make that you’ll never see a professional rider making. I know from experience that the first step to becoming a great rider is recognizing any problem areas so you can make adjustments where necessary.
At one point or another, I’ve been guilty of most of these mistakes. But horseback riding is a nuanced sport, so it naturally takes time to learn all of the dos and don’ts. If you think you think your riding still has room for improvement, here are 11 horseback riding mistakes to avoid:
Mistake 1: Riding a Horse Without a Helmet
Riding a horse without a helmet is an easy mistake to avoid. While there is a lot of discussion and disagreement with this point in the horse world, the fact of the matter is that wearing a riding helmet can save your life. I’ve known people who have suffered massive brain injuries and have even died just because they fell off their horse and hit their head a little too hard.
A horseback riding helmet is designed to cover your entire skull. Appropriate horseback riding helmets are ASTM-approved, meaning that the American Society of Testing and Materials has personally set standards that horseback riding helmets have to comply with.
To ride a horse, you’ll need a horseback riding helmet, not a bicycle helmet or any other kind. A bicycle helmet only protects the top of your head while riding helmets protect the entire skull. This is necessary when horseback riding, as you can fall or get kicked multiple different ways, resulting in trauma on different parts of the skull.
Before you make the decision to not wear a riding helmet, always consider your safety. Even if you have a horse that has never thrown you or done anything bad, they could still trip and fall or slip, sending you flying down with them. They could stumble and you could lose your balance. There is a list of scenarios I could run through to illustrate my point; all I’m trying to say is it’s better to be safe than sorry, so wear a riding helmet.
If you are interested in getting an ASTM-approved helmet, you can see a few of my personal favorites here.
Mistake 2: Incorrect Tack Placement
Incorrect Tack Placement can cause a lot of problems for both the horse and the rider. If you’re relatively new to horseback riding, always make sure you have an experienced horse person check your tack before you mount up. This will ensure that the tack is in the proper place.
Incorrect tack placement can limit your horse’s range of motion and cause discomfort. If your saddle is too far forward, it can interfere with the motion of the horse’s shoulder, making for choppy short strides. If the horse were to put it’s head down and the saddle was too far forward, you’d probably topple off right over their head.
If the saddle is too far back on the horse, it can hit certain pressure points on the horse’s back that will cause the horse to buck and have discomfort. It can also cause the saddle to slip to the side, you along with it.
Always check all pieces of tack to ensure that they are sitting correctly and not causing your horse any discomfort. This would include your bridle and bit piece, the saddle pad, saddle, and the girth. If you use any other equipment, like galloping boots or breast collars, make sure that you know how to properly fit it and place it to the horse so it won’t cause any problems.
Mistake 3: Neglecting Tack Inspections & Care
A common mistake that many horse riders make is that they don’t inspect and care for their tack often enough. Thorough and regular tack inspections will ensure you and your horse’s safety while regular care and cleaning of your tack will improve its longevity and quality.
Most tack pieces are made of leather. Leather is known to last a lifetime if taken care of properly, but if not, it can wear, shred, and snap. You can keep leather pieces supple and elastic by cleaning your tack with leather shampoo and conditioner (see tack cleaner price here on Amazon)on a regular basis. Always clean your tack if it has gotten wet, as wet leather can become cracked and stiff once the water dries out.
By cleaning saddle pads and horse blankets regularly, you can remove the dirt particles that cause these items to wear. You can also avoid any fungal growth or mold that these blankets are susceptible to. Likewise, scrubbing and cleaning metal pieces, like bits and stirrups, will keep these items from rusting.
Regularly cleaning your tack will allow you to inspect each individual piece. During my tack cleaning sessions, I’ve found leather pieces fraying and about to snap, a girth buckle attached by one string, and a stirrup leather halfway out of the metal piece that holds it to the saddle. If I hadn’t found any of these problems beforehand, I would’ve been doomed for these pieces breaking while I was riding, which could be very dangerous.
Remember, tack is expensive. Ideally, I don’t want to buy new tack all the time. By taking care of your tack, it can last much longer. If you’re someone who has to budget to be able to keep your horse, this could greatly help you in the long run. To find out more, check out one of our articles, 16 Tips for Owning a Horse on a Budget.
Mistake 4: Overtraining and Undertraining
A mistake to avoid in the horse world is overtraining or undertraining your horse. What I mean by this is either rigorously training your horse too much, which can cause health problems, mental problems, and relational problems with your horse, or not doing anything with your horse for extended periods of time, which can shatter your relationship as well as let your horse settle into behavioral patterns which can be negative.
