riding bareback

Callan Solem (USA).Warsaw

Riding bareback bareback riding has been prohibited in many riding schools across the UK. The primary reason given is safety concerns, as riding without a saddle is considered unsafe and could compromise the school’s insurance policy. Additionally, at British Horse Society (BHS) Where To Train Centres, there are strict guidelines for no-stirrups lessons. Instructors are required to ensure that riders always have either reins or stirrups. If the stirrups are removed, riders must hold the reins, and if the reins are not held, riders must have both feet in the stirrups. These measures are in place to enhance safety and comply with insurance requirements.

What is Bareback Riding ?

Riding bareback, the practice of riding a horse without a saddle, has historical roots dating back to times when saddles were not yet developed. While once born of necessity, bareback riding has surged in popularity over the past decade among equestrians and enthusiasts. But why ride bareback?

Firstly, riding bareback enhances a rider’s balance and core strength. Without the support of a saddle, riders must rely on their own balance and muscle control to stay seated, which naturally improves their riding skills.

Secondly, it fosters a deeper connection with the horse. The close contact without a saddle allows riders to feel and respond to the horse’s movements more intuitively, enhancing communication and harmony between horse and rider.

Additionally, bareback riding offers unique training benefits. It can help riders develop a better seat and posture, as any slouching or imbalance is immediately noticeable. This immediate feedback can accelerate learning and improve overall riding technique.

Moreover, bareback riding is an excellent way to build trust and confidence between horse and rider. It encourages a more relaxed and comfortable partnership, as both parties must rely on mutual understanding and subtle cues.

In summary, riding bareback is more than just a trend; it’s a valuable practice that enriches the riding experience, strengthens the rider’s skills, and deepens the bond with the horse.

riding bareback

Learning to “Feel” Your Horse

The practice of riding bareback offers a multitude of benefits for both horse and rider. Without a saddle, the rider’s line of communication with the horse is far less obstructed. This direct contact allows horses to pick up on subtle cues more easily. For instance, when a rider sits deep and shifts their weight back, the horse can anticipate a request to slow down or stop.

Bareback riding also strengthens the bond and connection between horse and rider on multiple levels—cognitively, socially, emotionally, and even spiritually. This complete physical connection enhances the overall relationship, positively impacting every aspect of their interaction.

For the rider, bareback riding provides a unique opportunity to improve balance, develop lower leg strength and suppleness, and enhance their “feel”—the ability to read and respond to a horse’s movements. This skill allows the rider to correct balance issues, anticipate movements based on the horse’s body language, and use their positioning to move harmoniously as a pair. However, to fully reap these benefits, it’s essential that the horse is set up for success.

Want to know more about how to improve your rider’s seat? Check out our courses and get valuable training tips from some of the best trainers in the world.

Safety

I sympathize with riding schools, as providing sports tuition is increasingly challenging in today’s litigious environment. It’s unclear if the decline in bareback riding stems from insurance companies raising fees for schools offering it or from other factors. Interestingly, some BHS Approved riding schools still offer bareback lessons without issue, which raises questions about the inconsistency in insurance policies.

Despite this, I believe bareback riding is essential for every rider to experience occasionally. It can be conducted safely and offers significant benefits, enhancing a rider’s balance, feel, and overall skill.

Bareback for riders

In addition to the obvious benefit of improved balance, bareback riding offers an even more profound advantage: the deep connection a rider feels with their horse. When my horse developed a sarcoid behind his elbow, right where the girth sits, I had no choice but to ride him bareback. Initially, I was hesitant due to his sharpness as a young stallion, but after numerous failed treatments, I decided to give it a try. To my surprise, I ended up riding him bareback for an entire year before the sarcoid was finally removed.

Starting cautiously in the arena, I gradually became more comfortable and began hacking out with him, slowly building up to our usual fitness work, including jumping. This experience allowed me to gain an incredible understanding of his movements. When I finally put the saddle back on, it felt like a blindfold had been put over me—I realized how much sensation and communication I had been missing. My security, confidence, and effectiveness in the saddle improved dramatically.

Horses communicate through movement and touch, so when a rider learns to “speak” this muscle language, they come closer to achieving the harmony we all strive for in riding. Issues such as straightness or one-sidedness are easier to explain to novice riders when they can feel these problems directly beneath them, without the perfect mold of a saddle.

Good posture is also critical, as slouching or crookedness in the rider’s body makes it difficult to stay balanced on a horse’s round, slippery back.

For an example of innovative balance and movement training, check out the video below featuring children in a unique lesson setup at a riding school in Dubai. While I am not a fan of the repetitive work for the horses, I appreciate the focus on teaching balance and movement in a safe, agility-focused environment.

riding bareback

Bareback for horses

While I firmly believe that bareback riding can be a wonderful addition to almost any rider’s education, it’s not suitable for every horse. Horses with underdeveloped backs or poor muscle tone are not ideal candidates for bareback riding. This isn’t just because they might be uncomfortable for the rider, but because these horses will struggle to cope with the rider’s weight and the pressure on their bones. A well-fitted saddle distributes weight over a larger area, reducing localized pressure points.

