Riding a horse without a saddle is often thought of as a romantic way of riding where the horse and rider are as one but is it really possible to ride bareback or is it just the stuff of movies? As an instructor, this is something I’m often asked which is why I decided to research whether or not you really can or should. I’m sure, like me, you’ll be surprised by what I discovered.
Can you ride a horse without a saddle? It’s certainly possible to ride a horse without a saddle but you shouldn’t do it for prolonged periods of time or for consecutive days. This is because the rider’s weight isn’t dissipated over the horse’s back as it is with a conventional saddle.
We learned to ride horses long before the saddle was ever invented (in fact, evidence points to us riding for between 4,000 and 5,000 years before the first saddle was fashioned from cushions and pads) so there’s no doubt that horses can be ridden without a saddle. The real question though is how do you actually ride without a saddle, not to mention how to get on a horse without the aid of stirrups to give you a metaphoric step?
Is it easy riding a horse without a saddle?
There’s a popular misconception amongst non-riders (and some riders too) that riding without a saddle is easy because you can just relax but this couldn’t be further from the truth. To some extent riding without a saddle (or riding bareback as it’s often referred to) is harder than riding with one but that doesn’t mean to say it’s difficult as long as you keep a few things in mind.
It might be tempting to relax because there’s no saddle to help you maintain your position but it’s even more important that you do keep your posture. If you relax and slump on the horse you’ll find you’ll be bouncing around all over the place which will hurt your horse’s back, especially if you’re a heavier rider. You will need to have a straight line from your ears to your shoulders, hips, and then your heels. Doing this will ache you a lot at first, not least because you’ll be using muscle most riders don’t (but should) use, but believe me it’ll help you to keep your balance.
It’s also important to recognize that while you’ll feel the horse a lot more they’ll also be able to feel you too and will react to everything you do. Even the smallest shift in your weight will cause the horse to respond. This is why you need to keep in mind how you’re influencing the horse with commands that aren’t meant.
As with all forms of riding the fitter you are the easier it’ll be which is why having a strong core will help you to maintain your position and balance without aching so much the next day.
How do you get on a horse without a saddle?
With a saddle, it’s pretty easy to get on a horse because you’re able to use the stirrups to mount but when you’re riding without a saddle there are no stirrups to help you. This is why most riders, (unless they’re extremely agile, young, and are riding a smaller horse or pony) will need some sort of help. This help normally comes in one of three forms.
This is where somebody literally holds your leg as you jump up and helps raise you up until you can easily get your leg over the horse.
You can use a fence or a raised area of ground (such as a rock or small mound) to help you to get high enough to swing your leg over the horse’s back. While this can be useful if you’re on a trail, it’s not always such a good idea because it can be difficult to keep the horse still and lined up while you’re balancing on the fence or a rock.
This is the single best way to get on a horse regardless of whether or not you’re riding with a saddle. It’ll allow you to keep the horse still and will mean you’re not putting any pressure on their back or withers as you mount.
How do you stay on a horse without a saddle?
When you first ride without a saddle it can be daunting as you’ll probably bounce around a lot to start with but this is normal and the more you try to fight it the harder it’ll be to stay in the saddle, the best thing to do is relax. I know that’s easier said than done but there are a few things you can do to help you stay in the saddle.
Start on a longe line
When teaching somebody to ride without a saddle I always start them off on a longe line and ban them from holding the reins (making sure they keep their hands by their side). The longe line means that they don’t need to worry about controlling the horse and can focus on their balance while keeping their hands by their sides means they won’t pull on the reins at all. Also with your hands by your side, you’ll be forced to use your core muscles which will help you to improve your balance, and ultimately keep you in the saddle.
It can be difficult to keep this in mind but remember there’s no rush at all and you shouldn’t do something if you’re not comfortable with it. If you feel you’re going too fast then slow down, there are no prizes for going as fast as you can. Once you feel comfortable sitting on the horse then start with a slow walk, when you’re happy with this you can progress to a trot. Likewise, when you’re happy trotting (both sitting and posting) you can consider a canter and so on. When you feel confident enough you can even try a small jump or two.
Relax and don’t tense up
It’s normal to feel as if you’re losing your balance and will fall off any minute when you first ride without a saddle, but it’s also normal to tense up when you feel like this and it can be difficult to break that instinctive habit. While it can be difficult to realize you’ve tensed up you’ll notice you have when you start bouncing around more. When this happens you need to try and relax and make sure your body is upright, I find that looking ahead and taking a few deep, slow breaths will help with this.
Imagine you’ve still got stirrups
A lot of riders (regardless of their ability or experience) use the stirrups to help them maintain their position, but just because you don’t have them doesn’t mean you can’t pretend they are there. You might feel daft doing this but it will help to give you a better, more secure, riding position. It’ll also help you to keep your balance.
