I still remember my first time riding Western when I was about 12. I trained in English from a young age, so I was a little surprised by the bulky saddle and relaxed style. A few of my friends rode Western, but none of them had primed me with any Western horseback riding tips.
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On my first day, one of the ranch hands that was riding with us immediately went into a full gallop across the field away from the barn so our horses took off after his.
I managed to stay on throughout the gallop by gripping the horn for dear life. Also I have to give most of the credit to the paint I was riding, who was such a smooth ride.
That ride was when I learned #6 of my Western horseback riding tips: double check you and your horse are a good match.
My friend, Jules, didn’t have quite as happy an ending as I did! She gracelessly fell off her horse. We’ll come back to her in #10 of my Western horseback riding tips!
Looking back now, I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or shudder at the thought of what could have gone wrong.
Since then I’ve picked up a lot of ideas on how to feel, look and act more like a born and bred rider even on your first Western horseback ride.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably about to go on a Western ride sometime soon. Maybe you’ve already gone out for a few rides or maybe this one is your first? Either way, you want to feel, look and act more like a born and bred rider.
Well not to worry – you’ve come to the right gal! Here, I’ll take you through my top 10 Western horseback riding tips for beginners.
Every rider was once a beginner
First of all, remind yourself that everyone has been where you are at one time or another. Even the greatest cowboys and rodeo stars started out exactly where you are now.
Except, of course, they didn’t have my list of Western horseback riding tips to help them!
Tip 1: Looking like a cowboy or cowgirl will improve your confidence
If you look the part, you will feel the part. Please don’t wear a baggy pair of sweat pants or a tight skirt or some sky high heels. You’ll end up looking and feeling awkward and silly (if you’re allowed to get on your horse at all).
Instead, wear a comfortable pair of jeans, a comfortable shirt (with additional layers depending on how cold it is outside) and a pair of cowboy boots.
You want the jeans to be stretchy enough so you can do lunges easily. This mimics the motion of you mounting and dismounting your horse.
Layers are key if it’s cold because you can take layer by layer off. Just tie them around your waist or put them in a saddle bag if you get hot.
And finally, if you don’t have cowboy boots then you have two options. Your first is to go out and buy a pair – I wear mine everywhere, and I think they’re a great investment. Your second is to see if you have a pair of boots with a small heel on them. No 3 inch heels and no flat converse! Something with a heel like your thumb width should be good.
To learn more Western horseback riding tips about your attire, have a look at my guide to rider’s gear and apparel, and scroll to the Western section.
Tip 2: Get comfortable with Western lingo
You’ll want to understand what the others are talking about when they mention different horse gaits, different tack components and different horse colours. This way you can join in, comment and it will help you learn more and just get more involved.
My first day in a Western saddle, I learned pretty quickly the difference between a canter and a gallop! Riding English in the arena, you don’t really know what a gallop feels like.
It’s a completely different feeling to be full speed ahead across a flat field with nothing to slow you down!
Horses generally have 4 different gaits:
- Walk: slowest, four-beat gait so each of the hooves hits the ground one at a time
- Trot: slightly faster, two-beat gait that’s usually the most bumpy
- Canter/Lope: faster, three-beat gait that has a left and right lead (think show jumping!)
- Gallop: fastest gait with four beats (think race horses!)
The Basics of Western Tack:
- The bridle: halter-type appliance around the horse’s head that keeps the bit in place
- The bit: metal (or sometimes rubber) piece that sits in the horse’s mouth
- The reins: leather straps attached to the bridle at the edges of the bit that you hold
- The saddle: leather “seat” and accessories that sits on the horse’s back
- The stirrups: where you put your feet when you ride
- The horn: the leather protrusion at the front of the saddle
- The saddle pad(s): the pads that sit below the saddle on the horse and prevent sores
To learn more about Western tack, check out this page on equestrian equipment and scroll to the Western section.
The Basics of Horse Colouring:
- Grey: pretty self explanatory
- Bay: brown body with darker brown mane and tail
- Chestnut: very light brown or auburn body, mane and tail
- Palomino: beige body with blond mane and tail
- Pinto: splashy! think of a cow and you’ve got black and white pinto colouring
- Appaloosa: spotty! either on the bum or across the whole body
- Roan: two-toned coat spread evenly throughout the entire body
Here is a good and complete colour chart if you want to learn more:
There are also many different horse markings. I haven’t included them here because even I don’t remember all of them by heart! Just shoot me a comment below if you’re curious and I’ll write a post about it 🙂
Tip 3: Try your best to keep nerves to a minimum
This one is tough I know but it’s also so important. Horses are extremely sensitive to your emotions.
