Horseback Riding Looks Easy: The Truth About Riding


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When watching horseback riding, the riders just sit there not doing much, aside from their arms and legs moving subtly as the horse responds and does as the rider tells them.

If you are an equestrian you probably just snorted at this, but as a non-horse person, these are common thoughts.

So is horseback riding easy? Horseback riding is not easy. Riding requires proper posture, flexibility, strength, coordination, balance, understanding of horses, proper training and technique. As well as building trust, confidence, good communication and proper training with the horse which has a mind of their own.

It is so easy for someone to look at horseback riding and say it’s easy. If it looks easy that means the rider is probably skilled. It takes many years for a rider to become good at the basics.

Most people have at least ridden before but on a trail ride at the walk, or had a pony ride when they were a kid. If this is was all riding consisted of then yeah riding would be easy. But it’s not.

Try trotting when you have never done it before. The horse starts to speed up from your lack of balance as you start to grip with your legs. Then you to try to stay on, curling up in a fetal position as your self-preservation instincts take hold.

Before you know it you’ve fallen off and are in the dirt.

Let’s take a closer look at what is involved with riding horses and answer some questions you may have.

Videos To Help See Difference Between A Beginner Rider And A Pro

Here are two videos of english riding equestrians at different ends of the spectrum. One rider is a complete beginner and the other has been riding and training for a very long time.

Beginner Rider

Advanced Dressage Rider

What Aspects Of Horseback Riding Make It Hard?

The hardest part of riding is that there is so much involved with becoming a good equestrian. A  good equestrian is not just someone that can stay on the horse, make the horse do what they want and look pretty doing it.

A good equestrian has the horse’s welfare in mind, understands horse behavior, knows how to properly care for horses, knows how to properly train a horse so that the horse likes their job and is willing to work in a partnership with the rider.

Aspects of Horseback Riding That Make It Hard

  • Getting hurt or injured and riding fears.
  • Establishing a leadership role and keeping it.
  • If you ride or handle horses you are a trainer. Maybe not a good one.
  • Keeping your riding position and balance during each gait, transition, and movement.
  • Moving with your horse instead of bouncing. 
  • Being clear and concise with your aids, instead of confusing your horse with mixed signals.
  • Being able to use limbs and body independently of each other and at the same time.
  • Recognizing when bad behavior under saddle is just bad behavior, or if the behavior is a reaction to pain, fear or excitement.
  • Creating a desire for the horse to want to work with you.

There are more aspects that make riding difficult that can be mentioned. But I am going to go over each of these aspects so you can be able to get a better idea of the difficulties these can propose.

Getting hurt or injured and riding fears

Riding has risks involved. Horses are big powerful animals. There are more ways to get hurt than just falling off while riding. This is probably the hardest part about riding next to being fearful while riding.

Many people say they are most afraid of losing control of the horse. But the reality is that they are afraid of possibly getting hurt as a result of losing control.

I have fallen off many times and most of the time I got back on right after. I knew if I didn’t immediately hop back on after falling I would be filled with fear the next time I rode.

I just wanted to get on and end on a good note even if that means just walking around the arena. So the next time I ride I am not as afraid as I would have had if I didn’t get right back on

I have had circumstances where I didn’t get back on right away because I had hurt myself bad enough. Most of the time the falls I’ve experienced haven’t been terrible. I just end up sore the next day with some bruises. But I’ve also had some really painful falls too.

It is really hard getting back in the saddle when you feel that fear knawing at the pit of your stomach.

I have noticed as a mom, I am a more cautious rider but I don’t feel fear like I used to. Right now it feels more like respect for what could happen. I don’t take more risks than I absolutely have to.

Establishing a leadership role and keeping it.

The partnership is about 40/60. The horse is 40 and the rider is 60. The rider is the leader. Horses like to have a leader. They feel safer when they have a leader. But if they feel like no one is leading usually the horse will take on that leadership role.

Looking at horses in herds, there is a pecking order and a leader in the herd. When a horse gets out of line in the leader’s mind or a higher level in the pecking order, that lower-level horse may be bitten, kicked, chased or given a warning.

Having to establish that you are the leader can be difficult as an equestrian especially when you are just starting out because part of being a leader in the horse-rider relationship is being able to understand and read the horse, be able to tell when the horse is starting to take over that leadership position

If you ride or handle horses you are a trainer. Maybe not a good one.

Another thing to note is that when you are riding or working with a horse, you are training that horse. Even if you are a complete beginner you are constantly teaching that horse what is okay and not okay, whether they can trust humans or not, whether they have to lead or you are competent enough to lead. 

There are many beginner horse owners that start off with well-behaved horses and overtime the horses become misbehaved and sometimes dangerous. 

