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Fun or Fiasco? Do You Ride Your Horse Bareback?

My horse’s back does not look inviting to be ridden without a saddle: It’s rather bony. Yet there I was, eyeing it anyway, and wondering if he would mind.

I haven’t ridden a horse bareback since I was about 12. Back then, I resembled Tigger in that my legs were made out of springs. If I fell or got bucked off, I sprang right back.

I will be 50 in January, and I don’t spring so much as carefully climb. But I decided to give riding my gelding Fred bareback a try for the following reasons:

  • I want to be braver
  • I want better balance
  • I want to remember to keep my back straight
  • I want to learn to relax and let my legs hang naturally

I’ve seen the wonderful clinician Jonathan Field riding his horse Hal bridleless and bareback, as well as doing at liberty with him, and it’s inspirational. Field says he thinks bareback riding is a great way for a rider to improve his or her natural balance.

“I love riding bareback because I can feel all the subtle movements in a horse that can help me get in better time with him,” Field told me. Being more in tune to Fred is very appealing to me.

I also wanted to do something different with the big 5-year-old gelding, who seemed rather put out with me lately. We’ve been working on our canter, and well, there’s just no way to do that without lots and lots of cantering.

Pretty soon, when he saw me coming to catch him for a ride, my normally sweet gelding started giving me the equine version of the middle finger and walking away. What?!

No, thank you: Fred turns and walks away when I approach with his halter. | Photo by Amy Herdy

No, thank you: Fred turns and walks away when I approach with his halter. | Photo by Amy Herdy

Clearly, I needed to improve our relationship and not be just about work, work, work. So then I resorted to bribery–except not with treats, but with stretches and massage.

horse at gate

Please, ma’am, may I have more? Now a very relaxed Fred lingers at the gate, hoping for another stretch. | Photo by Amy Herdy

I just started reading Stretch Exercises for Your Horse, and it makes perfect sense to me. Horses are athletes, and we need to treat them as such by warming them up and helping them stretch before we ask them to really perform.

So I started incorporating stretches before and after riding, followed by a little massage. Pretty soon when we were done for the day Fred would linger with me at the pasture gate, licking and chewing in complete relaxation, instead of walking away to find his herdmates. Progress!

I bought a hackamore (hot pink, I plan to use it for my mare Neela, too) and decided we’d start small with this endeavor, which meant 1) only after he was pretty tired from being ridden with a saddle and 2) only in the round pen with the hackamore (until my balance got better). Of course I wore a helmet.

How did it go? Well, for the first few rides, let’s just say that Fred was very glad I was using a hackamore, and I was very glad he has a thick mane, as I found myself clutching it a lot in order to stay aboard. Steering and clutching don’t work well together, so I’m sure we were a comical sight, weaving around the round pen like a drunk driver.

Then slowly, I started to relax, and I found that the more I relaxed, the better I was able to balance. I found that sweet spot in the middle of Fred’s back and learned to let my hips move with his big trot. It has started to feel free, and fun.

I even cantered him bareback once.

Now that I’m not concerned about bumping Fred’s mouth, we have moved on to using a bridle when I ride him bareback, and we have moved on to outside the round pen.

My next goal: To canter him bareback in the big field that is across from the arena where we board. And of course, not fall off.

If you have any advice, I’d love to hear it!

 

 

horse and rider

He’s so good! Fred takes care of me while we ride around one of the pastures. | Photo courtesy of Amy Herdy

horse and rider

Now that we’re getting the hang of it, I am really enjoying being closer to Fred. | Photo courtesy of Amy Herdy

 

Categories: Rider Education.

Tags: , , , , , ,

8 Responses

  1. It is so cool to be able to really feel your horse’s movements beneath you. And it’s nice and warm on a cool day!

    Valued MyHorse ReaderNovember 19, 2013 @ 12:42 pm
  2. Bareback is not particularly comfortable for horses especially if we ride for any length of time. You’re nice and light, but even someone light will become “heavy” due to weight not being distributed. Just something to consider…

  3. Bareback riding does so help with balance and confidence.
    I suggest using some kind of bareback pad, especially if you are going to be riding for a while as it is easier both on you and your horse’s back.
    Even with a bareback pad you can feel subtle movements, breathing, etc.
    I too had the goal to canter and I am at least a decade older than you, Amy!
    I rode my horse in only a bareback pad for over a year to really get confident and connected, then I went back to the saddle.
    I recommend cantering uphill the first time and of course, always try to relax and trust your horse.
    The bareback riding has deepened my connection with my horse and even under saddle now he is so much lighter and responsive to my seat.
    I think both horse and rider greatly benefit from bareback riding. Have fun!

  4. I am a soon-to-be 57 year -old former female athlete who just started riding bareback several months ago. I still have the strength in my legs and core which is important from working out and doing chores and I have good balance still. The switch was awkward at first but with a horse you can trust who doesn’t spook at everything, it became wonderful. With a bareback pad, I’m able to maneuver the same through trails, up steep hills and down with relative comfort and ease. I hardly realize I’m not in a saddle. I also switched to a sidepull from Buckarooleather.com handmade by owner John. It’s fabulous. I wouldn’t recommend riding bareback to everyone because it does take some skill and belief nor is it feasible for every horse but when the right match is made, it’s heaven.

  5. Those are great comments!

    Thanks for the advice–I will start using a bareback pad.

    And Ellie and Judith, you are inspirational!

    -Amy

  6. I am 73 this year and rode my 12 year old very laid back mare bareback much of the last two years, both in pens and on the road (a quiet road with excellent grassy shoulders). The bareback pad made us both comfortable and I was surprised by how much I could still feel all her movements. We started out very slowly, with me just climbing up from a mounting block and sitting quite still. When I picked up the reins the first time, I could feel all her muscles tighten. Even though I had not asked her to do anything she was preparing to respond to me. And her whole body shifted balance when I asked for a step forward. Taking it slow and easy, and cantering only when the surface is really safe, makes bareback a true pleasure, and a great excuse not to rope or drag something as we often did just for variety. Enjoy!

  7. I rode my Arabian gelding bareback and in a rawhide hackamore for 18 years. He liked it so much that he would make threatening gestures if I tried to saddle him. I found that after a little while, the increased feel more than compensated for not having any kind of stirrup. He never had a sore or sore back no matter how long I rode, and I weigh over 200 lbs. We did a huge amount on trails, rode with the fox hunt, jumped without problems to 3 feet high, and even did a little cutting at need. We went at any pace including a flat out run and through any kind of terrain. Must not have been too hard on him since I rode him till he was 30. (Not much toward the end. Arthritis made it hard on him.) He died at 33. I ride a saddle now. My new horse is a little taller and at 64 years old, I can’t make the jump to get on. I feel so disconnected in a saddle now. Maybe teach him to lay down so I can get on. Have to work on that. If you like it, just stick with it.

  8. I’ve found a website with tons of riding videos (saddled and bareback) at http://www.hrtv.com/english/ They have so much content, I’ve been watching events all afternoon!

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