This article is from our February newsletter. You can view it here.
Recently, I mused with a friend about my youthful equestrian encounters, and it struck me how important those childhood follies were to my skill as an adult rider. I would sneak into my neighbor's field with a length of grass string baling twine in hand that had been fashioned into a makeshift mecate. I would catch a mischievous, black pony, mount him bareback, and ride like the wind as we galloped in partnership back and forth in that long ago pasture. Later when my father bought my first pony, the only tack I had was a bridle. Again, I found myself riding bareback for hours upon end. While riding bareback was a necessity to me then (saddles were too expensive), it taught me to naturally balance myself while mounted. By the time I purchased my first saddle, I had obtained a very good seat, all because I had begun riding bareback.
Sometimes riders become too dependent upon saddles and do not trust their balance; rather, they rely too greatly upon the stirrups, saddle horn, and cantle to remain mounted. The best way to alleviate this dependency is to ride bareback. Whether you are a beginning rider or one who might need a balance brush-up, the following steps will assist you in finding your natural balance:
· If you have a level-headed and reliable horse, you can undertake these steps on your own. If you are not comfortable going it alone, ask someone who is knowledgeable with horse handling and lunging to assist you.
· After mounting your horse, ask him for a walk and remain walking until you become comfortable with the bareback feel. With your legs and heels lightly gripping along his barrel, you will be able to feel his muscles working and the heat his body generates. Drop the reins and hold your arms straight out from your sides (like an airplane). Raise them up and down, make circular motions, going from large air circles to smaller ones, making them slowly at first and then more quickly. The more quickly the circles are made, the more you will have to work on remaining balanced. You will have to concentrate on sitting erect and not slumping over your horse's withers and neck, keeping your legs and heels in their position along the barrel.
· Once you are comfortable with riding at a walk, pick up the reins and ask your horse for a trot. Once you feel the timing of his trot, again drop the reins and repeat the arm exercises below. Do not grab a handful of mane as this will most likely prompt you to slump over and will actually cause an imbalance in your riding posture. Ride at the trot until you feel comfortable and are ready to proceed to the canter. With each gait progression, you can feel how your horse's body works differently under your seat and legs.
· Taking the reins in hand again, ask your horse for a canter/lope. When you are relaxed with the canter/lope, drop the reins and repeat the arm exercises above. If you feel unbalanced at any point, drop your arms and pick up the reins. Find your center again after a few strides and try the exercises again.
· Practice these movements in both right-handed and left-handed circles, with your horse on each lead. We all have a preferential direction of travel and will prefer one way over the other. Keep practicing until you are equally comfortable riding in either direction.
Incorporating a bareback workout into your training/exercise schedule will improve your balance while riding saddled. If you are balanced while riding, your horse will be better balanced as he carries you on the trail, which equates to a safer riding experience for both of you.