This is because horses will test their handlers and riders to see what they are allowed and not allowed to do. Usually, beginners don’t realize they are letting their horses have their way most of the time or don’t know what to do about certain behaviors that subtly start to develop.

This also happens with lesson horses. They start to learn bad habits from the beginner riders. Often they need to have regular schooling with more experienced riders so they maintain their level of training and bad habits starting to developed can be fixed.

Keeping your riding position and balance during each gait, transition, and movement

The rider’s position is something that will be forever corrected and perfected in any equestrian’s career. There is always room for improvement and when time is taken off usually you will backslide with your riding position and it can be frustrating to get back to where you were before.

As a beginner rider getting the correct position and then keeping it just at the walk and trot can be very difficult and sometimes frustrating.

Often beginner riders will have bad posture and slouch in the saddle like a sack of potatoes, with their legs too far forward and their toes pointing down.

Even when beginners have better posture, it is common that they find themselves in a chair position. Which like the name, looking from the side the rider’s position resembles as if they are sitting in a chair.

Along with the correct position the rider needs good balance in the saddle. Your balance helps to keep you on the horse, can help or hinder the horse’s movement, and can affect how your horse responds when you ask them to do something.

There are different factors to having a good balance. Good balance means you use both sides of your body equally, you have equal weight on both seat bones, you are crooked or leaning to one side of the horse, and you can stay balanced in all movements of the horse.

Sometimes it can be hard for a beginner rider to tell when they are off-balance until they already feel like they might fall off.

Moving with your horse instead of bouncing. 

If you watch the video with the dressage rider you will notice it looks like she is not doing much and mostly just sitting there other than adjustments here and there of her legs and hands.

The truth is she is constantly moving to stay in motion with the horse. She is tightening her core and moving her pelvis with the horse’s movement taking up the shock and at the same time keeping her upper body still and her legs controlled. There is more to it than this but you get the picture.

If she just sat like a sack of potatoes or if she tensed up in her glutes and legs she would be bouncing on the horses back, her upper body would be all over the place and the horse would not be very happy.

You can’t just sit on the horse relaxed you need to stay relaxed, but hold your posture, keep your hips loose but engage your core, move your pelvis with the horse but keep your upper body still, without stiffening up. 

Of course, there is some movement and shock absorption in your upper body, but you shouldn’t be teetering around, side to side and forward and back with your upper body.

As you can see riding a horse is more than just sitting and relaxing on the horse. Done properly it’s harder than you think.

Being clear and concise with your aids, instead of confusing your horse with mixed signals

This another common problem of beginner riders or riders that are learning a new technique or movement. It even happens with more experienced riders sometimes. You need to make sure you are clear about what you are asking the horse to do. If you give mixed signals you are going to confuse the horse.

Here are two simple examples to help you understand how you may confuse a horse. You want the horse to slow down and stop so you pull back on the reins but the horse is not stopping or slowing down. In fact, the horse is speeding up.

This is because the horse is getting mixed signals and is getting confused. Yes, you are pulling back on the reins and then you pull back harder when the horse doesn’t listen.

This, by the way, is not the correct way to stop your horse. At the same time, you are pulling back on the reins. Your upper body is tilting forward, your heels are up and your legs are gripping the horse’s sides.

You’re telling the horse to speed up and slow down at the same time and not releasing any pressure. The horse is getting upset and quick to try to either get away from the pressure because they are getting uncomfortable or because they think that is what you are asking them to do.

You are not giving clear signals to the horse that you want them to slow down and stop. Which for beginner riders would be: 

  • Relax your legs around the horse’s sides 
  • Still, the movement of your seat, engage your core, sit deeper in the saddle 
  • Stay straight with your upper body, don’t lean forward 
  • Hold pressure on the reins equally
  • As soon as the horse stops, release the pressure from the reins and relax your seat.

That would make it clear to the horse what you are asking. The hard part is many times a rider doesn’t realize the reason that the horse is not responding to what they want, because they are unintentionally confusing the horse.

Being able to use limbs and body independently of each other and at the same time

Moving different parts of your body at the same time doing different functions is hard. Our brains can only think of one thing at a time. So you have to train yourself over time to be able to do this.

For example, asking a horse to canter.

By the way when I say inside and outside as pertains to horse riding I mean:

  • Inside as in the side of the horse that is closer to the inside of a circle, toward the middle of the arena or inside of a turn.
  • Outside I mean the side of the horse closer to the wall or fence of the arena, outside of a circle and outside of a turn.

Back to the example:

You need to have separate control of your limbs and body to ask for the canter accurately and at the same time move with the horse so you don’t bounce and keep your posture straight and your upper body still.

