How to Stay Safe When Horseback Riding

When you climb into the saddle, you’re entrusting your safety to a 1,000-pound animal. While you may have been told that you must have control of your horse, the truth is that you can never fully control another being. There are, however, several measures that you can take to increase your chances of a safe ride. 

How can you stay safe while horseback riding? Here are simple ways you can decrease risk when horseback riding:

  • Choose a horse appropriate to your riding level
  • Stay calm and alert
  • Wear a riding helmet
  • Wear close-toed shoes with a 1.5″ heal
  • Check your tack
  • Don’t ride alone
  • Invest in a riding instructor

Keep reading to learn the steps that need to be taken to stay safety-minded when horseback riding. 

Horseback Riding Safety: Choosing Your Horse

When you’re starting out, you may want to ride that exciting horse with the beautiful coat. But what you really need is a horse who has just about seen it all, a horse who’s “been there, done that” and isn’t likely to spook and bolt. I used to lease an excitable teenage horse at the barn where I took lessons. However, when I was still getting comfortable with cantering I opted to practice on an older, steadier Quarter horse who I knew would take it slow with me.

When you’re new to riding, choose an experienced and forgiving horse. If you’re taking lessons and you don’t know the horses at the barn, let the instructor choose your mount for you. 

Horseback Riding Safety: Your Attitude Matters

Horses are very sensitive animals. They live naturally in herds and rely on one another’s subtle body language to protect themselves from potential predators. Though they are large, horses have the instincts of prey animals. They may see you as a threat if you are overly excitable and give off negative energy.

You may think that you’re putting on a brave face and that no one can see the anxiety or stress that you’re experiencing inside, but I’m telling you—your horse can tell. If you’re nervous, you must do your best to take a deep breath and exhale the anxiety. Resolve to emanate confidence so your horse feels as calm as you do.

In addition to a steady attitude, it’s important to always remain alert when riding. When you go to the barn regularly, you’ll get to know the other riders; don’t let an animated conversation or a ride with friends distract you from staying alert to your surroundings. You want to watch your horse’s body language to see what they think and feel.

Being in control of your emotions plays a major role in gaining a horse’s trust. To learn more about how your emotions and your body language may be causing your horse not to trust you, click here.

Horseback Riding Safety: Wear a Riding Helmet

The vast majority of serious riding-related injuries are concussions. Another term for “concussion” is “traumatic brain injury (TBI).” Research upon research has shown that a significant portion of horse-related TBIs can be prevented by using an ASTM-certified riding helmet. They can be purchased online for as little as $30 or can usually be borrowed from the barn tack room where you’re taking lessons. 

Most stables take helmets so seriously that they won’t allow riders to take lessons without them. This is especially true for minors. If you are under 18 and want to take lessons, you will almost certainly be required to wear a helmet by a lesson barn. To purchase a budget-friendly option on Amazon, see my recommendation here.

Horseback Riding Safety: Wearing Appropriate Footwear

We’ve talked about protecting the head; let’s go to the other end of the body—the feet. When you ride, your feet rest in the stirrups attached to the saddle. One of the things you’ll learn when you first start riding is to keep your “heels down,” which really means you need to point your toes to the sky. This helps prevent your foot from slipping entirely into the stirrup. It also helps you learn not to rely on the stirrups. 

That said, your feet will inevitably slip, and wearing a heel of at least 1 ½” in height will prevent your foot from slipping entirely through the stirrup. If you were to become unseated while your foot was caught in a stirrup, you would be at the mercy of your horse and could become dragged and seriously injured. For that reason, it’s important to always ride with a heel. 

Riding Safety: Check Your Tack

I had a great-aunt who died tragically in a horseback riding accident. Firstly, she wasn’t wearing a helmet. Secondly, she didn’t check her tack before she got on. The horse’s girth was loose and the saddle slipped when they were riding. She fell and hit her head.

As you’re tacking up, you’ll want to take a moment to glance at your tack to ensure everything appears in tip-top shape. If a latigo is frayed or a buckle is loose, pull it out for repair and replace it with something in working order. If a piece of your tack fails while you’re riding, there could be serious repercussions.

Along these lines, double-check that cinch or girth before you mount your horse. Some horses will expertly fill their lungs with air when you’re tacking up, leading to a loose cinch or girth once they exhale. You may find that you’ll almost always have to re-tighten a cinch before mounting. 

Horseback Riding Safety: Don’t Ride By Yourself

If you’re new to riding, you’ll want to ensure other people are around when working with horses. No matter how safe you are and how many precautions you’ve taken, the reality is that horses are unpredictable, and you may find yourself out of the saddle with virtually no warning. Most falls will leave you bruised at worst, but some can result in more serious injury. It would not be wise to ride alone. You’ll want at least one other person in the vicinity and would notice if your horse is riderless.

If you’re experienced, you may feel confident enough to ride alone. If you do, it’s wise to notify someone where you are, what you’re doing, and what time you expect to be finished riding. That way, if you don’t return by your designated time, that friend or loved one will be alert to the fact that something may be amiss. This is wise when engaging in any activity with a degree of risk. Horseback riding certainly falls within that category.  

Although he’s not a horse person, my husband and I have found a way we can have fun and ride together so I don’t have to go out by myself. He rides his bike, and I ride my horse!

Horseback Riding Safety: Give Others Space

While you want to ride with others when you’re starting out, that doesn’t mean you want to ride on top of them. Don’t ride too closely behind another horse, don’t cut other horses off, or pass too closely to others. Many horses don’t appreciate friends in their personal bubbles and may respond with a kick or a bite. 

Of course, not every horse moves at the same pace. Some horses are slower than others, and some take a little more to get moving. If you’re riding in an arena with a group, you will, at some point, need to pass another horse. When you pass another rider, make sure to vocalize that so they can hear it. You can say either “on your left!” or “on your right!” to notify the rider in front of you so they don’t mistakenly turn and bump into you. 

Riding Safely is Easier with an Instructor

If you’re new to riding and this all seems overwhelming, even more reason to learn to ride with a knowledgeable instructor at a responsible facility. This way, you won’t need to remember every safety precaution because you’ll be reminded of them. After the appropriate helmet and footwear, I really believe the most important aspect to keep in mind is your own attitude. So relax, breathe in confidence, and enjoy every ride!

After reading this article, you may wonder how safe horseback riding is. To get a complete risk assessment, visit my article Is Horse Riding Safe? Horse-Related Risk Guide.

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Carmella Abel, Pro Horse Trainer

Hi! I’m Carmella

My husband and I started Equine Helper to share what we’ve learned about owning and caring for horses. I’ve spent my whole life around horses, and I currently own a POA named Tucker. You can learn more here.

Thank you for reading, and happy trails!

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