Bareback Riding Lessons: 5 Things I’ve Learned

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Bareback Riding Lessons: 5 Things I’ve Learned From Ditching the Saddle

Have you ever challenged yourself to do something that took you to the edge of your comfort zone?

Like all riders, sometimes I struggle with confidence in the saddle. After a couple of falls last year and a winter largely out of the saddle, I was pretty nerved up getting back to it this year. But within a couple of rides, I did something borderline crazy, at least as the nervous voice in the back of my mind was concerned.

I monkeyed up onto my younger pony without a saddle. And lived to share my findings with you.

Here are 5 things that I’ve learned, here at the edge of my comfort zone.

Bareback Riding Fun

I Rely On My Tack… Way More Than I Should

The first thing I realized was how much I really do rely on my tack for stability. Without a saddle I felt like a barely balanced sack of potatoes.

Many of my earliest riding lessons as a kid were bareback; this was my instructor’s wise tactic to force me to learn to sit the trot and develop my seat. Over the years, I just got out of the habit of bareback work, even when I rode daily as a teenager. A mount with an extremely bouncy trot reinforced this habit, and over time riding with a saddle became the unconscious standard.

So, once I hauled myself aboard bareback this spring, I was a tense, tight, off-balance mess. Without stirrups to brace against, I had nearly zero stability even at a slow walk. With no pommel there to grab in a moment of “crisis,” I had to deal bodily with my balance issues.

I’m Learning the Meaning of “Draped Legs” and Regaining My Seat

Fortunately, there’s nothing like bareback to force you to improve your seat, at least insofar as achieving workmanlike stability and balance. In short, without the saddle to bail you out, you either figure out how to move with the horse, or you eat dirt.

Rodeo bareback riding

After about 8 weeks of riding only bareback on the pony, I can feel an incredible difference in my stability and seat. Instead of tensing and wobbling at every non-textbook stride, I feel myself account for them by loosening even more.  Instead of grabbing a handful of mane before tentatively asking for a few strides of jog, I’m asking for bolder stretches of forward trot and riding loops and the beginnings of figures around the pasture. Where I was riding the buckle to keep myself from unconsciously using Scout’s mouth as a handle, I’m starting to shorten my reins.

I’ve heard the ideal neutral riding leg described as “draped,” hanging around the horse’s barrel like a wet towel. I’m beginning to have an epiphany as to what that actually feels like, thanks to bareback work.

Now, bareback work isn’t a panacea for all problems position-related. It’s definitely possible to still form bad habits like slumped shoulders and collapsed sides, and also to ride in a “defensive” posture. But, eliminating the tack can unmask a lot of ills. The bareback rider learns quickly that, despite its comfort, riding with a hunched and defensive posture is counterproductive.

I’m Way More Likely to Fit a Bareback Ride Into A Busy Weekday

Let’s face it… after eight hours at the office and eight more on deck for tomorrow, my lazy brain kinda wants to sit on the couch with a glass of rosé and binge-watch Lord of the Rings after taking care of the evening feeding and barn chores. Not groom, lug tack, ride, lug tack, wipe down horse, wipe down tack…

Just grabbing my helmet and the bridle and heading out to the pasture for a session of bareback riding is so much easier. Grab and go, no real prep, and we’re riding!

My Horse Seems to Enjoy This

Especially in the last few weeks, since my stability has really begun improving and I am starting to move with Scout, I feel like he is opening up and enjoying our rides. Even though I am more physically challenged by bareback riding, the lack of saddle gives me psychological permission to relax and take the ride as it comes, rather than push a plan and agenda. And I can definitely see the difference between these two mindsets reflected in my horse. He has been far less likely to shy or spook, and seems calmer and more relaxed in general. Even relaxed, his ears are up and he is alert, and we’re having moments of rounding and stretching forward. I could get used to this alert softness.

That being said, straight bareback may not be the perfect solution for you or your horse. If your horse is incredibly sensitive to moments of imbalanced riding, he is not going to appreciate this experiment. In this case, consider riding with a saddle and without stirrups for a while first. This will “baby step” you to better balance and stability, so that you are less likely to have a moment of dramatic imbalance when you’re bareback.

If your horse lacks topline, taking away a well-fitting saddle and its weight distributing properties may cause him discomfort even with a balanced rider. A good quality bareback pad (please for the love of Pete DON”T get one with stirrup attachments!!) can bridge this gap.

I Feel Like We’re Communicating More Clearly

Again, this is something that I’ve noticed in the last few rides. Without the saddle, I can feel every move Scout makes. While this was unsettling at first, and every muscle-twitch felt like a harbinger of a fall, now I’m starting to really feel his posture and his movements. Each stride is more than a “bump” of footfall and swing of ribcage. I can feel the muscles down his back stretch and contract, his loin shorten as his hind legs step under, his shoulders drop and lift.

At the same time, Scout can feel every movement that I make. Sometimes that’s less not such a good thing, like if I lose my balance or have a moment of tension. Sometimes it’s a great thing, like if I time my leg and shift of weight to match his hind leg stepping forward to get a leg yield. At the end of the day, we’re having more moments of communication than of confusion and tension.

Bonus: I’m Braver Than I Thought. And You Probably Are, Too

One of the most precious outcomes of my crazy bareback riding decision has been the dramatic boost in my confidence. I don’t hesitate anymore before I swing aboard. I still have moments of tension and imbalance, but those moments don’t spark moments of panic anymore. We have come a long way in a few weeks, from nerves at just climbing on to feeling bold enough to ask for canter bareback… although I’m not yet balanced enough to stay out of his way to keep it for more than a stride. For me, for now, the win is that I asked for it, and when I asked there was no moment of fear. I’m actually starting to prefer bareback riding with Scout. This fact almost shocks last-year-me.

Bareback rider jumping
Photo by Nimloth250 [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/03/DSCF5077_-_Kopi.JPG
How long has it been since you’ve ridden bareback? Do you make bareback riding a regular part of your riding routine? Why or why not? Do you enjoy bareback riding, or do you dread it? What has bareback riding taught you? Share your story in the comments, and remember, you should be riding!

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