When you ask for a canter the basic signals are 

  1. To bring your inside seat bone forward a little bit.
  2. Flex the horses head to the inside with the inside rein. 
  3. Use the outside rein to keep the horse from overbending.
  4. Apply your inside leg at the girth to ask the horse to move forward.
  5. Sweep outside leg back to ask the horses outside leg to strike off into the canter.

As you can see it is not as simple as sitting like a sack of potatoes and squeezing to get the horse to go.

If your posture or balance is off when you are asking for a canter, many times the horse will just speed up in the trot because your lack of balance is affecting the horse’s balance and making it difficult for them to pick up the canter.

Recognizing when bad behavior under saddle is just bad behavior, or if the behavior is a reaction to pain, fear or excitement

Unfortunately, there are many many times when horses are misbehaving under saddle because they are afraid or feeling pain.

If the horse is misbehaving because of pain that usually means the horse has been putting up with the pain for quite a while before finally acting out.

Unless it was sudden onset pain such as from a new injury or strain. The most common pain for horses under saddle is due from a saddle not fitting on the horse properly, or the saddle not being properly placed on the horse’s back.

There are times when the horse is misbehaving because they have a more aggressive personality and they are challenging the handler or rider because they want to be dominant over the person.

Though this is a possibility, horses are generally willing to please and thrive with positive reinforcement.

Sometimes negative reinforcement is necessary, to keep the handler rider safe and make the rules black and white to the horse. It is no different than a dominant horse establishing who the leader is and that the leader is to give the shots.

Another thing to consider is that sometimes horses act out like bucking, running off, etc. because they have a lot of energy, they are excited or having fun.

Horses can be seen doing this out in their paddocks and pastures. In this case, they have to understand they can’t behave that way around humans because it is not safe. They may not have ill intent but you still have to set boundaries to keep safe

The hard part about deciding what to do when a horse misbehaves while riding is knowing what is the cause so that you take the right course of action. You don’t want to punish a horse that is misbehaving because they are trying to tell you they are in pain.

But you also don’t want to let a horse learn dangerous habits because you think they are in pain but it is really the horse being dominant and aggressive.

Personally I always like to try to rule out pain as a factor first, since it is the most common reason.

Creating a desire for the horse to want to work with you

Some horses like to work with people while others don’t. The hard part is when you are working with a horse that wants nothing to do with you. 

Why horses may not have a desire to work with you:

  • Maybe they had bad experiences in the past
  • maybe they are bored with doing the same thing over and over
  • maybe they don’t feel good and are in pain
  • maybe their personality is to do as little as possible

It can be hard to know why they might not want to work with you exactly. But there are ways to create that desire in horses that don’t have it. Is it easy? No, it takes work and building trust and making things fun for the horse.

The fact that horses can choose to not want to do something is an aspect that can make riding difficult.

What Determines How Easy Horseback Riding Will Be?

When people start horseback riding there are factors that determine how difficult or easy it will be for that specific person to learn to ride. There is no one size fits all way of learning when it comes to people learning to ride horses or with how to train horses.

This makes it hard to answer the question of how long does it take to learn how to ride horses well?

The factors that determine how easy horseback riding will be for you:

  • Your core strength- if you have a strong core riding will be easier.
  • Your flexibility- if you are flexible, especially in your hips it will be easier to move your legs around in the saddle and keep from gripping due to tightness.
  • Your fitness level- riding requires a level of fitness. You will get tired much less quickly than someone who is out of shape and huffing to catch their breath as well as making more mistakes from being tired.
  • Your balance- You will feel more secure on the horse, which will help you gain confidence and your horse will be happier. An unbalanced rider can create more conflicting signals to the horse.
  • Your coordination- You will be able to be clearer with your signals to the horse.
  • Confidence in your ability– Will help you be clear and not constantly second guess what you are doing which can add more confusion to the horse.
  • Fear level- Fear will hold you back a bit and possibly put you at a slower pace in your riding journey.
  • How even you are throughout your body– The more even you are in your body, the easier it will be to stay balanced. Unevenness in riders can cause horses to become not only unbalanced or confused about signals but over time can cause a horse to become uneven as well, such as back muscles.
  • Ability to use both sides of the body equally– Makes for more effective communication with the horse and less likely to confuse the horse. Makes for better riding in both directions around the arena.
  • Your posture– Affects your balance, the horse’s movement and how accurately you apply the aids, and how effectively you’re able to ride.
  • Whether you have a good instructor teaching you– It’s much easier when you have a good riding instructor. They will help you develop a good foundation of riding skills that can be built upon. They challenge you, but they won’t push you past what you can handle. 
  • The horse’s movement, is it smooth? Big and bouncy? Short and choppy?– Smooth horses are the easiest to ride as far as movement goes. When you sit the trot and canter your hips don’t have to move as much because the horse has less suspension. 
  • The horse’s responsiveness and willingness, respond easily to aids? Tuned out and ignores aids? Try to do their own thing?– A willing horse that responds to signals promptly is much easier to ride than a horse that is overly sensitive and overreacts from the signals or a horse that ignores the signals the rider is asking.
  •  The fit of the saddle–  in this circumstance I’m talking about the fit for the rider.  to make reading easier you want to settle that properly fits the rider so that the writer is able to stay in the correct position. Most commonly saddles that don’t fit their riders tend to put those riders in a chair seat.

