How To Ride A Horse (Quick Start Guide For Beginners)

Everything You Need to Know to Ride a Horse

Riding a horse can be a daunting experience, whether you’re taking your first riding lesson or simply going on a trail ride while on vacation. Having an understanding ahead of time on how to control the horse can help give you confidence when it comes time to get in the saddle. 

So, how do you ride a horse? There are a few different aspects you need to be aware of to properly ride a horse. First, you’ll need to be able to properly get on the horse. From there, you’ll need to understand how to get the horse to go forward and steer both left and right. You’ll also need to know to get the horse to halt and stop when you want them to.

Now, you may be thinking that the answer I gave on how to ride a horse was very vague. The good news is that this article contains a full in-depth look at each aspect of horseback riding and how to control your horse step-by-step. You’ll also find other helpful information you should know before you go horseback riding. To get started, keep reading!

How to Ride a Horse: Step-By-Step Guide

Before you get on a horse, it’s important that the horse is properly prepared for riding. This includes catching the horse from the pasture, grooming them to remove dirt and check for injuries, and properly putting on riding equipment like the saddle pad, saddle, girth, and bridle. Here are some articles you can take a look at to get a better idea of how to do these things before you ride a horse:

How to Mount a Horse

Before you can even ride a horse, you need to know how to get on the horse! This is easier said than done as it can be confusing when you don’t know what foot goes in the stirrup first or how you’re supposed to actually get on your horse’s back. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to get on a horse

Step #1: Stand on the Left Side of the Horse

To get on your horse, start by standing on the left side of your horse. While you can technically mount from either side, it’s easier to learn on the left side first. Horseback riders have been mounting from the left side for centuries. It started with knights and cavalry riders who traditionally carried their weapons on their left hip. It was easier for them to mount from the left and have to swing their right leg over the horse, rather than trying to swing their left leg over with their weaponry.

Step #2: Gather the Reins in Your Left Hand

Before you even go to put your foot in the stirrup of the saddle, you should gather the reins in your left hand. This will give you control of the horse even as you’re mounting. Once you have the reins in your hand, you can rest your hand on the horse’s neck. You can put your other hand on top of your saddle, as it can help you push yourself up and over the horse when it comes time to get on.

Step #3: Put Your Left Foot in the Stirrup

Now, to mount the horse from the left side, you’ll start by putting your left foot in the stirrup. The stirrup looks like a hoop that hangs from the saddle. Stirrups are meant to give the rider security and balance when in the saddle. Put your left foot in the stirrup so you can swing over the horse and sit down facing forward as you should. If you were to put your right foot in the stirrup, you’d end up sitting backward on the horse!

Step #4: Stand Up in the Stirrup and Swing Your Right Leg Over the Horse

This step requires a little flexibility and strength. To get on your horse, you’ll stand up in the left stirrup and use your hands on the horse’s neck and saddle to push yourself up so you’ll be able to swing your other leg over. Once you are standing balanced in the left stirrup, swing your right leg over the horse and sit down gently in the saddle

Step #5: Put Your Right Foot Into the Right Stirrup

Once you have sat down on the horse, you can reach down on the right side of the horse to help get your right foot in the stirrup. Stirrups are meant to help you stay secure and balanced on the horse, so it’s important that you have both feet in the stirrups. 

How to Get a Horse to Go Forward

Now that you’re on the horse, you may be wondering how you get the horse to go forward. This is when the fun starts! The steps I share going forward are at the most basic terms to make it easy to understand. As you ride more and more, these steps will become more subtle and there will be new aspects to consider when communicating with your horse. Follow the steps below to help you communicate effectively with your horse to get them to go forward.

Step #1: Sit Up Straight and Tall in the Saddle

Did you know that your posture can confuse your horse? If you’re hunched forward or leaning too far back in the saddle, the horse may be confused about what they want them to do. This is why the first step to getting your horse to move forward is to sit up straight and tall in the saddle. Sitting up straight communicates confidence to your horse and lets them know that you’re ready to go.

