Let's Ride!

On Top of Ole Smokey... by Carol Moore

PART ONE: Now What!!!

You’ve finally committed yourself to that wonderful vacation the whole family has clamored for . . . a trip to a dude ranch! And now you’re starting to get the jitters just thinking about climbing on board that horse for the first time. Well, calm down. We’re going to give you a little “horsemanship 101”, just enough to help you arrive at your destination with a feeling of confidence and desire.

If this is your first riding experience, select your ranch carefully. Make sure they cater to the beginner and have some nice easy rides that you can enjoy. Most of these properties will offer a variety of rides, and as your knowledge increases so can the complexity of the trail ride. Most importantly, when you arrive at the ranch of your choice, do not let pride interfere with a correct assessment of your riding skills. If you are a beginner, or have some skills but are a timid rider, let your wrangler know before the horse selection begins.

Riding is an unlimited field of learning and there are many excellent sources of information that can get you to the same end result. For the purpose of this lesson, we’ll assume that you will be riding western style and we’ll limit ourselves to just one way for each step. Once you feel comfortable with the basics you can expand upon this information.

Your horse’s head gear is called a bridle. The mouth piece is a bit and attached to the bit are the reins. By pulling on the reins you create tension between the bit and the curb chain (the little strap that goes under the chin and behind the bit) which controls the speed of your horse. The saddle is what you will be sitting on and the stirrups are what you put your feet into. The cinch is what holds the saddle in place and it should remain rather snug while you are riding.

If you have an opportunity to hold or lead your horse, do so from the left side. Do not hold onto the bit, instead give your horse some room and hold the reins a good 18 inches from the bit. Horses consider themselves prey animals and can be claustrophobic especially around the head. They prefer to be petted on the neck or have their back scratched rather than to have their head fussed with.

As you approach your horse to mount up, do so from the horse’s left side. You may wonder why the left? This habit came into being from the Calvary days when the soldiers had sabers generally worn on the left side which made it easier to swing the right leg over the horse. With someone holding your horse and helping to support your saddle, face your horse with your right shoulder next to his side. Place your left foot in the stirrup, pick up your reins in your left hand as well as a large handful of the horses mane and place the right hand on the back of the saddle. Give yourself a couple hops and up you go. Move your right hand to the front of the saddle as you swing your leg over the saddle and settle gently into the seat trying not to drop all your weight suddenly onto the horses back.

If the use of a mounting block is available take advantage of it. It makes life easier for you and the horse. Make the mount-up as smooth as possible and do your very best not to hang off the saddle on the way up. This is uncomfortable for the horse and will displace your saddle. When you begin to mount up totally unassisted you will want to use a method of mounting that allows you to control unexpected movement of your horse. You can learn these techniques during your ranch visit.

Sit quietly while your wrangler adjusts your stirrups. It is easier to make these adjustments if you will put your leg forward allowing for the leather flap (the fender) to be lifted so the adjustments can be made. A general guide for the length of stirrup is to have the bottom of the stirrup even with your instep. When the adjustment is complete place the ball of your foot on the stirrup and let your feet hang directly under you. Try to imagine a straight line running from your shoulder to your hip to your heel. As you look down over your knee cap you should just see the tip of your toe. Remember to keep your heel slightly lower than your toe which will help maintain your position and good balance. If during your ride you feel top heavy, you can bet that your heels are up and that your feet are behind the imaginary line from shoulder to hip to heel. Immediately put weight into your heels and your feet will return to the proper position. Always keep even weight on both stirrups. While sitting or walking keep about ninety percent of your weight in the saddle and ten percent in the stirrups.

