Many of us started out learning to ride without a saddle, either because we didn’t have one,or because, if you were like me, your parents insisted you weren’t allowed to use it until you could stay on without one. It’s become a bit of an Aussie bush tradition, and while the thought of simply ‘chucking your kids on’ saddle-less may horrify some today, riding bareback is actually a great way to improve your balance, secure your seat, and develop a closer connection with your horse – literally!
But before we get into some handy tips on how to ride bareback, it is important for us first to look at when NOT to ride bareback. Saddles were invented for a reason and serve a very particular purpose, which varies depending on the saddle. You won’t see someone show jumping at the Olympics in a western saddle and you won’t see a cowboy working cattle in a racing saddle. Apart from these specialised functions, a saddle of any kind distributes the rider’s weight over a larger area on the horse’s back. The structure of a saddle, by design, also provides support for you as a rider, helping you maintain good balance and correct posture. If you or your horse isn’t used to bareback riding, always use a saddle when you’re going to be working hard or for any significant length of time. As with any activity, start short and sweet, and gradually increase the time and workload as your fitness for the task increases. It is also important to take into account your horse’s training and temperament. Many horses that are flighty by nature, have never been ridden bareback before, or have a tendency to be cold-backed may need a little time and patience before you can go cantering off around the countryside without a saddle.
So you think you’re ready to ride bareback. You’re a pretty competent rider and after all, it’s so much quicker to just jump on and go, right? Well, yes and no. If you’re comfortable with it and your horse has no worries, then sure! But a lot of people – and a lot of horses for that matter – become a bit nervous when it comes to bareback, and that’s okay. The following hints and tips will have you feeling comfortable and happy riding without a saddle – and literally closer to your horse than ever before.
Ride without stirrups
You’ve probably heard it a million times before, and yes we know it can be hard, but riding without stirrups really does work wonders! Riding without stirrups improves your balance and makes you think harder about maintaining your posture and correct position, making your aids more effective. It’s also great practice for making the transition to bareback, because you won’t be using stirrups if you haven’t got a saddle.
That being said, many bareback saddle pads do come with stirrups attached. However, if you are considering spending money on a bareback pad, opt for one without them. Unlike a saddle, a bareback pad has no firm structure for support, and if you press too much weight into one stirrup, the whole piece of gear is much more likely to slide off to one side and take you with it. In the interests of safety, take the stirrups away.
Use a bareback pad
Bareback pads can be a great piece of equipment, especially if your horse is naturally slender, or has a high wither. Choose one without stirrups like we just discussed, and find one that suits you and your riding style. Pads come in a wide range of styles and materials, and you may find that in some you feel as though you tend to ‘slip’ on the pad. Microfiber suede pads are a bit pricier, but generally last longer through every day wear and tear, and can give the rider a bit more grip on the material. Some pads even come with an attachment at the front for you to hold onto should you lose your balance. If bareback is something you’re seriously considering getting into, or if your horse is a bit cold-backed without a saddle, a bareback pad is a great investment to consider.
Getting on and off
Getting on without a saddle can be a little trickier than with one. If your horse isn’t too tall, you can simply stand on a mounting block and slide your leg over that way. If you’re fairly athletic, you may find it easier to jump up and lay your belly across his back, and then swing your leg over. If you have a helper nearby, asking for a leg up is by far the easiest way to get on bareback. Unless your horse is very quiet and used to the more unusual ways of mounting, it pays to have someone hold his head for the first few sessions just in case he spooks or moves while you’re trying to get on.
Conversely, getting off again is actually a bit easier than with a saddle, since there’s no gear for your leg to get tangled up in. Simply lean forward, swing your leg over to one side, and then slide off.
Gait control is crucial to any form of riding, but especially when learning how to ride bareback. Walk and canter are the easiest gaits to sit to bareback, especially if you haven’t yet mastered the sitting trot. Start with a walk, and canter if you can comfortably make the transition. When it comes to trotting, start out slow, and really push those lower legs down. With practice, you’ll soon master the sitting trot and yes, the posting trot too. It has been said that performing the posting trot bareback is an excellent test of the quality of your seat. This is where practicing riding without stirrups when in a saddle really helps. You need a really secure seat and lower leg, with independent balance. Try not to think of it as gripping with your legs, as this is likely to make the horse want to move faster than you asked for. Use the opportunity to help lengthen your leg, letting them stretch down (always keeping your heels down, of course), while trying to maintain balance through your seat bones – don’t roll your weight forward onto your pelvis! The good news is, it’s a lot easier to feel what your horse is doing when you are sitting directly on his back, so that you can move with him. The more relaxed and balanced you are, the better you will ‘flow’ with the movement of your horse and the more enjoyable riding bareback will be.
As with anything to do with horses, letting nerves or fear get the better of you isn’t going to help anyone. If things aren’t going exactly according to plan, take a step back, breathe deep, and start again slowly. Letting it get you worked up will only make you tense, which will transfer to your horse and exacerbate the problem. Work through the activity until you reach the point where both you and your horse are comfortable, and end the session on a good note. Your horse will remember how fun it was to go without a saddle, and you will build your confidence. So smile! Done right, bareback is incredibly fun and extremely beneficial to all your riding, with or without a saddle.
*Australian Country Life Magazine recognises that legal adults who ride horses are fully responsible for their own safety, including the wearing of all personal protective equipment. The use of a proper fitting riding helmet is recommended, however we also respect that individuals have the right of choice in this matter.*