They sense when you’re scared and nervous or relaxed and happy. And since horses don’t generally perceive themselves as scary (they are herbivores and thus animals of prey – other animals hunt them in the wild), they won’t think that they’re the reason you’re nervous.
Instead your horse will think that there is something scary nearby and therefore they will start to get scared as well.
Since horses are predominantly flight animals, they have an urge to run when they’re nervous.
So by being nervous, you are giving your horse a reason to become jumpy, flighty and generally less compliant.
Some quick ways to decrease nerves before and during a ride:
- Deep breathing exercises with your diaphragm (not your chest!)
- Pet your horse, talk to him and become friends
- Be social and talk to others on the ride
- Ask lots of questions – the faster you learn the sooner you’ll become a natural
- Laugh as often as possible
- Don’t take yourself too seriously – it doesn’t matter if you mess up!
- Remind yourself that ‘real’ riders fall off all the time
- Take note of the safety reminders the trail boss (or whoever is in charge) gives you – as long as you stick to these you’re good!
Tip 4: Assuming the “pro” riding position
Sitting in the saddle will soon become comfortable and second nature to you once you’ve been riding for a little bit. But until then, you can simply “fake it ’till you make it.”
Western riding is very relaxed, so you want to imagine your body sinking deep into the saddle.
The weight of your legs should drop heavily into your feet and through to the stirrups.
You want to feel your horse’s movements with your hips and let your body fall into the natural rhythm of your horse. This doesn’t mean try and move your horse with your hips as your horse won’t like all the weird shifting weight on their back. Instead, just let yourself flow as naturally along as possible.
Saying this, relaxed doesn’t mean half-asleep. Make sure you keep alert and don’t let yourself slouch over. Just try and imagine that you’re one with your horse. Imagine being your horse – ask yourself, what kind of rider would you want to have on your back?
Remember when you were a kid and you gave your little brother a piggy back ride?
Did you want him moving all over the place or hanging off to one side? Your horse doesn’t either!
So don’t lean consistently to one side, too far forward or too far back. Try and keep yourself centred.
This isn’t really an issue when you’re just walking in a straight line but as you start going up and down hills, doing tight turns at a trot or a canter, or generally winding through bushes and trees it can sometimes feel natural to lean one way or the other – try to avoid this urge.
You can also stand up in the saddle using your stirrups every once in a while on longer rides to provide your horse some relief from your weight constantly being in the same place.
Tip 5: One hand only ladies and gents!
If you’ve ever ridden English then you need to forget everything about how to hold your reins because in Western, things are completely different. Your thumbs don’t need to be up, you don’t need to have a rein in each hand, you can have more slack and your arms don’t have to be up. Also, your horse’s head can be lower and more relaxed than in English.
Instead, learn how to master doing everything with one hand and with some slack in the reins – aka “neck reining”.
Hold the two reins in one hand, and simply move your hand slightly forward and left if you want to go left or slightly forward and right if you want to go right.
Also, use your legs more and even your hips a little bit when turning to help your horse along. You can twist your hips slightly in the direction that you want to go, and your horse will pick up on this signal if they are well trained. Furthermore, you want to squeeze your horse with the leg opposite of the direction you want to turn in as your horse should naturally move away from the pressure.
Tip 6: Double check you and your horse are a good match
Whoever is running the ride, or the horse’s owner(s) should know what they’re doing when assigning a horse to you.
So if this is your first ride, they should give you a thicker, slower and generally calm horse.
Remember my story at the beginning? You don’t want to be taken off at a gallop within the first few minutes of getting on. Even if you’ve ridden before, it’s better to be safe than sorry when you’re at a new facility with new horses.
If you notice that the horse you got is restless, jumpy or just seems greener than you’re comfortable with, then don’t be afraid to speak up!
It will be much more embarrassing – and potentially dangerous – when you can’t control the horse during your ride than if you speak up now.
Tip 7: Don’t forget to be affectionate!
Horses love affection and they can tell whether you’re focused on them or not. So don’t forget to treat your horse like a princess, pat her often and tell her how much of a good girl she is. I really think this is one of the most underrated Western horseback riding tips!
Yes! That means you have to talk to your horse so don’t be shy or embarrassed. All horse owners and lovers talk to their horses all the time.
Before you get started, make sure you learn your horse’s name and use it often throughout the ride as that will help the two of you to bond. Also, you can even bring some treats like whole carrots, apples and sugar cubes. But make sure you ask the owner or trail boss whether your horse is allowed them. Just like us, some horses aren’t as tolerant of treats, or are kept on special diets.