Western style horses respond to neck reining for steering. This system works off of indirect pressure. As you lay the left rein against the horse’s neck he will turn to the right and vice versa. It helps to reach forward a bit with your hand before making your turn so that there will be some slack in the reins and the rein will lay more directly on his neck and not so close to his shoulder. My favorite way for teaching beginners to hold the reins is to take them into one hand much like you would an ice cream cone. Your little finger is on the bottom (towards his neck) and your thumb on top, knuckles facing towards his ears). You can put your little finger between the reins if you like. Your hand should be just above and in front of the saddle horn, in fact, at a walk you may rest the heel of your hand on top of the saddle horn. To make a right hand turn, reach your hand forward and across to the right, - to make a left, reach forward and to the left. If you forget, just point your thumb in the direction you wish to go and follow that direction with your hand and the reins.

Stopping is a backward pull towards your belt buckle. If you are not able to achieve a stop by the time your hand is past the saddle horn, your reins are too long. You can easily make an adjustment, by taking your free hand and pulling the reins through your hand to the desired length. You don’t want the reins any tighter than necessary to accomplish what you are doing. Remember that the bit controls the horse with pressure between the bit and the curb strap. He will not move forward if you are pulling backward on the reins. If you wish to back your horse up, apply a steady backward pull on the reins and release the pressure after he steps back. If your horse has accidentally slipped into reverse because you had too much pressure on his mouth, reach your hand forward to release the pressure.

We’re ready to move off now. All forward movement must be accompanied by a slackening of the reins by reaching your hand forward. A good gauge for rein length is to have a slight belly between the bit and your hand. Remember you can easily adjust the length of the reins if more control is necessary just by pulling the reins through your hand.

To make your horse move, you will need to apply some pressure from your heels. Turn your toes outward, bring your heels close to the horse’s body and bump him as if you were elbowing someone. Start out gently and increase the pressure to achieve the desired response. Heel pressure will also assist you in motivating your horse’s turns. They move away from pressure, so use your right heel for a left turn and left heel for a right turn. Use both heels to move straight ahead. When bumping with your heels, make sure you are making body contact with the horse and are nudging him just behind the cinch. Do not draw your legs up behind you and attempt to kick high on his sides. As he starts to walk off take care not to pull back on the reins as he will most likely stop.

Some ranches will offer fairly steep mountain trails. When you are going up these hills, lift yourself slightly out of the saddle and lean forward putting your weight over the horse’s shoulders. Take a handful of the horse’s mane to ease the pull of your weight on the saddle. Your feet should stay directly under you. As you come down these hills, sit back in your saddle placing your weight towards the back of the saddle and push your feet forward of the vertical line. Allow a loose enough rein for the horse to look where he is going and progress slowly and safely at a walk down the incline. Keep a minimum of a full horse length between horses when going up and going down.

You are now prepared to take that first ride out of the corral and enjoy the wide open spaces. Don’t attempt to go faster that what feels safe for you. As your confidence grows, you may become curious about going faster. We’ll give you some tips for the next step in Part II.

PART II: Happy Trails

At this point, you should be comfortable mounting up, settling into your saddle and moving off at a nice walk. The next speed you will encounter is a jog or trot. This gait is a distinct up and down movement contrary to the rolling sensation of the walk. If the trot is slow and soft (called a jog) you can comfortable sit in your saddle. The key is to stay relaxed and not tense your body. You should notice a side to side pulsation (left, right, left, right) and if you can get in time with this movement with a slight pulsation against your stirrups (left, right, left, right) you will be quite comfortable.

Frequently, you will experience a trot when a horse is catching up with the rest of the ride. This will more likely be a brisk trot and more bouncy. On this occasion, place one hand (not the hand holding the reins) on the saddle horn for stability and barely rise off the seat of your saddle, bending slightly forward from the waist. This allows you to ride above the motion. It is imperative that you keep your knees bent as they are your shock absorbers (as well as hips and ankles) and if you straighten your knees you’ll loose your cushioning effect. Remember to let your weight flow into your heels which will keep your feet under you and help you stay balanced. Do not bring your upper body any further forward than necessary to negate any pull on the hand holding the saddle horn. Be conscious of never holding the saddle horn with both hands. You must always have one hand on the reins for control. Keep your weight evenly distributed on each side, your chin up and eyes forward. The stiller you keep your arms the quieter you will sit in the saddle.

