Thursday, July 14, 2011

Look Ma - No Saddle!!

Good morning!  I have been getting up at 5 am to ride while it is still cool, now that the weather has firmly settled into the summer heat.  This is a serene, quiet time, and while that is a nice way to ease into the day, sometimes I need to shake things up. 

So, this morning I decided to ride one of my training horses bareback.  I strongly advocate getting people to ride bareback as much as possible when they are learning to ride, and also after they become experienced, as a 'tune-up.'  Riding bareback is fantastic for balance, gaining an independent seat, getting the horse to listen to aids, and works wonders on a rider's confidence and trust.  The owner of the horse I rode this morning has been working on her bareback technique off and on for the past two years, and while she has made great strides, I know she had not yet ridden this particular horse without a saddle.  I thought I would give him a test ride for her, and begin getting him used to the idea.

Not every horse is a good bareback horse.  Some are uncomfortable just to sit on, with high withers or a prominent backbone.  I use a suede and wool felt bareback pad to add some padding, and to keep my clothes from getting filthy.  [I do not advise people to use pads with stirrups; first, if your goal is to ride bareback, what is the point of having stirrups?  Second, bareback pads are lighter weight, more slippery and have less structure to them than a saddle, so if you aren't balanced perfectly in the stirrups, they have a tendency to slide off to one side - obviously dangerous.  You are better off without the stirrups.]  Some horses are too spooky to be reliable for a beginner to ride bareback, so until you feel confident, use your older, quieter horse or borrow a friend's that you trust.

The getting on part is usually the hardest!  Even though I have been riding bareback my whole life, I have never been able to swing on from the ground, so I have adapted my strategy, and am able to use any little step or rise that I can find to give me a lift.  The easiest thing to use is a mounting block or the fence, but it is very helpful to have someone hold your horse the first few times you do it, as most likely, you will be shimmying around, and scootching yourself in to place, and your horse may feel more reassured having someone at his head.  Of course, this is a great time to practice having your horse stand still while mounting, something every horse should be able to do in a variety of situations.  Above all, take your time and be patient.  It isn't a race, and if you get upset or frustrated, your horse will be more hesitant to comply next time.

I suggest riding in a round pen, or small arena the first few times you try bareback.  Limiting the space available keeps your horse's pace slower, and the confinement will also keep them calm.  If you don't have a round pen, or just feel the need to have some more control, have a friend put a lunge line on your horse's bridle and use it as a safety line.  They need not do anything but be there to help if you get in trouble.  I often use a safety line when teaching children to ride bareback.  And don't forget to put on a helmet.

If you have never ridden bareback before, have your goal for the first ride to just walk and do some stops and turns.  Even simple maneuvers can feel much different without a saddle.  Your horse may seem more sensitive to your legs, since he can feel so much more of them, so make sure to keep your legs still and close to the horse's sides.  Try to relax and breathe and just enjoy the feeling of closeness with your horse.  As you progress, work up to the jog, posting trot (yes you can!) and the lope.  As you get better at bareback, your riding with a saddle will improve as well; you will be more balanced and less reliant on your tack to stay in the middle of your horse.  If you are an experienced rider, and just haven't done it in a while, you will find that riding bareback sharpens your senses and gives you a closer bond with your horses - and is such a nice alternative to a hot saddle in the summer.  For horses that spend a lot of time in training, drilling on the same old maneuvers, bareback is a nice way to freshen them up and give them a bit of a break in routine.

It is my experience that most horses LOVE to be ridden bareback, and Atley was no exception this morning.  He was a little flinchy the first few minutes, but then turned into a marshmallow - so relaxed and compliant.  I have been doing a lot of lateral work with him, and found that, without a saddle and saddle pad, he was very responsive to the engagement of my hip and leg, and positively zipped across the arena!  So much fun!  I think he enjoyed himself as much as I did, and while it was laid back, we still got some good work done.  Be bold - give it a try! And let me know how it goes for you!