How to ride a horse and about riding


how to ride a horse:

how to hold the reins:

how to canter:

how to canter & Lope western style:

How to Ride a Horse, in One Easy Lesson

As with almost any activity, you might need a long time and lots of practice, and maybe some live lessons, to ride a horse VERY WELL, but the basics you need to ride a horse ADEQUATELY are simple and easy to learn.  This lesson is for pleasure riding of course, not for horse show riding.

 How to approach a horse

I personally feel like the safest place around a horse is on his back.  Horses almost NEVER intend to hurt a person.  They respect people very much.  But they often accidentally hurt a person when they are surprised and think they are kicking another horse (who they have no such reticence about hurting) or when they run over a person accidentally when startled.

So, the main thing to do when approaching a horse is to make sure he sees you coming.  If you can see his eye, he probably sees you.  Also, talk to him as you approach just to make sure. If possible, approach from the front at a 45 degree angle.

To minimize the danger of being kicked, stay either more than 6 feet from his hind feet or right up next to him, where you can still be kicked but the momentum is so much less dangerous.

 How to get on a horse

Always first check the cinch for tightness.

Optimally, if you’re a beginning rider, someone should be holding the horse while you get on.  If not possible, try to aim the horse toward a barrier and keep a good hand on the reins while you mount.

Always mount from the horse’s left side.  This is so your sword won’t be in the way when you mount.  (OK, that’s why it used to be–now it’s a tradition the horses are used to.)

Facing the horse, facing slightly toward the front of the horse, hold the stirrup with your left hand and put the tip of your left foot into it.

Holding the reins in your left hand, grab the saddle horn with your left hand and the back of the saddle with your right hand and pull yourself up.  (Experienced riders are supposed to grab the horn with both hands, but it is hard for beginners to mount that way.)

Release your right hand, swing your right leg over the saddle and lower yourself GENTLY onto the horse’s back.

Stand in the stirrups and shift your saddle to the exact middle.

 Adjusting your saddle stirrups

For comfortable trail riding, your stirrups should be as long as possible while still allowing you to push your heels below your toes and place half your weight on your feet without pointing your toes.


Steering and Brakes:  How to Control Your Horse on the Trail

Hold the saddle horn with your right hand, in case the horse makes a sudden movement, but don’t ever hold the saddle horn with both hands.  (A lot of people grab the horn with both hands if the horse starts to trot, then they have no control of the reins, so can’t pull back to slow it down–just remember, always keep your left hand free of the horn and holding the reins.

Hold the reins with your left hand, as if you’re holding an ice cream cone.

Hold the reins very loosely almost all of the time…just tight enough so that there will be tension on the reins if you pull back.  Pull back gently to slow or stop the horse, then release when he slows or stops.  (If you keep the reins tight, it actually excites the horse–he thinks you’re getting ready to do something exciting.)


Pull the reins straight back toward your belly button until the horses slows down or stops.  If you have to pull back over your shoulder, you’re holding your reins too long.  As soon as he slows down or stops, release the reins again.


Neck reining:  Use this most of the time.  Holding both reins in your left hand, reach forward and then across the horse’s neck, right to go right, left to go left.  It’s just like the joystick for a video game. 

Direct reining:  This is kind of like your “emergency steering”, when the neck reining is not working because the horse is distracted or being difficult or doesn’t want to go where you want him to go.  Hold one rein in each hand.  To go right, totally loosen the left rein and pull the right rein out and away from the horse’s neck so that you are literally pulling the horses head in the direction you want him to go.  Kick forward at the same time for maximum effect.


How to “Dismount”

Optimally, if you are a beginning rider, someone should be holding your horse while you dismount, so he won’t walk away while you still have your foot in the stirrup.  If not possible, try to have him facing a hitching post or some other barrier to his forward movement.

Method 1:  (Preferred method).  Leave your left foot in the stirrup.  Throw your other foot over the hind end and lower yourself to the ground, then remove your left foot from the stirrup.