Once you are comfortable with jogging and trotting and can stay balanced with total control over your horse, you are ready to try loping (cantering for English riding folks). To achieve these faster gaits, you must reach your rein hand forward to slacken the reins during transition and while they are maintaining the faster gait. If you bring your reins towards your body making firmer contact with the bit, your horse will slow down and probably stop.

The lope, in contrast to the up and down motion of the trot, has a back and forth motion similar to a rocking chair. You sit much as you did the walk, with your thighs and lower leg staying in position and your upper body taking the motion created by the stride. Your seat bones stay close to the saddle. As your horse springs forward in a loping stride, you will feel him elevate in the front. Keep your back rounded and not hollowed out. This keeps you in balance and helps maintain momentum for the horse’s next stride. Moving your feet slightly ahead of the vertical line and letting the ball of your foot pulsate against the stirrup will help you stay in rhythm with your horses stride and keep your seat in the saddle. Loping with your hand on the saddle horn will make it difficult to get in sync with the horse’s movement.

Horses lope as differently as people run with some being as smooth as a rocking chair and others being somewhat rough. If you are having difficulty finding the rhythm, you might find it helpful to bring your legs directly under you, and support your weight on the balls of your feet. Lift your body only enough to be skimming the saddle which allows you to control the velocity of body movement. This position can prevent painful saddle sores.

When you are loping be aware that squeezing with the lower leg makes the horse go faster, so do not use this portion of your leg to grip with. You may squeeze from the knee up if necessary, but you will be riding primarily from balance. Don’t forget to breath, this keeps your body relaxed. Keep all joints flexed so they can perform to their maximum as shock absorbers.

As you prepare to slow down from a lope or trot, practice pushing your heels down, move your feet slightly forward, round your back, drop your seat into the saddle and then ask for a whoa with your voice and by pulling the reins gently towards your belt buckle. You can also take your free hand and push against the saddle horn which will firmly plant your backside deep in the saddle. Another exercise that will give you a deeper seat is to tuck in your abdominal muscles as if you were trying to make your belly button touch your spine.

This should get you moseying down the trail. However, there’s much more you can learn and do. Soon you will want to go faster and attempt more horse related events. Ranches offer a myriad of riding activities. Almost all have walking scenic rides and rides that include trotting and loping. Many offer team penning (a horse and cattle game done in the arena with a team of three riders), some have gymkhanas (riding games requiring some speed and finesse), and others may have cattle drives and participation in actual ranch work. Horseback vacations are a lot of fun for all of the family and most ranches offer riding lessons for all ages. Any knowledge you can gain prior to your trip will give you that little jump start for your first time in the saddle. Just like skiing, tennis or swimming, horseback riding opportunities can be vastly enhanced with some hands on instructions.

Don’t forget, treat these animals with respect. They are about ten times your size and have the potential to be dangerous. Pay attention while riding and don’t get involved in rough housing or careless horseplay. Make your ride a safe and fun experience for all.

PART III: What's Your Horse Trying to Tell You?

Understanding a little about horse body language makes your first meeting less intimidating. In spite of a horse’s size and mass, he is a very sensitive creature and has lots of emotions going through his mind. Horses, being creatures of habit, are sometimes not given enough credit for their level of intellect. Here are a few common behaviors that are good to understand.

Whinnying or Neighing: This is horse conversation. Usually they are calling to someone left behind or out of sight. You will feel the body vibrate when they make this call. Nickering is a softer, shorter version of communication.

Snorting or Blowing Their Nose: This is done to clear the nostril of dust, flying insects, etc., and will also produce a mild body vibration and a sound that is totally natural.