If your horse has a weak back and you decide to ride him bareback, I recommend keeping the sessions very short until his condition improves.

Another consideration is that horses trained to carry themselves well, maintaining a stable and upward posture without flexing their spine downward, may find bareback riding uncomfortable. It’s essential to monitor your horse’s behavior and observe whether they can carry you with a relaxed back without the saddle to protect their muscles from the pressure points created by your seat bones. To understand this better, try sitting on a hard chair and sliding your hands under your seat to feel what your horse experiences over time.

Key signs to watch for include the horse’s neck carriage and fluidity of movement. An experienced instructor can quickly identify back tension in a horse, but many novice riders can feel it too. If your horse shows signs of tension regularly, it’s best to practice bareback riding on a different horse until your own horse’s muscles are better conditioned.

One potential solution for pressure points is using a bareback pad. While I personally haven’t come across research on their effectiveness in protecting the horse, they might help distribute the rider’s weight more evenly.

You Can’t Always Just Jump On: Training a Horse for Riding Bareback

Like any new skill, riding bareback is something that must be taught to a horse. A rider should never just “jump on” and hope for the best. The process for preparing a horse to accept a rider without a saddle is much like that of preparing him to accept a rider with a saddle. When broken down into basic steps, riding bareback will prove not only much safer but a lot more enjoyable!

For the first bareback ride, it’s best to have a second handler present to ensure the safety of all involved. Using a mounting block can also greatly reduce the stress on the horse as he adjusts to accepting a rider’s weight without a saddle for the first time. Since there are no stirrups or saddle horn to aid during mounting, a mounting block can help the rider ease onto the horse gently.

The handler should maintain full control of the horse on a lead or lunge line, especially during the initial bareback sessions. Ideally, this should take place in a round pen or smaller contained area where the rider can gradually increase the amount of weight the horse is asked to bear.

During this desensitization process, the trainer must be gentle and patient, slowly and softly placing her weight on the horse and avoiding any sudden movements or plopping down.

Once mounted, it’s beneficial for the rider to simply sit still on the horse, allowing him to acclimate to the new sensation of her weight without any equipment. Although this might seem time-consuming, investing the extra effort in this training exercise will enhance safety and well-being for both horse and rider, while also strengthening their bond and trust—key components of excellent horsemanship.

As the horse becomes more comfortable with the rider bareback, he should still be ridden on the lunge line for added safety. The rider can gradually introduce different gaits, increasing in both difficulty and speed, and practice stopping, backing up, and changing direction. This gradual approach allows the pair to develop a mutual understanding and feel for each other without the interference of equipment.

When used safely and appropriately, riding bareback can exemplify the clarity of communication between rider and horse and foster tremendous growth during the training process. For more tips and in-depth training techniques, check out our courses and learn from some of the best trainers in the world.

Dispelling the Myth

Many individuals believe that riding a horse bareback can be painful or damaging to the horse’s back. A recent study conducted by Michigan State University compared the pressure points on seven horses while being ridden both with a saddle and bareback to assess the potential for tissue damage, contusions, and stress on the animals’ backs.

The data collected indicated that when ridden bareback, there were several areas where the pressure reached levels that could cause pain and potential tissue damage, particularly where the riders’ seat bones made contact with the horses’ backs.

In contrast, the scans taken while the horses were ridden with a saddle showed fewer high-pressure areas. The saddle’s design helps distribute the rider’s weight more evenly across the horse’s back, reducing the likelihood of pressure points that can lead to discomfort or injury.

This study underscores the importance of understanding the physical impacts of bareback riding and highlights why it is crucial to approach this practice with care and consideration for the horse’s well-being. For more insights and detailed training techniques, check out our courses and learn from some of the best trainers in the world.

riding bareback

What Do We Do with these Results ?

So, what is the takeaway from this study? The advantages of riding bareback are immense. It teaches riders to develop their balance, communicate more effectively with their horses, and utilize their primary aid—their seat—to ride more efficiently. This practice aligns riders with the natural movements of their horses, a fundamental principle of dressage.

New studies will continue to enhance our understanding of how to best care for our animals with consideration and compassion. Riding bareback is not only educational but also enjoyable. Therefore, there’s no need to eliminate this practice altogether. Instead, it’s crucial to ride with discretion, always being mindful of our horse’s well-being and any potential discomfort. This ensures that the joy they bring to our lives is a happiness we can continually return to them.

For more insights and detailed training techniques, check out our courses and learn from some of the best trainers in the world.

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