To Bare or Not to Bare…Bareback Riding in Rider’s Education.

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Beginner rider on Aspire Equestrian Start Programme experiencing sitting bareback on a horse for the first time.

Bareback riding is a forbidden part of rider’s education at quite a number of riding schools across the UK. The reason being (given to me when I asked) that riding without a saddle is an unsafe practice and having it on the agenda jeopardises the terms of riding school’s insurance policy. It goes further than this. While working at a BHS Where To Train Centre (to read about what centre qualifies as such see HERE) I was under instructions to limit no-stirrups lessons and if lunging a client I was to make sure they always had either reins or stirrups always available. In other words, if I took stirrups away, I was to make sure the rider had the reins in their hands. If they had no reins in their hands, they were to have both feet in the stirrups.

Safety….

On one hand I feel I must stand on riding schools side because I know how difficult it can be in current litigious climate to provide any sort of sporting tuition. Perhaps someone more in the know can comment on whether the disappearance of bareback riding is the case of insurance companies increasing their fees for establishments said to offer it or whether there are different reasons altogether. Personally, I don’t know. I do know, however, that some BHS Approved riding schools have no issues with bareback lessons so I am somewhat confused as to why some centres can have an insurance policy happy with the practice while others can’t…

On the other hand, I find bareback riding a must for any rider to experience at least sporadically in their riding education. It is possible to conduct it safely and benefits are huge.

Bareback for riders…

Except from obvious benefits of improved balance thanks to bareback riding, I believe even more important benefit is the connection the rider feels with the horse when riding without a saddle. When my horse developed a small sarcoid behind his elbow, just where the girth goes, I was unable to ride him unless I wanted to ride bareback. I was reluctant to start with as he was quite a sharp, young stallion but when treatment after treatment failed to deal with the issue I gave it a go. Little did I know that I would ride him bareback for entire year before finally removing the sarcoid…

At first I stayed in the arena but when I felt more comfortable and secure with him I started hacking him out too. Slowly at the beginning, then doing usual fitness work with him including jumping. Throughout that time I never appreciated how much more understanding of his movement I gained until I put the saddle back on. It felt like someone has blindfolded me that much feeling was missing. At the same time though, my security in the saddle, confidence and effectiveness improved beyond my imagination.

Movement and touch are important element of communication between horses so for rider to learn to speak the same muscle language means being closer to that elusive harmony we all seek in riding.

Issues like straightness or one-sidedness are easier to explain to a novice rider when they feel it right underneath them without the much more perfect mould of the saddle.

So is the importance of good posture since slouching or crookedness in the rider’s body is not going to help them stay on the round, slippery back of the moving horse.

Check out the below video showing children during a rather unique lesson set up at a riding school in Dubai. I highly dislike how incredibly dull this work must be for the horses involved but I do love the idea behind teaching balance and movement in a safe and agility focused environment.

Shorter lessons of this sort where there is more appreciation for horses’ wellness are something I am very keen to explore.

Bareback for horses…

While I do believe bareback riding is a fabulous addition to almost any rider’s education, I don’t think it’s suitable for every horse. Undermuscled horses with underdeveloped backs are in my opinion not good candidates for bareback riding not because they are rather uncomfortable for the rider but because they will find rider’s weight and bone pressure hard to cope with. Well fitted saddle disperses the weight over larger area and diminishes any localised pressure points.

If your horse has a weak back and you do ride him bareback I would suggest only very short sessions while you wait for his condition to improve.

Another issue that I became aware years ago when witnessing a certain situation is that horses and ponies that are being educated to carry themselves well without a downward flexing spine might find bareback riding a burden…It’s important to monitor your horse’s behaviour and observe whether he/she is able to carry you with relaxed back without the saddle protecting their muscles from pressure points coming from your seat bones. Try to sit on a hard chair and slide your hands under your seat so you know exactly what your horse is feeling over time.

The signs to look out for is the neck carriage and fluidity of movement – an experienced instructor will notice back tension in the horse straight away but many novice riders feel it very quickly too. If tension happens regularly it’s best to practice on a different horse until your horse’s muscles are re-educated and conditioned.

One solution for pressure points could be using a bareback pad like this one but I personally don’t know of any research done on their protecting abilities.

Bare in Mind…

The “everything is good in moderation” seems a perfect mantra to me when it comes to bareback riding. I believe it can have enormous benefits for developing all round rider skills but must be done safely and in a way that doesn’t harm the horse.

If you have good experiences with bareback riding or if your riding school allows it please leave a comment and share your views and experiences 🙂

To finish off, possibly most famous recent you tube bareback riding/jumping video:

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11 thoughts on “To Bare or Not to Bare…Bareback Riding in Rider’s Education.