Shaking: After being ridden a while, your horse may develop an itch under the saddle. To relieve this, he will give his body a strong shake that may feel like a little earthquake if you are on his back. This is a normal behavior and nothing to fear.

Pawing: Pawing with a front foot is usually done when a horse is getting anxious to do something. He will quit this as soon as you move him around. Pawing in water is just playfulness, however it can lead to him wanting to lie down. A good idea is to get him moving.

Rooting at the Bit: When a horse is constantly pulling at the bit, you generally are holding the reins too tight and he is seeking relief from the pressure. Or, it is possible that he is trying to get the reins loosened so that he might eat on the trail. You will have to experiment to see what the cure is. Do not let him eat while being ridden, as this creates an annoying habit.

Ear Movement and Displays of Herd Dominance: You can gain a lot of information by watching your horses ears. When they are pricked forward he is curious and watchful. When they are laid flat back, he is annoyed. Usually this gesture will be directed to another horse and it is not a friendly greeting. You will want to direct him away from the horse that he is threatening or being threatened by.

Aside from pinning the ears back, horses will also threaten each other by kicking. If you are on a horse that attempts to back into another, he probably intends to kick that horse. You will want to move him away into a less hostile space. It’s a good idea to make your horse mind his own business any time you’re in a group situation.

Shying: Watch your horses ears, if he suddenly pricks them up, raises his head and tenses his body, chances are that he has seen something that appears a little scary. Some horses will do nothing more than look and others may react a little more energetically, consisting of a little jump to the side or an attempt to find an escape exit. In either case, when you notice this extra alertness, you’ll want to shorten your reins to have contact with the bit and pay attention until all is calm.

PART IV: Trail Etiquette and Safety Tips

Don’t let your horse walk on top of the next rider. Allow at least a half of horse length (about four feet) between horses. If you are loping, allow a full horse length between horses.

Do not attempt to remove articles of clothing without letting your guide know and allowing him/her to stop the ride. Horses may be spooked by seeing a jacket moving around in their peripheral vision.

Don’t pass another rider without permission from them and even so, be sure to allow room between horses so no one is accidentally kicked. Avoid passing at any speed faster than a walk. Passing at a lope might inspire a horse race and create a dangerous situation for all.

Use a stampede string on your cowboy hat to prevent your hat blowing off and startling your horse or the horse behind you.

Wait for all riders to be mounted up and ready before moving your horse off. This is especially important while the guide is opening and closing gates. If a horse thinks he is being left behind he will become anxious and difficult to mount. While you are waiting, keep your horse from pestering other horses.

Don’t hold your horse back and then run up to the ride. You can jeopardize a less experienced rider’s safety and diminish their enjoyment of the ride.

Some Tips to Make Your Ride more Enjoyable.

Long pants and a closed shoe (preferably a cowboy boot) are a must.

Panty hose under your jeans or bicycling shorts can prevent chafing.

A definite must is a stampede string on your cowboy hat to prevent it from blowing off and frightening your horse or the horse behind you.

A proper water bottle in a carrying case small enough to hang on your saddle.

A long sleeve shirt if you might be going through some brush.

Sun glasses with a strap to keep them on.

Sun screen and lip balm.

About the author. Carol Moore has been involved in the guest ranch business since 1975 and has aided many beginners with their very first horse back riding experience. Carol is currently employed at the White Stallion Ranch in Tucson, AZ (www.whitestallion.com). She recognized the need for an instructional riding video specifically for the vacation rider and authored the riding video “Which End Does The Hay Go In?” in 1996. This video is used extensively by many ranches as part of their horse orientation program and by lots of prospective guests prior to their ranch visit. For more information, you can e-mail Carol at hoofbeat@theriver.com or visit her web site at www.hoofbeat.com.

Carol Moore
6818 N. Blanco Wash Trail
Marana, Az 85653

Home telephone: 520 616-7176 Work: 520 - 297-0252

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