Method 2:  (Risk of catching clothing on saddle and getting hung up on the horse)  Throw your right foot over the hind end so your standing in the left stirrup facing the horse with your left foot still in the stirrup.  Lean your tummy over the saddle, putting your weight on the saddle and kick your left foot out of the stirrup.  Slide down the horse’s left side to the ground.

 Special Situations Commonly Encountered:

 ~Horse eats all the time, only wants to stand and graze

This is the most common complaint regarding rental horses.  Horses are smart, and they learn very quickly that they can get away with eating along the trail when they are usually ridden by novice riders.  The easiest way to deal with this problem, the way we deal with it at our stable, Western Trails, is with a muzzle.  While wearing a muzzle, the horses don’t even try to eat, no one has to fight with their horse over eating and the ride is much more pleasant for all.

If you are riding without a muzzle, you will need to convince your horse right from the get-go that you are not going to let him eat.  If he starts to put his head down to eat, pull it right back up BEFORE he gets that bite, and simultaneously kick him forward (or squeeze, depending on how sensitive he is) because if he gets the bite, it will be harder to stop him next time.

How hard should you pull up his head?  How hard should you kick him forward?  Here’s my standard answer:  AS HARD AS IT TAKES.  If he is not lifting his head and moving forward, you are not pulling up hard enough, you are not kicking hard enough.

Don’t ever think you are doing the horse any favor or being kind by letting him eat.  For one thing, a bad habit makes an undesirable and ultimately unwanted horse (just like with kids!).  Secondly, some plants you find on the trail are POISONOUS.  Some can kill a horse.  So don’t kill them with kindness.

~Horses fighting and bickering with other horses

Just like people, horses have friends, enemies and strangers, and they react differently with the different horses.  In every group of horses, there is a dominance hierarchy, a pecking order.  Since you probably will not know the pecking order of the horses you’ll be riding–unless you own them–it’s best to assume that any of them might be dominant and not let any horse crowd any others or get in their bubble.

Single file is definitely the safest way to ride.  It is the way horses travel in nature and it is the way experienced riders ride the trail.  When horses pass other horses or come up beside them from behind, I guarantee the horses involved ALWAYS evaluate the dominance issue.  If the horse being passed is dominant, and if he has a beginning rider on his back, he may either lunge or spin and kick at the other horse to assert his dominance, to say “back off, buddy!”. 

So, don’t let your horse crowd another from behind or pass him.  You should keep a space of about 1/2 to one whole horse length in between the horses on the trail.  If you need to pass a horse, you should go way out around it 10 to 20 feet away.

 ~Spooking or bolting

The most common way that beginning riders fall is when a horse is startled and makes a sudden movement forward or to the side, and the beginning rider, not having a real good seat on the horse, looses balance easily and falls.

Horses are prey animals, so when something startles them, they naturally move first and think second.  Most rental horses are tame enough that even when they startle, they very quickly get a grip and calm down immediately–i.e., they don’t really “bolt” and take off running–so if you can hang on for that first step or two, you have it made.

Just grab the horn–without dropping the reins–and hold on best you can.

If you keep reminding yourself to keep weight in your stirrups forming a tripod with your feet and your seat, you will be MUCH less likely to be dislodged from a horses than if you are just perched on his back with your legs dangling.


~Horse won’t leave the stable, wants to return too fast

Unfortunately, if you are riding without a wrangler, this one is the most difficult for a beginning rider to deal with, especially if you are riding alone–i.e. one rider on one horse.  Usually, the more horses you are riding with, the less of a problem these will be.

Use direct reining described above to get a horse to go in a direction he doesn’t want to go.

To slow down a horse who is trying to return too quickly to the stable, think of “pumping the brakes” rather than “riding the brakes”.  If you can, turn the horse in circles when he tries to speed up.  Try putting him behind a slower horse (but be careful not to antagonize the front horse by getting too close to him).

 ~Crossing water

Cross only at known water crossings.  Otherwise your horse could get bogged down and injure himself. 