Overtraining your horse can cause the horse to relate a negative association to you. Horses can become bitter when they are overworked, and they will naturally associate you with the stress of training. Overtraining can also wear on your horse’s body, causing them to be at greater risk of injury.
Scheduling a day off into your training routine will give your horse the rest it needs in order to rejuvenate. It will also give you designated time to simply spend time with your horse and enjoy each other’s company instead of constantly demanding things out of them.
If you are undertraining your horse, you are lacking the consistency a horse needs in order to improve and learn. If you wonder why your horse isn’t getting something that you’ve been working on for ages, it’s probably because you’re inconsistent in training and don’t have a routine where you can work with your horse.
Finding a good balance to your training routine will help to keep both you and your horse engaged and happy. If your horse seems unhappy or as if they don’t like you, there is either too much work or a lack of work. To learn more, visit our article, Why Doesn’t My Horse Like Me?
Mistake 5: Never Releasing Pressure
Some horseback riders may wonder why their horse is always backing up or tossing its head. Chances are, the reason that the horse is doing this is that the rider keeps constant pressure on the reins of the horse. This can cause other issues like the horse becoming dull to aids, rearing, taking-off, and sores in the horse’s mouth.
Horses are taught that when pressure is applied, they should correctly respond in order to get the release of pressure. This is basically the theory behind every training method ever created. When you ask your horse to do something, you apply the correct signals. As soon as the horse reacts, you release that pressure.
One mistake some riders make is that they keep applying the pressure even after the horse has responded correctly. By doing this, there is no way your horse can learn. The horse learns what the correct thing is by the releasing of pressure. If you never release the pressure, the horse is going to become dull to the aid since it will never understand how it’s supposed to respond.
Some riders will continue to pull back on the reins even after the horse has come to a complete stop. Because the rider does this, the horse will start backing up, since that is the correct response to pressure on the reins when standing still. The rider will get frustrated because the horse is backing up even though the rider is technically asking the horse to do so.
Always be aware of how much pressure you’re applying through your aids and if you should be applying any pressure at all. Focus on whether or not you are releasing pressure when the horse responds correctly, and if you aren’t, make the appropriate corrections. If your horse is doing something that you don’t like, take a moment to evaluate yourself and see if you’re subconsciously applying pressure that your horse may be reacting to.
Mistake 6: Using Leg Grip Instead of Balance
Many new horseback riders rely on gripping the horse with their legs in order to stay on instead of relying on their balance. When you grip with parts of your leg, like your knees and thighs, you compromise your position and the ability to keep your bottom in the saddle if things go awry.
Pinching the horse with your leg will cause you to tip forward in the saddle and throw your balance over the horse’s withers instead of distributing it over their back. If you pinch with your knee, you can get thrown on the horse’s neck if they were to trip or to buck.
On the other hand, if you’re relying on your balance to stay on the horse instead of your leg grip, you will distribute your weight evenly over the horse and you’ll be able to stay in the saddle if the horse makes sudden or unusual movements. Riding with balance will help you to develop a better riding seat and cue your horse with the movement of your hips instead of relying on your reins. Click here to learn some tips that will help you develop a better seat.
Mistake 7: Riding With Bad Posture
Riding with bad posture is a mistake to avoid if you want to be able to effectively communicate with your horse. Bad posture can compromise your cues, throw you off-balance, cause you muscle soreness, and get your points deducted in the show ring.
The correct riding posture is probably one of the first things you learn when you start taking riding lessons. The correct horseback riding posture consists of sitting up nice and tall, keeping your eyes up, and rolling your shoulders back. When you ride with good posture, you can effectively communicate your cues, using all of your aids to ask of the horse. This means using your seat, rein pressure, and leg pressure.
If you have bad posture, it will be difficult for you to use your seat to push the horse forward. Your slouching your back and shoulders and turning your eyes down can actually block your horse from stepping out and move as freely as they could. Bad posture will re-locate your balance from the horse’s back, where it should be, to over their shoulders. This will cause you to pinch with your knees.
Riding with incorrect posture can make your lower back sore. This can be uncomfortable and even hinder people from riding. Lastly, bad posture will almost always get your points deducted in the show ring. This can be humiliating and embarrassing; on the other hand, correct posture will immediately make you look like a seasoned and experienced rider who knows what they’re doing.
