The Bare Facts About Bareback Riding!

“Stacy, I love all your videos on training! I have a question. On riding bareback, I know there are benefits for the rider such as balance and seat. I also know there are possible risks to the horse. So is it something I should include in my training of me and my horses or something I should try to never do? If you recommend including, please tell me how often and where, round pen, paddock, etc. I don’t want to injure my horses, but I’d love to improve as a rider and to be honest, I love the close contact. Thanks in advance!”-Pam T.

I was blessed with a childhood that included riding bareback for multiple reasons. The first of which was lack of money. The second was a mother who didn’t see a lack of a saddle as a reason to not ride. My mom worked at a primary school and as a teen I arrived home shortly before she did. I had just enough time to ‘saddle’ up both of our horses with bareback pads and put on the bridles. She would arrive home, change her cloths, and we would hit the trails usually until dark. Here is a photo of my mom mounted bareback on a colt that I was just starting. I’m holding the horse.

My mom mounted bareback:)

I have no doubts that riding bareback improved my riding and has done the same for many others. I just rode one of my horse bareback for the first time yesterday. We went on a two hour trail ride. I’m fit from riding. She’s fit from riding (with a saddle). Aside from being more attentive for the first 20 minutes there was no real change. The extra attentiveness comes from the extra close feeling of my legs next to her body and the fact that I teach my horses many leg cues. It didn’t cause any issues but I could see extra focus as she ‘heard’ all of my moments more clearly and wasn’t sure what to do with the added contact.

Here are some quick thoughts on getting a rider started bareback:

  • -does your horse have good manners when ridden with a saddle?
  • -can you ride without your stirrups?
  • -can you balance without the reins?
  • -have you practiced an emergency dismount?
  • -is there an area that would make you more comfortable (roundpen, arena, etc)
  • -do you have a friend or instructor that could be available to help?

Here are some quick thoughts on getting a horse started bareback:

  • -how would your horse handle a ‘sudden dismount’?
  • -has the horse been ridden bareback by another rider?
  • -have you practiced having things fall off the horse (like a saddle) to simulate a rider coming off?
  • -can you slip on and off without the horse becoming nervous?

I appreciate that you are concerned about your horse but there are arguably more risks for the rider. Unscheduled dismounts can cause injuries to arms, legs, ankles, wrists and heads. In the beginning spend extra time practicing mounting and dismounting. At this time you will need to decide if this includes using a mounting block or teaching the horse to side pass up to things, etc. I learned as a kid to use the mane during a dismount to ensure that my feet touched down first and then if needed I could tuck and roll away. Emergency dismounts bareback are easier than with a saddle…the nice thing is that there is virtually no risk to getting hung up on the horse. Just be sure that your horse is emotionally prepared (trained) to handle the dismount. 

Growing up nobody discussed the idea that riding bareback could cause problems for the horse. I’m not going to say that it is impossible…but I will say it is improbable. Why? Mostly because riding bareback is self regulating. Bareback riding ensures that the rider is doing their part by remaining balanced and in rhythm. This makes is much more difficult to ‘overdue’ because the rider simultaneously feels the same effects.

It would be much easier for me to argue that you could do more damage to the horse when riding in a saddle. In the saddle you can lean and be improperly balanced. Or you can sit without matching the horses motion. Or if the saddle doesn’t fit well you can cause extra pressure points.

When you ride bareback you WILL learn to balance. Or you will come off. Coming off won’t damage the horse unless you try to stay on using the reins… Don’t do that. Just let go if it comes to that.

When riding bareback you will match the horses motion because you will continue to lose your balance until you do. Could you injure the horse during this process? If your horse is healthy enough to ride with a saddle at the same fitness level you are riding bareback, I doubt it. A humans thighs are much more forgiving than an ill-fitting saddle or a well fitting saddle with an unbalanced rider. And human thighs tend to distribute the weight evenly…smaller person, smaller distribution…larger person, larger distribution. 

I attended a saddle fitting demo at a major expo given by a saddle fitter that traveled the world fitting saddles. As he explained all the possible problems with saddle fit, horses bodies changing and more it became harder and harder to tell what was the best for the horse. Near the end one lady asked about bareback. The man observed that he thought that it might not distribute the riders weight evenly enough. He had just spent 40 minutes explaining how most saddles don’t distribute the riders weight evenly enough. 

Another person spoke up and observed (this isn’t an exact quote but close), “so it sounds like the safest choice is to stay off our horses backs.” To which the speaker replied, “Yes, that is the safest choice.”

It was an interesting saddle fit demo…

If I haven’t scared you away yet…a great time to start bareback riding is by dedicating the last few minutes of each ride to bareback. If you ride for an hour consider pulling the saddle off for the last 5-10 minutes. This has several benefits including; your horse is already warmed up and in work mode, your muscles are loose, you know where your horse is mentally, the horse is slightly sticky from sweat…so you stick better. Yep. Stick like glue. Pants wash and sweat don’t hurt.

