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Riding Styles: Bareback
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [1999]

Riding bareback can be fun and a great learning experience! Since there is no saddle, riding bareback will help you learn to balance better on your horse without the aid of stirrups. It can also help you improve your sitting trot! Most of all, riding bareback can be a fun challenge!

Always make sure that there is someone with you when you are riding bareback. If you have never ridden bareback before, make sure your instructor assists you by lunging or walking with you!

Before attempting to ride bareback, you should be able to ride balanced at a walk, trot and canter in a saddle without using stirrups. For your first bareback ride, you may want to ask a friend or instructor to lunge you, this will allow you to concentrate more on keeping your balance and less on controlling the horse.

One of the most important things to remember when riding bareback is NEVER clench your heels or calves into the horse's side to keep your balance...if you haven't experienced this, then you probably will! If you start to lose your balance and use your legs to 'hang on', that is the cue to tell your horse to pick up the pace...which may make you lose your balance even worse!

Always keep a solid, soft contact on the horse's back from your seat down to your knee. Your lower leg (calf, heel) should rest very lightly (if at all) on your horse's side. The best way to help you gain this type of contact is to ride with NO calf contact for your first several bareback rides, which will teach you to use your seat and body balance to keep your weight equal on both sides - without clenching with your lower legs!

First, you can try riding bareback using a **bareback pad with stirrups. This will eliminate the more familiar feeling of a saddle, but will still give you the support of stirrups to help you keep your balance.

If you decide to use a bareback pad that has stirrups, be very careful when choosing one. I have tried several types of bareback pads, and they all make the stirrups and girth too far forward. It's like riding in a chair, and it makes it extremely difficult to keep your leg under you. In addition, there's an on-going debate on whether bareback pads that have stirrups are safe or not. In my opinion, nothing is completely safe when you're working with horses, but it does help to have the safest equipment available. So, if you plan to use a bareback pad that has stirrups, be sure to use ONLY quick-release or peacock stirrups.

I have included a picture (above) of a bareback pad that was poorly designed. It places the rider in a position that is not desirable. You should be able to draw a straight vertical line from the rider's ear through her hip to her heel...but you can't!

An extremely helpful tool to use when riding bareback is the stirrup leather: use a plain english stirrup leather (without the stirrup attached!) and strap it around the base of your horse's neck. Should you ever feel like you are about to lose it, you can take hold of this strap to help regain your balance.

If there is no stirrup leather available, the horse's mane will do just fine. Don't worry, you won't hurt him by holding onto his mane! It is very, very common for riders to grab a hold of their horse's mane to regain their balance. For the most part, though, you should try your hardest to hold onto nothing but the reins...but don't use them to get your balance! Using the reins to gain balance may upset your horse and/or teach him bad habits such as running away, pulling on the bit or head shaking.

(All exercises should be practiced at the walk, trot and canter in both directions, and preferably on a lunge line if you have trouble keeping your balance)

1. If you have a tendency to grip with your lower leg when loosing balance:
Keep a solid contact from your seat down to your knee on your horse's back (Come on! No clenching with your knees here!). Hold your calves and heels away from the horse's side, about 6 inches. This will help you gain balance by teaching you to keep your weight evenly distributed across the horse's back without the awful habit of gripping with your calves.

2. If you have a tendency to grip with your knees:
Keep a soft, relaxed seat while holding your knees away from the horse's side - remember not to clench with your lower leg while doing this. It may even be helpful to hold your entire lower limb out away from the horse's side. This exercise will help you to gain stability without the aid of gripping with your knees. This is also an excellent exercise to tone your outer thigh and buttocks!

3. If all else fails, try this:
Keeping a soft, relaxed seat, lift your legs slightly away from the horse's side and up towards his withers for a couple of strides, then release them down, relaxed and long. Repeat several times in each gait. You will find that bringing your legs up toward your chest creates a dependency on your seat and upper body for balance. Releasing them down toward the ground will teach you to recover from an unbalanced or un-natural position.

4. And, of course you should always:
Practice circles and figure-eights, large and small! This helps you learn to keep your body weight directly over the horse's back (no leaning!) at all gaits through circles and turns. Practice a posting trot (only if you do not have trouble clenching with your knees - many riders will use their knees slightly to help them post). Always sit up tall and don't slouch! (This is a very bad mistake some riders make while riding bareback - slouching is not good riding posture, and it could hurt your back!)

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This article was published in: 1999. Last updated in: 1999.