Audrey Pavia is the former editor of Horse Illustrated magazine and an award-winning writer of numerous articles on equine subjects. The author of 10 books about horses, she has also contributed to Horse & Rider, American Farriers Journal, and many other animal magazines.
Giddy Up! Welcome to Horseback Riding
IN THIS CHAPTER
Finding out how horses think and move
Getting started with riding lessons and conditioning
Exploring different riding disciplines
Advancing to the next level and having fun
The act of riding horses has been going on for thousands of years. In the old days, people did it because they had to - it was the only way to efficiently travel from one place to another. Today, we ride horses because we want to.
Why do some people love riding horses so much? Is it a way to connect with nature in our highly technical world? Or is it a product of genetic memory? Are we drawn to horses because it's in our DNA?
Whatever the reason, horseback riding is an activity that millions of people enjoy the world over. If you've ever done it, you know why it's so popular; if you haven't but want to, you can imagine how much fun it is. And you're right. When it comes to horses and riding, you'll never find yourself at a loss for things to do. For those who love these friendly beasts, horses make the world go round. Start riding, and you'll see why!
In this chapter, I introduce you to the world of horseback riding. It's a world where human and horse become one and where you can leave the cares and pressures of your daily life behind in the dust.
Discovering the Horse's Mind and Body
I've heard people say that horses are dumb, but that idea couldn't be further from the truth. Horses are brilliant in many ways, which is why they've been around for so many millions of years. You can't be stupid and manage to stay alive for that long!
Likewise, the horse's body is an amazing machine, designed for speed, agility, and survival. Horses can run incredibly fast, turn their 1,000-pound bulk on a dime, and react physically with lightning speed to even the slightest sound. If you want to ride horses, you need to comprehend all these abilities in depth.
As a rider, you want to understand and communicate with your mount. Horses don't see the world the way we do. Cellphones, computers, and fax machines are not their world; hay, dirt, and other horses make up the bulk of their existence. Seeing the world from the horse's perspective can make you a better rider and provide you with more enjoyment when you're around these really neat animals.
The equine mind and body are at your fingertips if you just know how to use them. In Chapter 2 of this book, you get a primer on equine psychology and discover the language that horse people use to describe their favorite animal and her various body parts. Each part of the horse has a corresponding name that horse people toss around like so much confetti. If you want to fit in with the crowd and know what people at the barn at talking about, make sure you take a good look at the diagram in Chapter 2.
Taking Riding Lessons
Getting up on a horse's back can be an exciting experience, but it can also be frustrating and even scary if you don't know what you're doing. Learning to ride in a formal setting, with an instructor or trainer who knows how to properly teach riding basics, is imperative.
Even though horses have minds and can think and see where they're going (unlike cars, which need direction every inch of the way), don't fall victim to the notion that you just need to sit up there and let the horse do his thing. This approach only lets you discover that you and the horse may not have the same ideas about what to do next. Instead, figure out how to ride before you start doing it on your own, just like you'd take skiing lessons with an instructor before heading down the slope.
Riding lessons are a lot of fun, but they're also hard work. You find yourself using muscles you never knew you had and are challenged to coordinate different parts of your body in ways you've never done before. If you enjoy learning and challenging yourself, you'll likely enjoy horseback riding lessons. You'll also discover the wonderful feeling that comes when you communicate with a horse while on his back.
In Chapter 3, I give you advice on how to get started with riding lessons. Here are some examples of what you can find there:
- Finding a stable: A friendly atmosphere, a clean environment, healthy equine tenants, and a professional demeanor from the staff are all things you should seek out when picking the stable where you'll learn to ride.
- Choosing your instructor: The person you pick to be your instructor should have a teaching style that you like, be experienced in the discipline you've chosen (English or Western), and be familiar with training beginners.
- Being a good student: It's not all up to the teacher! The best students (and the ones who get the most from their training) are the folks who show up on time, pay attention, speak up when they need to, and do their homework.
Getting into Riding Shape
Horseback riding is hard work! It may not look all that difficult when you're watching an experienced rider, but the truth is that a whole slew of muscles, along with balance and stamina, come into play as you're riding.
To prepare your body for the rigors of riding a horse, do some or all of the following:
- Lose weight
- Build strength
- Improve endurance
- Increase flexibility with stretching exercises
Mental challenges also come along with this sport. In order to get the most from your riding lessons and your time in the saddle, deal with any fear issues you have about riding and understand your role as the leader of your team of two (that is, you and the horse). To find out how to prepare your body and mind for riding, take a look at Chapter 4.
Keeping Yourself Safe around Horses
Horses are large animals, and handling them takes some know-how. You can perfect this skill with training and experience. In order to get the most from the time you spend with horses, you need the right kind of instruction from a qualified expert. When you have some knowledge under your belt, you can safely handle a horse in a variety of situations.
To keep yourself safe around horses, you have to follow some basic rules that those who've come before you have set up. These concepts were created out of experience, so take them seriously.
First, you need to make sure you're wearing the right clothing. Boots designed for riding are necessary because they have a special heel that helps keep one of your legs from getting caught in the stirrup should you fall from the saddle - getting dragged is the danger here. A safety helmet is also a must if you want to protect that valuable gray matter. And your legs can get chafed if you ride in shorts or in the wrong kind of pants, so riding pants are preferable. And before you ride, you handle the horse from the ground, so wear heavy boots for safety in case a clumsy equine steps on your foot. (I've had it happen - not fun.)
Understanding how horses move their bodies is also a necessity for safety, as are knowing when to enter a stall (when you know the horse sees you) and dealing with stupid horse maneuvers, such as pulling back when tied. Of course, you likewise need to know the various rules that apply to riding, both alone and with others, either in the arena or on the trail. Concepts such as what to do when another rider falls off and when you need to pass another rider are part of rider safety. All this and more await you in Chapter 5.
Selecting the Right Riding Style and Gear
Before you can start riding, you need to determine which discipline you want to pursue. Here are your options:
- Western riding, the most popular discipline in the U.S., is often the style of choice for beginning riders because Western saddles provide the most security. Western riding is popular with casual trail riders, as well as those working with cattle. I discuss Western riding in Chapter 6.
- English style riding is made up of some subtypes, including hunt seat and dressage (see Chapter 7 for details).
- People who'd like to jump their horses opt for hunt seat, although plenty of hunt seat riders don't jump - they simply enjoy this style of riding. Hunt seat riders sit in a smaller saddle and wear their stirrups shorter than Western riders do. Many hunt seat riders enjoy "hacking" (riding) out on the trail.
- Dressage, the ballet of horseback riding, involves precise movements and stringent training of both horse and rider.
You may soon discover, after you start riding, that horses come with lots of stuff. Here are some items every horse needs:
- Saddle and pad
- Bridle (including a bit)
- Halter and lead rope
You need some equipment for yourself as well:
- Riding boots or shoes
- Riding pants
- A proper shirt
- A helmet (if you're smart)
For more details on these and other items for both you and the horse, see Chapters 8, 9, and 10.
Riding High from the Start
Okay, it's almost time to get on! You still have a few more things to figure out before you get in the saddle, including...