Step #2: Make Sure You’re Not Pulling Back on the Reins

Reins are important tools when used correctly. They can help you to control and communicate with your horse. Reins can be used to get your horse to slow down, halt, and back up. If you’re sub-consciously pulling on the reins when you’re trying to get the horse to go forward, chances are your horse will start to back up. For this reason, it’s important to release any pressure you may have on the horse’s mouth by releasing tension in the reins.

Step #3: Squeeze the Horse’s Sides With Your Lower Leg

The way you’re going to tell your horse to move forward is by squeezing the horse’s sides with your lower leg. You can use your calves or heels to gently squeeze the sides of the horse. When you use your legs to communicate with the horse, it’s called leg pressure. You will often use leg pressure to get your horse to go forward or go faster.

Step #4: Release the Pressure as Soon as the Horse Steps Forward

It’s important that you release leg pressure as soon as the horse starts moving forward. To do this, you’ll relax your calves and heels so that they are no longer squeezing the horse’s sides. The reason this is important is that if you keep holding the pressure even after the horse is moving forward, the horse will go faster and faster until you may feel out of control. 

How to Make a Horse Stop

Once you have your horse going forward, you need to know how to get them to stop. Take the following steps to get your horse to slow down or halt:

Step #1: Sit Back on Your Pockets

What does this mean? What I mean by “sit back on your pockets” is is to rotate your hips back in the saddle so you’re applying more weight in your seat. This closes the angle of your hips and communicates to your horse to start thinking about slowing down or stopping. 

Step #2: Put Your Weight Into Your Heels

You should put your weight in your heels as you sit back on your pockets. As you focus your weight down, the horse will start to understand that you want them to stop. With some horses, these two aids will be enough to get them to slow down and halt. With other horses, you may need to take another step to get them to come to a stop.

Step #3: Gently Pull Back on the Reins

If your horse doesn’t stop just off of the above two steps, then you can gently pull back on the reins until they come to a halt. Pulling back on the reins is when you pick up the reins and move your hands back until you have tension in the reins between your hands and the horse’s mouth.

Step #4: Know How to Do a One-Rein Stop

The one-rein stop is something I always teach people who are on a horse for the first time. The one-rein stop is the emergency brake for horseback riding; you can use this method if your horse is out of control or refuses to stop. The one-rein stop will keep the horse from moving forward or bucking and rearing.

To do the one-rein stop, all you have to do is reach your hand half-way down one rein, then bring the rein out and back to rest on your hip. This will bring the horse’s head back to your knee, which will make the horse slow down and go into a tight circle. In this state, the horse cannot engage the power of its hindquarters to bolt, buck, or rear. You can use this method if you’re in an emergency situation and need to stop the horse as soon as possible.

Horses are flight animals, meaning that their natural instinct is to run and flee from danger. This can put you in a difficult situation as the rider. To learn more about how to get your horse to stop, check out my article Horses That Won’t Stop When Riding: What You Need to Know.

How to Steer a Horse By Plow Reining

Steering your horse will give you the ability to go left and right and steer over and around obstacles. In this section, I’ll cover how to steer your horse by plow reining, or when the rider has a rein in each hand.

Step #1: Look In the Direction of Where You Want to Go

Horses can feel even the smallest movement when you’re in the saddle. Even the most simple things can be used to communicate something to your horse. When it comes to steering, you can let your horse know the direction you want to go simply by looking in that direction. Looking up and ahead to where you want to go will communicate confidence and assurance to your horse compared to if you’re looking down, which will communicate insecurity and anxiety.

Step #2: Use Your Hand to Open the Rein in the Direction You Want to Go

As you look where you want to go, you can move the reins in the direction you want to go in. What I mean by this is if you want to turn right, take your right rein and pull it in that direction. Likewise, if you want to go left, open your left rein away from the horse’s neck to signal them to go that way.

Step #3: Apply Leg Pressure With Your Opposite Leg

Lastly, you can also use leg pressure to communicate which direction you want your horse to go. You will use the leg opposite of the direction you want to travel to apply leg pressure and tell them to move in the other direction. If you want to go left, squeeze your horse with your right calf; if you want to go right, squeeze your horse with your left calf.