This is how I started experimenting with my first reining moves bareback. At the end of each ride I would pull the saddle and cool down bareback. I still remember my first five foot slide and how excited I was! I just kept building from there. 

Below are two bareback videos. The trail riding video was made in the state park behind my current house. The other you may have already seen….

 

I’d like to hear your thoughts and tips, please leave your comments below!

23 Comments

  1. Amy C. on September 2, 2017 at 11:22 am

    I LOVE Riding bareback. Thanks to you, Stacy, I was inspired to try it 4 years ago and I now believe it is the best way to ride. It’s awesome and my absolute favorite way to sit on a horse. It’s very rare now to see me with a saddle, if someone sees me pull out, they are shocked. Honestly my saddle hasn’t seen a horse, but two times since I showed in July. My riding instructor actually called me a week before the show and was like, “would you please put a saddle on so your horse is okay with it when you show next week?”
    Also, I started attempting to learn mounted archery 2 months ago and it has all been taught to my horse bareback because I don’t have an English saddle to do it in and the Western horn gets in the way.
    All in all I give bareback riding the rating of “best way to ride” due to allowing versatility in riding discipline, closeness to horse, improvement in riding skills, and being really fun.”
    Thanks for inspiring me to try it , Stacy. 😀

  2. TJ Ligouri on August 31, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Oh my goodness, THANK YOU so much for this! I LOVE riding bareback for the same reason you do, there is that close contact and I feel safer riding bb because, as you said, it’s easier to unload if you need to. I was feeling guilty about all the bb riding I was doing, afraid that somehow my weight wasn’t distributed as well as with a saddle. Now I can ride BB guilt free, woo hoo!

  3. Kim on August 31, 2017 at 9:13 am

    I love bareback for the simple reason I feel closer to my horse emotionally. She could toss me off, but let’s me stay, and she responds more readily to leg cues. I enjoy the feel of her muscles moving, and hope she enjoys the break from the extra 30lbs of saddle.

  4. Ivana Franz on August 31, 2017 at 12:36 am

    Since my pony-riding-days as a kid I’ve been riding bareback on and off more or less all my life. But only the last six years, I really started enjoying it consciously, since now, I’m lucky to have my little herd of 8 horses on a 50ha land (woods and hills) and going to find them and bring them home for the night is a major effort. So it came natural to me to just ride one of them on the way back, bareback and just with a halter – it’s the ultimate freedom!
    Nothing better than cantering in the moonlight over the hills bareback with the herd behind you!

  5. cindy furse on August 31, 2017 at 12:22 am

    Bareback just feels good,and all 3 of my horses seem perfectly happy with it. It’s a lot easier to train them to collect and transition into really comfortable gaits when you can both feel the difference right away. I wonder if some of the so-called studies of weight distribution bareback might be from riders who do not commonly ride bareback and aren’t muscled up to it. Lots of difference in the ride. I’ve never seen a horse get a saddle sore or a sore back from bareback riding, even after several hours in the mountains,but saddles, always working to readjust the fit when they change weight/muscle/whatever … hmmm.

    • Stacy Westfall on August 31, 2017 at 8:11 am

      I agree. I’ve seen unbalanced riders bareback…but they don’t go on two hour trail rides bareback. It naturally encourages shorter rides until you get your balance….hmmm.

      • Kathy Kutter on August 31, 2017 at 10:58 am

        Stacy you are amazing. I had a 16.2 Appaloosa for 29 years, Akol.I had little or no training in training horses. My Dad was of the old school, horses are dumb, teach with whip or club. As a kid we had horses to ride on the farm and I found it didn’t take much pressure to get the horses to do what I wanted, I used this method to train Akol.He loved for me to ride bareback and always gave a couple of light bucks when we centered bareback.How I miss him!!

  6. Nicki on August 30, 2017 at 10:51 pm

    I was not prepared for that last video. You snuck it in on us❤️

  7. Jenny Cook on August 30, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    I also did not have a proper fitting saddle for my first horse. I owned her for 17 years and always rode bareback. She was an amazing blessing to me. When I first started riding her, I would bounce to the sides whenever we trotted, then stop, get myself centered and try again. It only took a few rides to get accustomed to her rhythm, after that, it was smooth sailing for 17 years.
    I still ride our horses bareback. I feel it’s the best way to get to know your horse and respectfully communicate. Enjoy!

  8. Deb Szeles on August 30, 2017 at 10:38 pm

    Stacy, love you to death, but, PLEASE, wear a helmet – especially bareback! You’re a role model and hero for many. We’re still losing far too many to head injuries due to death, parallysis and TBI. Please be part of the solution like the awesome Fallon Taylor. Thanks for all you do for horses and riders.