Mistake 8: Looking Down While Riding
There’s a saying in the horse world that your eyes communicate your confidence to your horse. Horses are smart creatures and they can feel the smallest movement of the rider that sits on them. If your eyes are looking ahead to where you’re going, your aids will be straightforward and confident. If your eyes are looking down, then you aren’t riding with your full ability, which your horse can feel.
The best example I can think of is when it comes to jumping. I remember being young and new to riding wherein at one of my lessons, it took me 30 minutes to get the horse over one very wimpy cross rail. Every time I got up to the jump, I would look down and the horse would refuse. At the time, the jump was scary and I lacked confidence. Finally, I forced myself to look up and the horse went over the jump.
We as riders like to stare at scary things just as much as our horses do, even if we do it unintentionally. The thing about this is that the horse can feel our focus on that object, which causes them to focus in on it as well. If you’re ever having difficulty getting your horse over a jump or past an obstacle, just remember to look up. This will make your cues confident instead of stalled and sticky.
Mistake 9: Sticking Your Elbows Out
Many beginner horseback riders make the mistake of riding with chicken wings (also known as sticking their elbows out away from their body). Not only is this considered a bad position, but it can also negatively affect your riding cues and balance.
Riders who are off-balance on their horses have a tendency to stick their elbows out to help them maintain balance; however, this actually has the opposite effect. The correct position for your arms while riding would be bent elbows by your side with your thumbs turned skyward.
By utilizing the correct position, it will cause you to balance better and keep your balance centered on your horse. When you stick your elbows out, your center of balance gets thrown over the side of the horse, which could potentially pull you to the ground!
Another aspect of making sure your arm position is correct is so you can correctly cue your horse using the reins. If your elbows are sticking out, you don’t have much control of the pressure applied to your horse’s mouth through the reins. Your arms can bob up and down and to the side, each involuntarily bumping and pulling on your horse’s mouth.
When you keep your elbows bent at your side, you have complete control over the pressure applied by the reins. This will also help you to keep balanced pressure on both reins.
Mistake 10: Not Correcting Bad Habits
Not correcting bad habits in your horse is an epidemic in the horse world. These bad habits not only include things like bucking and taking off, but also more subtle habits like the horse pulling its head down to graze or walking into the person’s space. Instead of correcting the issue, most people won’t even recognize that the horse is doing anything wrong and they’ll let the horse carry on the act.
What most people don’t realize is that these subtle acts of disobedience and test of authority can result in much bigger issues. when a horse has a bad habit, then it doesn’t respect you in that area. In order to keep your horse’s respect, you have to correct them when they do wrong. This is the only way to establish a relationship with your horse where they view you as the alpha.
Horses learn everything by repetition, including bad habits. If a horse developed a bad habit, it’s because the rider or owner didn’t correct them the first time the horse did it. All horse people have been guilty of this at one point or another; no reason to beat yourself up. I’ll say that once I figured out that my horse had developed all these bad habits because I hadn’t been correcting them from the beginning, I realized that I needed to start handling my horse differently.
If you realize that your horse has some bad habits but you don’t know how to correct them, the best answer I can give you is to learn some groundwork. Groundwork is the foundation for your relationship with your horse. If you’re interested in learning some groundwork exercises, check out our article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises For Your Horse.
Mistake 11: Trying a Difficult Challenge Too Early
One mistake to avoid when dealing with horses is trying a difficult challenge before either you or your horse is ready. Some difficult challenges, like jumping a new height or going over a new obstacle, can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Other challenges, like learning a new dressage move, can be frustrating if you don’t know how to effectively communicate with your horse.
When I got my first horse when I was 12 years old, I figured out that she had the capacity to jump way higher than I ever had before. Because of this, I went and I set some jumps up that presented a new challenge. We went over them, but it was ugly. I was launched out of the saddle by the power of the horse’s jump, which caused me to fly back in the saddle and snag the horse in the mouth with the reins. Anyone who competes at a higher jumping level knows that riding like this can potentially cause your horse to crash or land incorrectly.
Lucky for me, the horse was a saint, and I somehow kept doing this until someone more experienced than me told me that I need to work on my form over lower jumps before I attempted the higher jumps. That’s one of many times that I have tried to do something more challenging than I or the horse could handle. Live and learn.
It’s important to effectively learn the basics of any riding technique before advancing forward. Moving up the ranks slow and steady will help you grasp the knowledge you need to communicate with your horse in a more challenging situation. By doing this, you can avoid much frustration that bad communication and lack of confidence can cause.
Now that you know what not to do, check out our article on what to do. Click here to read 15 Tips for Beginner Horseback Riders.
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