How to Steer a Horse By Neck Reining

Neck reining is often done by western riders or “cowboys.” If you’re going on a commercial trail ride, this may be the steering method you may use to control your horse. With neck reining, you’ll hold both reins in one hand rather than in either hand like you would plow reining. Here are the steps to neck reining:

Step #1: Look Where You Want to Go

As I mentioned earlier, looking up and in the direction you want to go when horseback riding can help communicate to your horse confidence and where they should go next. Whether you’re plow reining or neck reining, looking where you want to go is an important step to steering your horse.

Step #2: Lay the Rein Opposite of the Way You’re Turning Against the Horse’s Neck 

When it comes to neck reining, you aren’t applying pressure to the bit to get the horse to turn. What you’ll do to tell your horse to turn is lay your rein against the horse’s neck to get them to turn away from the pressure on their neck. This means that if you want to turn to the right, you’ll lay the left rein against the horse’s neck, and if you want to turn left, you’ll lay the right rein against the horse’s neck.

Step #3: Apply Leg Pressure With Your Opposite Leg

This step is similar to the last step to steering with plow reining. If you want to turn right, you’ll squeeze the horse with your left calf. When it comes to using leg pressure when steering, just think of it like you’re applying pressure to push the horse in the opposite direction. So, whichever way you want to turn, you’ll use the opposite leg.

Well, that’s how you ride a horse in the simplest terms! As always, you may find riding and controlling your horse more difficult in the beginning but as you practice, you’ll find it easier and easier to control the horse. Now, there are some other things you should be aware of before getting on a horse. Keep reading to learn more!

Horseback Riding Posture: What You Need to Know

As you may have gathered by reading the steps to horseback riding, posture and position play an important part in communicating with your horse as you ride. Having the correct riding position can help you feel more balanced and controlled as you ride, which can be a challenge as a new horseback rider. Here are some areas to pay attention to when fixing your riding position:

Eyes Looking Forward

As you ride, it’s important to look up and ahead. This enables you to watch for obstacles or hazards that you will come upon as your ride your horse. It will also communicate to your horse where you want to go. Riding a horse is similar to driving a car; as you learn to drive, you’ll be told to look ahead so you can be aware of what’s happening around you and so you can plan for where you’re going. If you look at the road directly in front of you, it’ll be more challenging to drive in a straight line and feel confident in where you’re going. 

Shoulders Back 

As you ride, roll your shoulders back. This will help you to sit up straight and keep your balance over the center of the horse. When your balance gets pitched forward or backward, it can be easier to get off-balance and fall off the horse. 

Back Straight

Try and keep your back straight and tall as you ride your horse. Once again, this will help to keep your balance over the center of the horse. It will also enable you to move your seat and hips correctly with your horse rather than restrict the movement of your hips.

Thighs and Knees Loose

As you try to find your balance on a horse, you may feel inclined to pinch with your knees to hang on. This can actually negatively affect your riding position and make you tense in the saddle. Pinching with your knees can cause you to pitch forward in the saddle and not have control of your lower leg.

It’s vital that you keep your thighs and knees relaxed as you ride. Your knee should lay loosely against the saddle so you could easily slide a hand in-between the saddle and your knee. This will enable you to use your lower leg and help you sit up straight in the saddle.

Heels Down

When it comes to the position of your feet, you’ll want to make sure that you keep the ball of your foot on the stirrup rather than putting the stirrup in the middle of your feet. This will help you to keep your heels down and prevent your feet from slipping through the stirrups. It will also help to secure you in the saddle and keep your weight balanced over the horse.

Feet Below Your Hips

Lastly, you’ll want to keep your feet directly below your hips. Ideally, you should be able to draw a straight line through your shoulders to your hips and to your heel. This means that your balance is over the center of the horse, which will help you to feel more secure as you ride.

Do These Thing Before Getting On a Horse

If you’re going to be riding a horse for the first time, there are some safety checks you should do before you mount up on the horse. These steps will help to keep you safer in the saddle and enable you to have an overall better ride.