Know that sometimes horses want to lie down in water.  It’s usually not a dangerous thing–unless the bottom is rocky–they can’t roll over because they’d have to put their head under water, so they usually just lean a bit to one side then get up again. 

Most horses give a warning they are thinking about lying down;  they splash and paw the water with the front hoof.  If he starts doing that, kick him forward.  Keep him moving and he can’t lie down.

 ~Slipping saddle

Even when you start out with a nice, tight cinch, it will always loosen a little while riding. Keep an eye on the saddle horn to make sure it stays in the middle, lined up with the horse’s spine.

 If it is tilted to one side, put your weight totally in the stirrups, grab hold of the horn and shift the saddle toward the middle.  Let your wrangler know that you might need your cinch tightness checked, or if riding without a guide, check it yourself.

The most important thing is, if the saddle starts to slide down, don’t follow it down!  Pull your horse to a stop, call out to the wrangler, grab the horn, and throw your weight to the opposite side to where the saddle is going.  If you cannot successfully replace the saddle toward the middle, dismount on the opposite side from where the saddle is slipping and hold your horses rein at his head so that he won’t take a step. 

If you are by yourself (without a wrangler) and the saddle is slipping, it is tricky.  You will need to hold your horse while you loosen the cinch and let the saddle drop from the horse, and then you will need to re-saddle the horse.

Choosing a Horseback Riding Style:

If you’re just learning to ride you may be curious about the differences between English and western riding styles. Personally, I think there are more similarities than differences. And one is not more difficult to learn than the other, because becoming very proficient in either takes time, dedication and practice. But, here are the basic differences for you to compare.


The Western riding style developed according to the needs of ‘cowboys’. The Western saddle is made to distribute weight more evenly over the horse’s back so horse and rider can counterbalance the weight of a roped cow. The seat of a Western saddle is comfortable for long hours over rough terrain. The horn anchors a lariat when roping cattle.

English riding takes many of its traditions and equipment from European mounted military styles.

Type of Horse:

Western horses tend to be compact and traditionally capable of steady travel all day with small bursts of speed to chase stray cattle.

English style horses tend to be taller.

But some individuals have surprising talents and a stocky Quarter Horse may surprise you in the dressage ring, while a Thoroughbred might have unexpected ‘cow sense’. Chances are your horse and you can find some success—and certainly fun, at any discipline or riding style no matter his type or breeding.


  • Walk very similar for both English and Western.
  • Trot/Jog: A jog is very smooth, relaxed, and slightly faster than a walk. The jog is useful for following herds of cattle. Riders sit a jog, and do not post. A trot is postedunless a sitting trot is required in the show ring.
  • Canter/Lope: The Western lope is a slow relaxed canter. An canter can be very elevated, extended, or collected with many variations in speed depending on the specific discipline or style.


The most distinctive element of western riding is the western hat. Western style helmets are available. A comfortable shirt, jeans and Western style boots complete the look. Many Western riders opt to wear sporty looking helmets, even when showing.

English riders wear a traditional style ‘hunt cap’ or helmet. A fitted jacket, shirt, jodhpurs or breeches and jodhpur boots or tall boots complete the English rider’s habit.

The Basics of What You’ll Need to Know:

Western riders will learn how to hold the reins with one hand, called neck reining, and sit the trot. English riders will learn to direct rein and post the trot. As you progress you will learn to cue and control your horse for different speeds within each gait, and other skills you’ll need to participate in various disciplines. If you plan to compete, you’ll need to learn to braid or band a mane, pull a tail, and other grooming details depending on what you are competing in.

English and Western Disciplines:

After learning the basics of either style there is a wide range of sports you can try. Here are just a few:


  • Team penning
  • Cutting
  • Reining
  • Speed Games
  • Trail Classes
  • Pleasure and Equitation Classes
  • Roping
  • Trail riding


  • Dressage
  • English or English Country Pleasure
  • Jumping
  • Hunting
  • Mounted Games
  • Polo
  • Hunter Pace

Sports That You Could Ride Either Or English or Western Style:

Some sports allow for either style of riding.


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