  1. Ok, confession time: I don’t enjoy bareback riding. At all. We did it a fair bit when my sister and I had loaned ponies as children – it was mainly done when we were joking around, racing each other and just doing it for sheer fun. One of my main problems back then is that I’ve always been terrible at vaulting onto a horse without any assistance, so I found even the process of mounting up to be awkward and unnecessary. If I had my own horse who I trusted, I’d be inclined to do it. But I was invited to ride horses out to the field bareback several times last summer and refused on every occasion. The benefits, as you point out, are enormous for riders, but I still can’t get over it and make myself do it.

    • On my yard, the general con consensus is that I must be totally insane.
      Reason?
      I usually slap a saddle pad on my horse’s back (he sweats excessively), stick it down with a rug strap or a flat lunging roller – and off we go.
      Now, I have a rather comfy horse – a Paso Fino. Even if he trots, he’s comfortable and easy to sit without rattling your fillings loose. He is also spooky, flighty and full of himself.
      I went out with two others, who constantly went “Are you okay to corto?” (trot speed single-foot gait for those not used to Paso terms) “Yes.” Then it was largo. (Canter speed single foot gait.) Then it was am I okay with going up this hill? Down???
      Yes. Yes and yes.
      We cantered, mine wanted to race the others. “Are you okay?”
      It was seriously beginning to get on my nerves. “YES.”
      On our way back, one of the horses stepped into loose dry branches, and spooked.
      Right next to mine, who figured if his bestie is jumping, then he should too.
      Up we went, down we came. I sat there going “What the hell was that for?” while my horse looked rather sheepish for spooking when nothing had attacked.
      I turned, as there was complete silence behind me. Two utterly stunned riders on their (saddled) horses stared at me as if I’d grown three heads.
      “What?”
      “Do you have velcro on your butt? How the hell are you still on that horse?”
      Simple. I knew he was going to jump, because I felt the muscles tense. I knew when, how high and in which direction. So I went along with it, since I sure as heck couldn’t stop him. You don’t get that with a saddle.
      But yeah, the “Are you okay to (insert activity of choice)” questions stopped.
      I had an assessment done on a mechanical horse last month. I was all over the place. I was bracing in the stirrups, I couldn’t sit up straight, I hunched and leaned.
      And then the instructor took the stirrups away.
      I was centered, relaxed, loose, spot on. Yes, I ride better without, than with a saddle.
      But you *have* to listen to your horse at all times for it to be safe, and you cannot go for hours and hours without a saddle. It’s not good for the horse’s back, because the pressure from the rider’s seat is just too much over time.
      Everything in moderation. 🙂

      • Great story 🙂 I agree with feeling the muscle tension and ability to predict the motion much more accurately when riding bareback.
        Recently, I had a ride on a young quarter horse on a western saddle. Very odd feeling of being miles away from the horse and feeling so little…I am sure that with practice you learn to feel for different cues but I except for roaming about countryside, I wouldn’t want to do much more in such saddle.

        I must say though, most riders, unless they are really scared, have a better seat without stirrups. It’s natural to brace against support (floor, step, stirrup) and it takes a great skill to truly let the joints use the support for greater spring rather than to brace against it. I think that ultimately, it is harder to ride well with the stirrups than without but having them gives a false sense of security so many riders are more relaxed with them.

  2. A thoughtful post, I appreciate it! In show barns riding bareback seems to typically be looked down upon as “not polished” but there can obviously be great value. I think for me, trust is the biggest benefit to learn. I had one horse that hated being ridden bareback and after a jump he would plant his feet and buck in place, I guess he didn’t like the different feeling of movement bareback vs a saddle (and I’m not a sack of potatoes when I am bareback!). Perhaps he needed to progress slower, looking at the situation retrospectively.
    The video at the end made my palms sweaty!

    • Hi Corinna,
      Yes I too think that there are horses that dislike the sensation of a saddle-less rider. Perhaps it’s the pressure or a different movement like you say.

      I guess we feel differently to a horse if we sit bareback so perhaps the same routine should apply with some horses as when backing for the first time. 🙂

  3. I started riding bareback as a child as I was initially taught by ex an Royal Horse Artillery person.
    I find I am as secure bareback and I can actually get off quicker. I have been dragged off once by the horse I was leading.
    I landed on my feet between them and controlled the situation.
    I have ridden for 8 hours bareback on a day out with a horse that had suffered a small injury in the girth area. We did do a cross country course on the way back to the yard. It kept the horse fit and allowed it to be used. We finished off with a swim in the sea.
    I can gallop and jump happily bareback and in the winter it is warmer for both of us.
    The other consideration is reducing the weight carried by the weight of the saddle.
    This helps on long distance riding.
    You also get much better feeling with the closer contact to the horse.
    A pony I used to work with knew the saddle was working and he had to be good. Bareback was us having fun. He used to enjoy not working and having a fun ride. I would let him decide on parts of the route. He was always keen to go.
    At another yard we used to use the horses as access platforms when trimming trees.
    It is sad that people see no saddle as unsafe.
    It develops balance and allows much better contact with the horse.
    I also feel it also helps the horse develop a better relationship with the rider.
    I do also ride with both standard and a side saddle as well.

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