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First Time Riding a Horse? 10 Tips to Look Like an Expert in the Saddle

by Alberto G. Güitrón

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Are you thinking of going horse riding for the first time? Don’t be ashamed if you’re a bit nervous about it, it’s only natural to feel that way when you’re about to ride a relatively large, living animal! 

This is why it’s very important that you’re guided by an expert or a trained professional when you start horse riding. Not only will they be able to provide the support or reassurance that you need to feel comfortable riding a horse, but they can also share some riding tips that are suitable for beginners. 

After all, every expert was once a beginner too, right? They will be able to relate to what you are going through and share their insights on what may be able to help you while you learn to horse ride.

As one lesson will not nearly be enough for you to be able to ride a horse properly, one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to take up horse riding for the very first time is to go on a horse riding holiday for beginners.

During a horse riding holiday, you will have ample time to not only build up your horse riding skill but also establish a relationship with your horse. Also, you will be able to meet other people who are beginner horse riders too and gain new likeminded friends through the experience.

That said, if you’d like to get a bit of a head start before your horse riding vacation, here are some tips that’ll help you look like a horse riding pro:


1. Wear proper horse riding gear

english riding male proper attire


It might be obvious, but regardless of your preferred style of riding (Western vs. English riding), you don’t want to show up wearing a miniskirt, shorts, or beach sandals. Long pants and proper footwear are essential for horse riding. Any close-toed shoes might do the job, but it would be ideal if you have a pair of a low heeled boot (no more than 1-1.5 inches) to avoid your feet from slipping through the stirrups.

Don’t wear scarves, purses or any other accessory that could get tangled in the horse, the saddle or even a tree. Lastly, to be completely safe, it is recommended to always wear a helmet to protect your head (you know, just in case).  


2. Greet your horse



Keep in mind that your horse is a living creature, not a vehicle that you can control at your will. The horse could also be nervous, tired or even scared to have someone new riding him. Therefore, to establish a good relationship since the beginning, greet your horse when you’re introduced to him at the ranch.

To greet your horse, extend your arm and offer the back of your hand to him to smell and wait until he touches it with his nose. This simple action is called the “horseman’s handshake” and you could interpret it as a way to ask him for permission to mount him.


3. Mount with confidence


mount a horse


If you’re nervous, the horse can feel it and he might become uneasy too. If you go on a ranch vacation, you’ll find that the horses at ranches are typically trained to be mounted on the left side. Most possibly, your guide will be holding your horse’s head while you’re mounting, but if that’s not the case, ask someone to do it so he doesn’t move while you get on him.

Lift your left foot into the stirrup, hold both reins with your left hand and propel yourself up with your right leg trying to mount as smoothly as possible. Don’t push the horse down with your arms, this could hurt him; you can put your hands on his back but just for balance.



4. Don’t slouch. Sit up straight and relaxed


a woman riding a horse

Maybe you happened to watch the Kentucky Derby and felt excited enough to think that you had to hunch to ride as fast as possible like the professional jockeys on TV. Well, keep in mind that you’re on a calm horse riding weekend, not at the Grand National.

The best position to keep control of your horse is to sit up straight and tall, relax your back, hold the reins gently, set a foot in each stirrup, and hold your balance to not make your horse feel like he’s carrying a heavier load.


5. Be gentle with the reins


riding reins

Your riding technique might depend on which style you’re learning, English or Western. In English riding, you take a rein in each hand, while in Western riding you grab both reins in one hand. Whichever you choose, relax your arms and never pull too hard or you might hurt your horse. There’s rarely a good reason to lift the reins above your shoulder level, your arms should normally form right angles at the elbow.

To direct your horse to the left, move the left rein towards the left in a motion like opening a door. If you want to steer to the right, just do the same with the right rein. Stop by gently pulling back and pushing the heels down.


6. Don’t hold the saddle horn to stay on


saddle horn


When horse riding in the USA or Mexico, you most likely will find a saddle horn in your saddle which you can hold on to – but you should not count on the saddle horn to keep your balance. If you feel unstable, try adjusting your posture, extending your legs or holding the reins more gently, but the saddle horn should not be used for that.

If you make it a habit to hold the saddle horn, when there’s an unexpected situation along the way, this is a much more ineffective position to keep your balance and you’ll be more likely to fall. That’s why you should never get used to holding onto the saddle horn even though you’re just walking. It’s better to learn properly from the start than developing bad habits that could hurt you in the long run.

Note that in the UK or other countries in Europe, saddles are usually not equipped with saddle horns but you should also avoid holding the front of the saddle for balance.



7. Keep your eyes where you’re going


eyes of the horse

Don’t fix your gaze on your horse while you ride. As beautiful as he is, you must always keep your eyes on the trail. Staring at your horse would be the equivalent of paying attention to the hood of your car while ignoring the road ahead (you surely wouldn’t want to be in a car with such a driver).

It is said that you should look ahead through the horse’s ears. But as long as you keep sight of the path while holding a straight posture, that should be enough to have a safe trail riding trip.


8. Stay in tune with your horse


horse connection


Here’s our best Mr. Miyagi-ish lesson: be your horse. Stay calm and move your body to the rhythm of your horse. Feel the way he is walking and let him rock you from side to side without resisting. If you’re too tense, you might bounce, get thrown off balance and cause some discomfort in your back.

Let the horse be. And this doesn’t mean that you can let him do whatever he wants, but you can play the role of a leader, not the one of a dictator.


9. There’s nothing wrong with just walking


horse walk


Remember point number 4? Reread the first paragraph and regain that mindset for tip number 9. Most horses have four gaits: walk, trot, canter, and gallop. As you might have deduced with your anti-Kentucky derby mindset, galloping is out of the question when you’ve just started with horse riding.

The walk is the steadiest gait and that could very well be the fastest you go the first time. It’s not worth it putting your safety at risk just for the sake of impressing someone (besides, a broken arm, if you fall, is not as impressive as it was in high school).

You can probably start trotting at one point, but anything faster might not be the wisest decision as a newbie.


10. Dismount like a pro


Whoa! Once you’re ready to dismount, make sure your horse is still and it’s much better if someone holds the horse while you do so. Get both feet out of the stirrups, lean forward, swing your right leg over the horse, and jump off.

Just as when you mounted, try to do it as smoothly as you can. Thank your horse, give him some water and embrace the feeling of having come back safe. You most possibly won’t be able to wait much longer to get on a horse again!


Want to ride a horse but you think you need a lot of money to do so? Well, you don’t! There are many affordable horse riding vacations where you can experience this amazing activity without having to spend a ton. 

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