If you have trouble putting the weight into your heels I find it helps to stretch your legs out in front of you (to make sure they’re relaxed) and then wrap your thighs around the horse’s stomach. This will help to improve your overall position but will also allow you to be better connected to the horse.
Keep in time with the horse
When you’re riding with a saddle there’s a certain amount of disconnect between you both but without the saddle, you can feel them much more. This allows you to move in time with their movement which gives you a chance to understand the horse better. It also allows you to communicate with them better too because you’re aware of how they respond to your aids, this makes for a better and more comfortable ride for both you and the horse.
Is it safe to ride a horse without a saddle?
Let’s be honest, whether we like to admit it or not horse riding is a dangerous sport but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not safe. Of course, if you ask any Hollywood insurance company they’ll tell you riding without a saddle is more dangerous (which is why you’ll very rarely see people riding bareback in the movies – even if they’re set before the saddle was invented) but it doesn’t need to be any less safe than riding with a saddle. After all, if you have good balance and are riding a horse you can trust (and that you know isn’t prone to spooking) then there’s no difference.
The only real safety aspect that comes into play is if the horse bolts, rears, or bucks, or even if they trip. While the saddle gives you something to hold onto in these circumstances, it’s also easier to ‘slide’ off without a saddle.
Does it hurt a horse’s back if you ride without a saddle?
In 2012, Dr. Hilary Clayton carried out a study at Michigan State University into the effects of riding both with and without a saddle had on horses. The study took 7 horses and one rider who rode every horse (at a walk and trot) with a saddle as well as without. Pressure-sensitive mats were used to work out which areas saw the most amount of force (amount of weight) and pressure (concentration of weight).
The study found that when ridden with a saddle the pressure was displaced evenly over a wider area but without a saddle small areas suffered higher levels of pressure. Over time this can cause pain and tissue damage to the horse’s back and muscles.
While this is might sound like you should never ride a horse without a saddle, Dr. Clayton was keen to point out that it’s unlikely to cause the horse any pain if done now and then and for short periods of time.
Take home message
Riding without a saddle can be great fun and is a wonderful way to connect with a horse but it’s important that you prioritize the horse’s health over everything else. Some horses have higher withers or poor conformation which can make riding them bareback uncomfortable (for both horse and rider). Likewise, if the horse already has a sore back or suffers from any sort of back condition don’t ride them without a saddle.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you did I’d be grateful if you could share it please as it would really help me.
Over the years I have tried hundreds of different horsey products, from various blankets and halters to different treats. Some I’ve loved, others I’ve hated but I thought I’d share with you my top all-time favorite products, the ones I never leave the yard without. I’ve included links to the products (which are in no particular order) that I really think are great.
- Horse Knots by Reference Ready – If you’re like me and enjoy pocket reference guides then you’ll love this knot tying guide. These handy cards can easily fit in your pocket or attach to the saddle for quick reference. They’re waterproof, durable and are color coded to make them easy to follow.
- Mane ’n Tail Detangler – Even if you never show your horse you’ll need to detangle his tail from time to time (and possibly his mane too) which is always a challenging chore! I’ve found that if I run a little bit of detangler through my horse’s tails every few days it stops them from getting matted up and makes combing them easy, even if they’re coated in mud. I don’t know if I should admit to this or not but it also works wonders on my hair.
- TAKEKIT Pro clippers – Over the years I’ve tried a lot of different clippers and while some were obviously better than others I found these to be by far the best. They are heavier than a lot of other clippers but for me, that’s a good thing, it makes them feel more sturdy and hardwearing. On top of that they have a range of speeds so are just as good for clipping your horse’s back as they are his face. I also like the fact that they come in a handy carry case but that’s not for everybody. The company that makes them is super good and incredibly helpful too, a real bonus these days. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the fact that it doesn’t come with any oil, but that’s not a major problem as it’s not difficult to buy lubricant.
- Shire’s ball feeder – There are so many boredom buster toys out there but I like to use these every day, regardless of whether or not my horses are bored. I find that it helps to encourage my horses to problem solve by rewarding them with treats (or pieces of fruit) but it also mimics their natural grazing behavior which helps to keep them calm and de-stressed.
- Horse safe mirror – This is a strange one that many people are surprised about but I like to put horse safe mirrors in the trailers as well as in the quarantine stalls. It helps to prevent the feeling of isolation by giving the impression of other horses being around. Being herd animals horses can get extremely stressed when they feel that they’re on their own but with these stick-on mirrors, they believe that at least one other horse is with them.
- Rectal thermometer – I know this isn’t glamourous at all but it’s vital for your horse’s well-being to be able to check their temperature and a rectal thermometer is the easiest way of doing this which is why I’ve added it to the list.
I’ve also put together a few shopping lists of essential items that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve broken the lists down into different categories rather than put everything in one massive list 😉