Make Sure You’re Wearing Correct Horseback Riding Attire

If you’ve never been horseback riding before, you may be wondering what you should wear to get on a horse. Most riding attire is designed for the comfort and safety of the horseback rider. Here is a list of the essential pieces of clothing you should have for horseback riding:

Horseback Riding Helmet

A riding helmet is perhaps the most important piece of horseback riding attire you will need. A riding helmet goes on your head and is designed to cover your entire skull to protect you from trauma. Unfortunately, horseback riding will always have an aspect of risk, which is why it’s important to always wear a riding helmet. 

Your horseback riding helmet should be ASTM approved, meaning that the helmet has been professionally tested and approved to protect from the trauma that may occur in a riding accident. You’ll also want to make sure you’re using a helmet that hasn’t been damaged in an accident in the past. Once a helmet has experienced trauma, its structure may be compromised and unable to protect you in the event of an accident.

Form-Fitting Pants

For horseback riding, you’ll want to wear form-fitting pants. If you don’t have jodhpurs or breeches, you can wear skinny jeans or leggings. The reason for wearing form-fitting pants is that baggy pants can bunch up and expose your legs as you ride, which in turn can lead to your leg getting pinched by the stirrup. It will also keep your pants from getting caught in any buckle or strap.

Closed-Toed Shoes

Wearing closed-toed shoes is a general rule of thumb even if you just plan on being around horses and not riding. Horses are big and heavy animals, and they don’t have soft and cushy paws like dogs or cats. Horses have hard hooves that enable them to take off quickly and run fast. Hooves can also cause extreme pain if a horse accidentally steps on your foot! If you plan on being around horses, make sure you wear a set of strong and sturdy closed-toed shoes to protect your feet if you were to get stepped on.

Boots With a Heel

When you ride a horse, you should wear boots that have a heel. No, I don’t mean stilettos or wedges, but rather a sturdy outdoor boot with a definitive heel that can keep your foot from sliding through the stirrup if need be. If your foot slides through the stirrup, you’re in a potentially dangerous situation if you were to fall off the horse. The heel of your boot can prevent your foot from sliding far enough into the stirrup that it could get stuck.

To get a full rundown of what you’ll need to wear for horseback riding, visit my article What to Wear to Horse Riding Lessons: Complete Shopping List.

Check to Make Sure the Horse’s Girth is Tight Enough

The girth is the piece of tack that goes around the horse’s barrel to hold the saddle in place. The girth is kind of like a belt; if it’s not tight enough, the saddle may slip to the side, causing you to fall off! This is why it’s important to check to make sure the girth is tight enough before you mount your horse.

The girth should be tight enough that you can only comfortably fit four fingers in-between the horse and the girth. Even if the girth was tightened when the saddle was put on, the horse may have relaxed from then and released air from their lungs, causing the girth to become loose again. Always check the girth before you go to get on the horse, or you may end up on the ground!

Roll Down The Stirrups on Your Saddle

Another thing you’ll want to do before you get on your horse is to make sure the stirrups are rolled down on either side of the saddle. Saddles are usually stored with the stirrups rolled up so that they aren’t getting in the way. If you don’t roll the stirrups down, it can make it difficult to get on the horse. To roll down the stirrups, you’ll pull the stirrup strap between the stirrup. Then, pull the stirrup down until it’s at the end of the strap. 

Make Sure You Have an Experienced Horse Person With You

Before you get on a horse, it’s vital to make sure there is an experienced horse person around as you ride. Having a riding instructor or a knowledgeable horse handler around can make your ride an overall safe, fun, and good ride. If you are new to horses, it can be difficult to tell what your horse is trying to communicate or how you should handle certain situations. An experienced horse person can talk you through problems and situations and help you become a good horseback rider. 

I hope this article was helpful in preparing you to ride a horse. Horseback riding can be fun and enjoyable if the proper safety measures and precautions are taken. I’ve been riding for over 15 years, and I think horseback riding is something everyone should try at least once in their lifetime. To read some more articles about horseback riding, click here.


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