    • Stacy Westfall on August 31, 2017 at 8:25 am

      You’d be a little proud of me…on my cell phone there are videos of me riding my 2 year olds on trail rides this spring with a helmet! I’m dedicated to sharing my current life with people and currently I don’t wear a helmet all the time. I made my kids when they were learning and riding. I’ll keep analyzing my issues…

  9. Rochelle on August 30, 2017 at 10:33 pm

    I recently learned to ride bareback, at 27, I was taking lessons to build my strength (mentally and physically) after a couple falls off my own horses. My instructor would have me cool the horse down bareback after each lesson, just walking, but I loved it! One day I told her “I can’t wait until I’m strong enough to trot bareback” right than and there she told me “your strong enough let’s do it”. I was so nervous but my sister in law was there, and I was just going to trot a straight line from my instructor to my SIL, how exhilarating! Then came one stirrup and no stirrup lesson, always with cooling off bareback. The day she said “your doing a bareback lesson today” my heart skipped a beat and then my stomach sank, I’m so afraid of falling, she reassured me I had been ridding multiple time a week for a few months, I was a stronger rider than I ever was before my falls, and we had practiced plenty of dismounts! Still I couldn’t shake the fear of falling, I was so tense that I couldn’t keep my balance while trotting, so she asked me math questions, horse breeds, and to sing the alphabet, silly but it worked, I was trotting around bareback on a beautiful gypsy. Memories I’ll never forget! She unfortunately does not give lesson at that barn anymore, but we have plans to start working with my boys over the winter. There’s nothing like a well trained horse, something hopefully my boys will become in the near future!

    • Rochelle on August 30, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      I should add that I purchased my first horse at 24, horses were always a lifelong dream of mine that my family couldn’t afford growing up. I’m very greatful that I was able to achieve that dream as an adult.

      But wish I would have taken lessons, before I ever fell. that’s something I don’t think I’ll every get over.

  10. Kathy McBride on August 30, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    I agree that bareback makes you a better rider. About 2 winters ago I decided I was going to learn to trot bareback. At first I could barely make it a few steps. I kept at it with lots of walk and little bits of trot. I added circles at walk and then trot and that helped me the most as during a turn it is harder to brace in your body. Just a few weeks ago I felt confident enough to canter. I never thought I would have the balance for that. Bareback also helped my horse find a nice slow trot as the slower he trots the less I bounce on his back. I always ride in a rope hackamore when bareback so I cannot hurt his mouth if I lose my balance.I also sometimes ride in a rope halter with one rein.That really makes you aware of how much you use your reins. Love bareback riding.

    • Stacy Westfall on August 31, 2017 at 8:14 am

      You wrote a perfect description of how to learn to ride bareback. Little speed or gait changes, turns in the gaits your comfortable with!

      • TJ Ligouri on August 31, 2017 at 10:52 am

        I am going to have to try trotting bb more and see if that helps ol’ Cash to slow things down! Thank you!

  11. Janine on August 30, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    I also grew up riding bareback. My mother felt I was safer and or course the only way to avoid walking home was to learn to be with the horse in all movements. We used to dive out from the city and each ride one horse and pony another “around the block”. All 10 miles of it. And still make it back for the start of school. Needless to say we travelled a good clip. The horses were fresh with the dawn and dew, and we all had a lot of fun. After school rides were for training and lessons. I’ve never heard of anyone hurting their horse riding bareback, it improves the rider’s skills immensely. And if you live in a winter climate it’s a handy way to stay warm!

  12. Sandi on August 30, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Several decades ago, I used to occasionally ride bareback, especially in the winter 🙂 I think the key factors that allowed me to do that were that I had only one horse, he was literally a “backyard” horse whom I rode nearly every day so both he and I were super fit and I had great balance during the years I had him. We had a magical partnership of trust between us that I have not quite enjoyed that depth of with another horse since, probably because I’ve not been able to spend so much endless time with another horse since him. But he was a “feel-good” bucker and would occasionally launch me and then stand over top of me looking at me as if to say “What are you doing down there?” Haha!

  13. Becky Cutcher on August 30, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    I’m 67 and always rode bareback as a kid. I got away from it for 20 some years and then started again. It’s kept my balance working and my horses all seem to enjoy it. I’ll email again when I’m 87 and see if I’m still at it?

  14. Mckenna on August 30, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    I’m 17 and I rarely ever ride in a saddle. I love bareback and find it harder to ride in a saddle.

  15. Loretta on August 30, 2017 at 6:52 pm

    LOVE riding bareback!! It started a couple years ago when my trainer,who is a big fan of bb riding, practically gave my entire lesson that way. It was painful and not exactly enjoyable, but now I love it. The funny part is, I think my horse likes it too☺ Since then I have found my balance improved and I love the feel of flesh-on-flesh with the horse.

  16. Raydeen on August 30, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I have a Halflinger at the barn who I teach beginners on and he has been difficult to find a saddle for. Funds are tight so I start my students using a bareback pad and they end up preferring it to the saddle later? I had not thought to teach emergency dismounts. Do you have any video or suggestions on how to teach and /or do that? Not really sure how to go about that myself, have focused on staying on. Thank you for your time?
    I rode at Mohican several months ago and love the trales there. I live north next to the National park and have started to get to know the trales near us. I am part of the Ohio Horsemens Club, we help to maintain the trales in the park.

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