You will become a better rider by understanding how a horse thinks and responds. Horses rely on instincts to flee real and imagined predators. Because of this "fight or flight" response, understanding how to approach and work around a horse, and achieving stability in the saddle through proper balance, provides the foundation to good, safe riding. Once your seat is secure, your sequence of cues, or instructions, should be designed to ask, tell and then make your horse respond correctly.
Learning to tack up a horse -- saddling and bridling him -- starts with grooming him for his health and soundness.
Horses are very good at sensing fear and tension. Understanding how they think can diminish your worries when they react instinctively. As prey animals, horses have a heightened awareness against no-good predators -- the bobcats that leap on their necks or jump on their backs to bring them down. This is why horses have one eye on each side of their heads, allowing them to see almost fully around them. However, this vision has two blind spots: directly in front of their noses, and directly behind their rear ends. Never approach a horse from these two areas.
A predator will never make its presence nor its intentions known to a horse, so differentiate yourself by speaking around your horse, and not surprising him.
The horse and rider partnership dictates that you invade his personal space -- which is 12 to 15 feet around him -- but in doing so you still must be mindful of your predator status versus his prey heritage. Beginning riders typically work with seasoned, older horses that are fairly unflappable. However, even a studious lesson horse can be surprised if he falls asleep while tied, and you suddenly touch him with a brush or saddle pad without making your presence known. Always let your horse know your intentions.
When walking behind a horse, closer is better. Touch his rump and slide your arm over to touch his other side with your hand, moving behind him with your shoulder touching his tail. Most horses won't kick when they know who is behind them. If one does, your proximity prevents him from being able to hurt you as he could if you were at a distance.
Always lead your horse from the side, typically the left side. Never walk in front of your horse. If a dog comes up directly behind you in the horse's blind spot and darts to the side, appearing as nothing more than a swift movement within your horse's line of sight, even a good horse may react by jolting forward from the unknown four-legged beast -- and straight into you. The horse is not trying to hurt you -- he's trying to preserve himself.
Time to Get On
How you get on your horse can set an early tone for your relationship. Mounting can be physically painful to a horse, particularly if done incorrectly or from the ground. Mounting from the ground using a stirrup can put pressure on the horse's back that is double the rider's weight as you propel yourself up. A seasoned horse subjected to years of floundering students is likely to be back sore -- and possibly a bit wary. Use a mounting block; with one tall enough you won't have to use the stirrups to get into the saddle. Another good option is for someone to give you a "leg up" into the saddle. These methods also decrease your risk of injury if the horse moves or bolts while you have only one foot in the stirrup.
If you do get on from the ground, lengthen the left stirrup enough for your foot to reach it. Stand at your horse's withers facing his hind end. Place your left foot into the stirrup, the spring up into the saddle and lightly settle in.
Your "seat" is how you position yourself in the saddle with the proper balance. A strong, secure seat is your safety mechanism against mishaps. For this reason, establishing that secure base should happen before you learn to go forward, steer or stop a horse. An effective way to do this is to ask a trainer or experienced rider to put you on a longe line. This is a long line or lead attached to the horse's bridle that is controlled by another person, allowing you to solely work on your position basics.
In a Western saddle, your stirrups will be longer in length than in English riding.
Whether you ultimately want to learn to dressage, or just ride the trails, seat basics are the same. Once seated on a horse, there should be an imaginary line from your ear to your shoulder, to the point of your hip and to the back of your heel. The instincts of many beginner riders who are feeling nervous or afraid is to curl their upper bodies into the fetal position. Unfortunately, this disrupts your balance, allowing you to easily pitch off the horse. Another common balance pitfall is losing your leg position if the horse's movement jerks your upper body out of position. Keep your center of gravity low in your seat. The longe line experience can help you feel the horse's movement beneath you. Relax your back and learn to follow that movement with your seat. Once you can keep your legs and hands steady, you can ride without being tethered to the longe line.
Remove both feet from the stirrups when dismounting. Leaving your left foot in the stirrup while you swing your right leg over puts pressure on your horse's back and is a safety hazard if your horse bolts while your foot is still in the stirrup.
Cues are instructions to your horse. According to trainer Odessa Johnson of Crimson Jewel Stables in New Braunfels, Texas, give the horse a chance to respond to the lightest possible cue before asking with a stronger cue. To ask your horse to walk forward, squeeze gently with both legs. If he immediately responds, remove the squeezing pressure as a reward. If not, squeeze harder or tap gently with your foot. Some trainers instruct their riders to use voice commands such as a cluck, or say "walk" or "walk on."
For English riding, you will have one rein in each hand. To steer, slightly open the rein that corresponds with your desired direction, simultaneously squeezing with the opposite leg. For example, if you want to turn right, gently open the right rein and squeeze with your left leg.
Look in the direction you want to turn. Your horse can sense where you are looking and feel very slight turns of your head.
If you are riding Western with a horse that neck reins, hold the reins in only one hand, and shift your hands in the direction you want to turn. This puts pressure from the opposite rein onto the horse's neck. For example, to turn right, simply move your hands to the right. The left rein puts light pressure on the left side of the horse's neck, instructing him to move away from that pressure and turn right.
Pulling back on the reins is the last cue you give your horse when asking him to stop. First sit deep in your seat so your movement stops. Many horses will slow and stop from this cue alone. Tighten your abdomen and close your fingers on your reins. If your horse still doesn't stop, say "whoa" and gently pull back on the reins until he stops. Release the pressure once he stops to reward him.
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.