Tip 8: Ask questions and be social
As I mentioned when I was talking about decreasing nerves, it’s great to interact with other riders and the owners of the ranch or establishment that you’re riding at. Learning as much as you can about how the ranch functions, how the horses are taken care of and who takes care of them will help you learn more about horses. It will also give you an idea if you want to keep riding there.
I’ve included some ideas of what to ask but feel free to take these questions further, or ask more of your own that pertain more to your situation! Remember that Western horseback riding tips aren’t just limited to the riding, but the whole experience.
Some good questions to ask or talk about:
- How many horses do you have here?
- How old is my horse?
- Do many riders come through here?
- What feed do you give your horses?
- When do you stall the horses and turn them out?
- How much land do you have?
- Do you have any other animals here?
- What other horse-related stuff do you do here? (Besides trail rides or lessons or whatever you’re participating in at the time)
- Can other people’s horses board here?
- Do you train horses here?
- Do your horses compete in any kind of competitions?
Tip 9: Learn about Western events & competitions
Going off the last question in the list above, it can be interesting and give you something to talk about if you know about different Western competitions and rodeo events. You can do a quick lookup of these types of events near you or the ranch you’re riding at.
If you have any interest in training or competing in these down the line, then that’s all the more reason for you to look them up!
Again, if you’re curious to learn more about these types of events and competitions – shoot me a comment below and I’ll write a post on them! I have plenty of Western horseback riding tips for more seasoned riders to share too!
Tip 10: It’s okay to fall
I know I’m repeating myself a little bit but I think this is important enough to deserve its own tip section. Falling can be a big stigma among new riders for a few reasons.
One reason is that people think falling makes them look inexperienced and silly. Another reason is that people are just plain scared of falling.
Remember the story of my first Western ride I was telling you about earlier with Jules and I?
Well, I managed to stay on throughout the gallop by gripping the horn for dear life. Also I have to give most of the credit to the paint I was riding, who was such a smooth ride.
Jules wasn’t quite as lucky.
Her girth hadn’t been done up tightly enough (the strap that keeps the saddle on) and her saddle shot forwards. Her horse skidded to a halt immediately, worried about his rider, as she shot forward and ended up on his neck. She dismounted/fell off gracelessly but no harm was done to either of them.
We ended up laughing about that for months afterwards.
So no matter what happens during your ride, learn to laugh about it and most of all just enjoy yourself! After all, this is supposed to be fun!
Both of these are completely valid to feel as a new rider. However, falling does not make you look inexperienced or silly in the least. Professional riders still fall plenty of times. There’s even a saying that if you haven’t fallen off at least 20 times (I’ve heard different numbers here) then you aren’t a ‘real rider.’
So the moral of the story is don’t be afraid of falling because you think it will make you look silly!
The trick here is to brush the dirt off, smile and get ready to get right back on.
Usually if you fall, you will be just fine. Just remember to roll as this minimizes impact on your joints and will carry you further from your horse’s hooves.
Of course, if you feel pain – then don’t be afraid to say so! Again, this is nothing to be ashamed of. I once fell on my hip and had a bruise the size of a basketball on it for weeks. I continued because I wanted to finish my jumping routine. BUT I also went to go get checked out at the doctor’s right after to make sure everything was a-okay.
Furthermore, I know it’s scary to think about falling off a horse. It’s high up there and a nervous mind is one that can come up with all sorts of imaginative scenarios about what could go wrong. Refer to the tactics I listed before for managing nerves and I promise once you’re on for 10 minutes you’ll already start getting more confident.
The only real remedy for this unfortunately is to fall off. Once you fall off once, you realize that it’s not that bad.
Another potential solution if you feel like your fear is really interfering with your riding is to try vaulting.
Vaulting is an equestrian discipline in which you’re actually taught how to fall off properly and to dismount and mount your horse while they’re moving. It’s also the sport with the highest safety record out of all horse-related disciplines and so literally the safest way to increase your confidence.
Most Importantly – Have Fun!
Your horse will sense if you’re having fun and as a result, they will be more inclined to relax, have fun and communicate with you. Also presumably the whole reason you’ve decided to try Western riding is to learn something new and fun!
Enjoying yourself is more important than any one of these Western horseback riding tips.
I would love to hear some of your stories about your first rides, or any Western horseback riding tips you might have! Or generally if you have some a funny or inspiring story you’d like to share with everyone, please don’t hesitate at all comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org 🙂
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