Although people may not think “fitness” when they consider taking the reins, horseback riding can be a serious butt-kicking workout. It may look like the horse is getting all the exercise, but it takes balance, strong legs, and a stable core to stay in the saddle. This old school hobby is an awesome way to spend some quality time in the great outdoors and get beyond a basic gym routine. Before hitting the trails, check out Greatist’s guide to horsing around.
Since people first hopped into the saddle around 3500 BCE, horses and humans have been inseparable partners in crime. When the automobile (aka “horseless carriage”) got popular in the late 1800s, horses became used for recreation, not work. These days most people pony up to exercise, compete, or just have fun. The first step before heading to the barn is deciding which style of riding to try. Most stables teach English style or Western style, although some places offer both. So what’s the difference between English and Western? The two styles use different equipment (aka “tack”), which affects the rider’s position and communication with the horse. English tack is smaller and less bulky, which makes for closer contact between the horse and rider. Western saddles were originally used by cowboys on long cattle drives, so they’re built for comfort and stability with a deep seat, long stirrups, and a saddle horn for looping a lasso (or hanging on!).
Giddy Up — Your Action Plan
A new rider might feel like a sack of potatoes in the saddle, but maintaining the correct position requires a surprising amount of strength. Squeezing the horse to change gaits works the inner thighs, while sitting tall and straight in the saddle uses the back, abdominals, and legs. Ready for the challenge? Take these steps to go from wannabe equestrian to confident cowboy (or girl).
- Safety first. The first step for any new rider is to find a well-reputed local stable. Barns aren’t supposed to smell like the Macy’s perfume department, but a safe establishment should be clean, legitimate, and in good repair. Look for a Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA)-certified riding instructor who has experience with beginners.
- Dress the part. Wear long pants to protect legs from chafing against the saddle, and close-toed shoes with a small heel to keep feet from slipping out of the stirrups. Avoid all clothing that could get tangled in equipment including scarves, thin tank top straps, and long, loose sweaters or shirts. Most stables provide helmets, but call beforehand to make sure. Although not ideal, a bike helmet is better than nothing to protect the noggin in case of a fall.
- Drink up. Horseback riding, especially on a warm day, can work up a sweat, so bring a water bottle to stay hydrated throughout the ride.
- Hay there! Arrive at the stable at least 15 minutes before the lesson time to get to know your new buddy. When meeting a horse for the first time, always stay towards the front and if possible, the left side. Horses have small brains, and they’re trained to expect human activity (leading, saddling, mounting) from the left side. Why? Back in the day, soldiers wore swords on their left hips; if they tried to hop aboard from the right they’d end up sitting on their weapons!
- Follow the leader. When leading a horse, stand to the left of their head and hold the long leather straps, called reins, with the right hand below their chin and with the left hand a little bit down the length of the reins so they don’t drag on the ground.
- Listen Up. Before settling into the saddle of choice, every newbie equestrian should know a bit about how horses see the world. All horses, even the best-trained stable pony, are by nature prey animals and genetically predisposed to run when they sense danger. They have sharp eyes that can see almost 360 degrees around their bodies, ears that prick with the smallest sound, and a good ability to gauge fear or danger. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to approach a horse confidently from the front, speak in a low, calm voice, and avoid sudden movements or noises (so silence that Katy Perry ring tone).
- Check, please. Before jumping into the saddle, make sure the equipment is properly placed and secure. An instructor will help with this process, but even beginners can make sure the saddle doesn’t slide around, that the stirrups are the correct length, and that the straps on the bridle are tight but don’t restrict the horse’s breathing.
- Up and away. Getting on a horse without help can be tricky, so look for a mounting block, which looks like a miniature set of steps. Once the block is positioned on the horse’s left side, put the reins over the horse’s head. Stick the left toe in the stirrup, (the dangling metal bit hanging from the saddle). Hold the reins in the left hand, resting it on the front of the saddle. Put the right hand on the back of the saddle, and gently hoist yourself straight up, swinging the right leg carefully over the horse’s back. Once one leg is on either side of the horse, sit down gently in the saddle and place the right foot in the right stirrup.
- Walk the walk. Most horses have four progressively speedy gaits: walk, trot, canter, and gallop. The walk is the steadiest gait because the horse always has at least one foot on the ground. To master the walk it’s important to relax in the saddle and move with the horse. Sit up tall, with shoulders squared, heels down in the stirrups, and eyes focused ahead between the horse’s ears. This position is the most stable and comfortable for both horse and rider.
- Rein it in. To steer and stop, use the reins, which connect to the metal bit in the horse’s mouth. Always be gentle with the reins — imagine how uncomfortable being jerked around by the mouth would be! Hold the reins with one in each hand, with thumbs on top. Both arms should form right angles at the elbow, with the forearms following the line of the rein. To steer left, move the left rein towards the left in a motion like opening a door. To move the horse’s head right, do the same motion with the right rein. To stop or slow down, gently pull back on the reins while sitting up tall and pushing the heels further down. Tough as it may be, try to resist the urge to lean back and yell “Whoa, Nellie!”
- Trot on. To tell the horse to go from walk to trot (the next fastest gait), gently squeeze the horse’s sides with the insides of the legs. If that doesn’t get things moving, give the horse a gentle kick with the heels. A stable seat is key to preventing getting bounced out of the saddle. Sit deeply, press those legs down, and keep the back tall and straight (but not stiff). In English riding, more advanced riders use their legs to lift in and out of the saddle in time with the horse’s movement; this is called “posting.”
- Rock n’ roll. Ready for more speed? The canter is the fastest gait used in most recreational horseback riding. (The gallop is too speedy to be safe in a riding ring or on a trail where unexpected obstacles might emerge at any time.) The canter is more forward-backward than side-to-side, which is why it’s often compared to a rocking horse. For this gait, sit deeply and add pressure with both legs while keeping the back straight and tall to avoid tumbling forward.
- Chill out. Just like with any exercise, it’s important to cool down after a horseback riding session. Walk the horse for 10-15 minutes, or until its neck is room temperature. To dismount, come to a complete stop and take both feet out of the stirrups. With the left hand, hold both reins and grab the lower part of the horse’s neck (called the withers). Grab the pommel of the saddle with the right hand, and slowly swing the right leg over the horse’s back and carefully slide down towards the ground.
Ready to give horseback riding a shot? Find a lesson barn near you here or here. Depending on where you live, an hour-long lesson will set you back between $20 and $50. Have you gone on a horseback riding adventure? Tell us about it in the comments below or tweet the author at @SophBreene.