Bareback Riding Lessons: 5 Things I’ve Learned

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!

Becoming a Beginner Again… Sort of…

This one is for the folks returning to horses after taking some time off. Maybe “real life” took priority for a while, or a couple of decades. Or maybe you had an injury, or are perhaps coming back after pregnancy. Maybe you haven’t been completely out of the game, but riding has taken a drop on the priorities list. But no more — you’ve realized that you should be riding, and you’re making your comeback! Go you!!

For better or worse, no matter how much reading or rail-sitting you’re able to do to keep yourself involved, the fact remains that time off, especially prolonged time off, brings even the most seasoned rider back a few levels in ability when they come back. This can be frustrating, but isn’t a “bad” thing per se. It is expected, and something that is best accepted, embraced, and worked forward from. It is okay to be a beginner again.

Beginner Rider Happy Little Girl
Stock photo courtesy of Pexels.com

Factors that Bring You Back to “Beginner” During a Break

This situation can sometimes be harder than coming to horsemanship as an adult greenie. Adult greenies have their obstacles, for sure (fodder for another post?), but the returning rider carries many of the same obstacles along with the memories of their former abilities. You have expectations of your body and emotions that reflect your younger equestrian self, not your current place.

This mismatch between expectation and reality doesn’t just apply to folks coming back after a break of decades. Even skilled teenage riders who step back to focus on higher education and starting a career, return to the sport in their mid to late 20s can find that the intervening 4-5 years have wrought major changes to both body and mind. You’re still young, maybe still relatively fit, but you’ve seen a bit more of the world and have more responsibility, more experience overthinking. Everyone who has ever set toe into stirrup understands what I mean when I say that riding will show you muscles you didn’t know you had. Those muscles don’t really get exercised by any other activity, and are hard to keep riding-fit during a break.

Beginning Doesn’t Mean The End… Obviously, or Not So Much

I say “obviously,” because the beginning is by definition the start. It is no doubt disheartening to discover that while your mind and understanding of the sport is thinking about intermediate-plus riding theory, skills, and movements, your body will barely allow you to balance well in walk.

This is a tougher mental obstacle than a lot of folks expect. It can really knock you down a peg, make you feel like a failure, like a shadow of your former self. But that’s the thing… you are a shadow of your former self. Just like your even-more-former-than-that self was a shadow of your future self. And, to quote Gandalf… “that is an encouraging thought.”

Grant Yourself The Grace to Be Where You Need to Be

This is a sort of wonderful corollary to the idea of riding the horse you have today. Extend the same grace to yourself, and ride as the rider you are today. Think of yourself in the same way as you think of your project horse. Turn your attention to your foundation, and build back up.

Confident Body

Pick up some beginner riding books. Not necessarily kids’ riding books, but beginner riding books. I’m a big fan of the US Pony Club Manual, along with the classic Centered Riding by Sally Swift, but there are literally hundreds of resources that fall into this category. Remind yourself of the very basics of good riding. Start at the very beginning, and test yourself for holes and gaps. Make sure that what you know in your mind still translates to your body. Try to step back from yourself, treat yourself as if you were your nit-picking instructor, building a new rider into a capable and confident horseman, and putting the best tools and advice in place to guide that transformation.

Find a nit-picking instructor. A nit-picking beginner rider instructor. Explain at the outset that you are a formerly experienced rider, but that you are coming back to basics after time off. Ask them to really drill you on those basics, of correct and effective position and seat and aids. Even if your time away hasn’t truly brought you all the way back to square one, you will find gaps in need of attention. As these gaps are addressed, your skill and confidence will bounce back.

This idea is exactly the same as bringing a horse back into condition after an extended layoff. You wouldn’t expect even a Grand Prix schoolmaster to come cold from the paddock after a season off to step off into a connected, rhythmic, active piaffe first thing. You would no doubt start that ride by showing him the tack and testing his acceptance of the most basic parts of being ridden. The piaffe is still in there, but the horse needs to work back up to it, both physically and mentally. We as riders need to recognize that we need the same process to come back from time off.

Confident Mind

If your confidence hasn’t exactly weathered your time away from the saddle untarnished, grant yourself the grace to set yourself up for success as much as possible. Don’t necessarily rush out and throw the close contact saddle on the forward and scopey jumper that you rode in the past. Acknowledge your present self, your present needs. Maybe start with a Western saddle (if you formerly rode in any of the “English” disciplines), and let the tack help set yourself up for stability, physically and mentally. Start with a levelheaded, been-there-done-that mount, at least for the first few rides. Even if your confidence is intact, you will probably still need a horse that will forgive your antics re-learning balance in the body, stability in the leg, and softness in the hand. As your basics re-solidify, your strength and stability in body will support your mental and emotional confidence.

Allow Yourself to Reclaim a Beginner’s Joy

The most helpful things to revisit as you make your comeback are the reasons why you began riding in the first place. Before you became absorbed with competition, before you had to prioritize the practical in your life… try to reclaim the headspace of the person who was first drawn to these magnificent animals.

Living in that unbridled joy around horses again can dramatically ease the tension and drive the reintroduction of horses and riding into your life. Focusing on the simple joy of being around and with the horse lets you shed baggage you didn’t know you carried. Suddenly the rider you were doesn’t matter anymore. Suddenly you don’t compare yourself to other riders. You are just present with the horse, enjoying his company and the gift of time spent building partnership with him again. And isn’t that joy the reason why most of us started riding in the first place?

Conclusion

Have you ever been in the position of rebuilding your skill or confidence after time away from the saddle? What tools and tactics worked well for you and your horse? I look forward to your comments! For now… off to the barn. I should be riding.