How to Train Your Horse to Ride Bareback

Girl and woman sitting bareback on horse in forest glade, Sattelbergalm, Tyrol, Austria

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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. Riding bareback will help you 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. Learn how to get your horse ready for some bareback riding and warning signs that your horse might be uncomfortable.

Preparing Your Horse

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.

A saddle helps distribute the weight across a horse's back. Without it, your weight will rest in a smaller spot, so make sure your horse is comfortable. You may want to start bareback riding for just a few minutes a day. A good time is after your ride. Your horse will be warmed up and you can remove the saddle and ride bareback for a short time.

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.

Keep your horse near the mount. If your horse is not lined up and ready, you could fall. Watch for your horse's cues and only mount when the horse is not moving and ready for you.

Maintain a Comfortable Position

Once aboard, get comfortable and make sure your horse is 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. Aim to be light in your seat so you aren't a dead weight on the horse's back.

Start with a Lead

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 and your horse are feeling secure walking while led, take up the reins and start, steer, and stop with someone along for security.

Proper Form for Trot, Canter, or Lope

Repeat the procedure with your horse moving 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. On the lunge concentrate on maintaining your seat.

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 and will not be comfortable for you or your horse.

Keep Balanced and Avoid Confusing the Horse

Without a saddle or reins, you need to keep yourself balanced and not confuse your horse. 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.

Longer Rides

When you feel balanced and in control and your horse seems confident and comfortable, you can head out on your own. 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, 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.


Problems and Proofing Behavior

Bareback riding should only be uncomfortable for a horse that has pain or discomfort at the exact spot the riders seat bones rest. It is a different sensation than a saddle, so your horse may just need time to get used to it. If they seem very uncomfortable, examine their back for any irritation or speak to a vet right away. You'll also want to monitor your horse's back for soreness after any longer bareback rides (or if it's new for them).

Finally, some riders and horses are not good fits for bareback riding. Particularly heavy riders, horses with any back issues, or a very slender-backed horse may want to avoid bareback riding.