How to Ride a Horse Bareback

If you can ride with a saddle, bareback is not hard to learn

A girl sitting on pony bareback
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Riding a horse bareback is a great way to develop muscle and balance. It is warmer in the winter and less cumbersome if you only have a minute for a quick ride around the paddock. It is a great way to get to know how your horse moves as you feel its muscles working beneath you.

In earlier days, people had to learn to ride bareback because they did not have saddles, now, starting out riding in a saddle first makes learning bareback easier.

Before You Start

You will want to use a quiet calm horse with smooth gaits and a healthy back. Horses with high withers can be uncomfortable to ride bareback. If you are concerned about your privates becoming chafed, apply some petroleum jelly to the sensitive area before heading out.

Before you begin, be sure you have mastered the halt, turning, walk, the sitting trot, posting trot and the canter/lope in the saddle with and without stirrups.

Mounting the Horse Bareback

Because you will not have stirrups to use to mount up you will have to have to use a mounting block or have someone give you a leg up. You can use a handy fence rail to mount up. But it can be difficult to get your horse lined up and standing still while you balance precariously on the fence. A sturdy mounting block is safest. 

Do not stand on anything flimsy that might collapse as you stand on it. And do not line your horse up along something it could get a bridle strap or rein tangled with.

Once aboard get comfortable. A good position is the same as in the saddle. You want bareback riding to improve your riding overall, not become a way to develop new bad habits. Be aware of the alignment of your ear, shoulder, hip, and heel.

Have someone lead the horse at a walk. Have them walk forward, turn, halt and back-up so you can get used to the feeling. When you are feeling secure walking while led, take up the reins and start, steer, and stop with someone along for security.

Maintain Proper Form for Trot, Canter, or Lope

Repeat the procedure at both a sitting and posting trot. You should be able to post without stirrups or saddle.

To canter, you may want someone to lunge the horse. Keeping your balance in a relatively tight circle is a tad more difficult. But on the lunge, you do not have to worry about controlling the horse and can concentrate on maintaining your seat.

Mastering the sitting trot in the saddle will help you a lot when you learn to ride bareback. Keep your legs long and heels down. Think of letting your weight sink through your "seat cushions'" and down through your legs. Keep your seat springy.

Stay relaxed and flexible and do not forget to breathe. Holding your breath keeps your weight high.

Learn to Balance

If you start to lose your balance, do not clench with your legs. Your horse could understand this as a cue to move forward more strongly. You can use a handful of mane to steady yourself at first. Holding on to the mane is more secure than using a neck rope or strap because there is no chance of the horse's mane slipping side to side.

Many people have a tendency to lean back and let their legs push forward. Or they hunch forward and bring their heels up. Either tendency will erode your overall security and skill. You want to stay balanced, and leaning back too far means if your horse moves suddenly, you might get left behind. You may also inadvertently pull on the reins.

Outside the Arena or Ring

When you feel balanced, and in control, you can head out on your own. You should stay in the ring or arena or small fenced paddock until you feel completely confident at all gaits. When you become very good at riding bareback, you might want to try riding out on the trail. If you do, however, consider how you will get back on if you have to dismount. You might have to make creative use of rocks, logs, or fence rails.

Going up steep inclines can be a challenge without a saddle. Lean forward to get your weight off of the horse's back and use handfuls of mane to prevent sliding backward. Whatever you do, do not use the reins for balance. That will confuse and hurt the horse.

Tips

  • Do not use bareback pads. They do not have any structure and can easily slip if you become unbalanced. Bareback pads with stirrups are dangerous and encourage poor seat position.
  • Wear your helmet every time you get on your horse, bareback or saddled. Always use an ASTM-approved riding helmet and proper footwear.