These are just some of the factors that contribute to how easy override you’ll have. There are a few others that I haven’t covered. But I just wanted to give you a basic overall idea of what to expect.

What Is Riding An Easy Horse Like?

 The horse that I am going to describe is basically a dream horse that most of you won’t ever get a chance to ride. This type of horse would be an exceptional horse in general and have good training.

  • A horse that is easy to ride has a few different qualities. 
  • Their temperament is calm and quiet and the horses Brave and not much scares them.
  • They are very forgiving toward their riders’ mistakes. Meaning they don’t get easily upset when the rider makes a mistake.
  • They are willing to try to do what the rider asks. Even when they don’t understand what the rider is asking they still try. 
  • The horse is responsive. Meaning when the rider applies the aids for a specific movement or gait the horse is quick to do what is asked.
  • Their rhythm is steady, they don’t tend to go back and forth from being quick to being slow, Their speed just stays the same at whatever gait. 
  • The horse’s gaits are fairly smooth and easy to ride because there is not much bounce in the suspension phases. 

If you want to ride an easy horse these are the different qualities, traits, and skills an extremely easy horse would have.

The horses you are most likely to be working with we’ll have weaknesses. it is better for beginners to learn on well-trained easier horses so that they can develop their skills and an independent seat.

What is an Independent Seat? An independent seat is when a rider can balance and move in rhythm with the horse so that he/she can use her seat, hands, weight, legs and ALL aids independently and without compensating anywhere else with her body

Salisbury Farms

However, when you do work with more difficult horses and you learn to ride them well you will become a better writer then if you are working with an easier horse.

But then you also have to take into consideration that on an easy horse you’ll develop your skills faster and trying to learn basic skills on a more difficult horse will take longer.

Just some thoughts for you to consider. no matter if you ride an easier horse or not it’s still going to be work and it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for you to learn to ride.

What Is Riding A Difficult Horse Like?

Just so you also have an idea of what a difficult horse might be like, I’m going to list off some characteristics and experiences you may encounter with the more difficult horses.

  • The horse may be dull to your leg aids, which means that the horse will be more difficult to get going and to keep going. This can cause the rider to tire out pretty quickly. 
  • The horse may like to test their rider. For example, you want to keep the horse out on the edge of the arena but the horse wants to turn in and go to the center of the arena. So it ends up being a battle of who’s more stubborn and who’s going to give in.
  •  The horse may have really choppy gaits where it feels like you’re going up and down a little quicker because the strides are shorter but you’re also being jolted a little bit in the saddle… which is uncomfortable.
  •  The horse may have really big and bouncy gaits with longer strides that throw you up out of the saddle more.  In this case, you need to be more in control over your body and use more core strength to help keep yourself stable and balanced.
  •  The horse may be higher energy and more sensitive. In this case, the horse will be quicker and have a more difficult time relaxing. This can cause the rider to be more tense and nervous.
  • The horse may have certain quirks like not standing at the mounting block, getting excited and bucking in the canter, sometimes jumping over ground poles, sliding to a stop when they don’t want to do something.
  • There may be some horses that are sour about being ridden because either they are in pain or they’re bored and sometimes they act. They may do things such as kicking out, rearing, running off, spinning, trying to bite the rider’s legs, trying to rub the rider against the wall or fences. 

 I am not saying a beginner should be riding some of these horses or that anybody should be riding some of these horses especially if they’re in pain. But I just want to point out some things with horses equestrians have to sometimes deal with.

I hope this helps you to understand a little more about the truth of riding horses. That it is not as easy as many people think, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye and it takes a long time to get good at riding.

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Cheers,

Kacey


Kacey

My name is Kacey, known as Kacypony on my YouTube channel. I've been an equestrian most of my life, a professional for about 10 years and more recently a stay at home mom. Learn more about me here: www.sparklesrainbowsandunicorns.com/about-kacey-cleary/

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