I grew up about 15 miles north of downtown Dallas. My Mama’s family can trace roots back to before Texas was a state. My grandfather ran a cattle ranch, a spice store, and my grandmother, who we called O’Reilly, invested in real estate. O’Reilly liked to say that a gentleman should be a gentle man. She also said that any Texas gentleman needed to be able to play tennis or golf, since that’s where business got done, and a gentleman had to be able to ride a horse.
Horse and Rider
The two most important components to any horse ride are you and the horse. Horses weigh upwards of 1000 lbs and though they are generally relaxed and compliant, they also can be pig headed and difficult. My grandfather liked to say that the two most dangerous parts to any horse are the front and the back. Horses can do real damage with both their teeth and their kick, but most of the horses a beginner rider would be exposed to are well behaved and even tempered.
One of the best ways to get to know horses is to sign up for lessons. A quick trip to Google will uncover any number of riding stables near wherever you live. Lesson prices can vary greatly, and if you get hooked be warned, there’s real money to be spent on horses, ha.
Horses pick up a lot of what the rider is feeling and they tend to do well if you face them with a sort of quiet determination. Most well-trained horses will respect the rider and they genuinely enjoy the attention and time you are spending with them.
There are two primary horse riding styles: English and Western. Western is what people imagine when they think old west, cowboy hats, and cowboy movies. The riders wear jeans and boots, and the saddle is larger with a horn/handhold at the front. English riding is more what you see in horse racing and at the Olympics. The pants are stretchy material and fitted, and the boots are tall and come to just under the knee. The English saddle is smaller with no horn, but the exact style will vary depending on the precise riding discipline.
There’s always the possibility of falling off or being thrown from a mount. Make sure your boots have a heel to help prevent the foot from slipping all the way through the stirrup and becoming caught. Another key piece of equipment is the helmet. I once had a child run up between two buildings as I rode past and my startled horse danced to the side so quickly that I found myself midair. I landed on top of some jumping equipment and if it hadn’t been for my helmet I might have been seriously injured.
Prepping for the ride
Before mounting up, don’t skip the grooming. Not you silly, your horse!
I’ve had a number of experienced riders come for a ride at my house and I’m always surprised when they haven’t ever groomed and saddled their own horse. Apparently, a lot of riding stables prep the horse for you so all you need do is show up and ride. Grooming is a repetitive and sometimes dirty job, but there’s something immensely peaceful and relaxing about going through the motions of getting your horse ready. Horses and man have worked together since about 3,500 BC and I swear, there’s something of that wired into our brains
Grooming starts typically with a curry comb. A curry is a brush with plastic nubs rather than bristles. The curry is used in a circular motion and it helps loosen dirt from the horse’s skin, as well as helping to stimulate the production of natural oils. From the curry, most riders will use a couple of different brushes, usually one fairly stiff and one much softer. The brushes are used with the grain of the horses hair. Once the horses coat is clean a comb can be used to help tame the horses main and tail. Finally, a pick is used on the bottom of the horse’s feet to clean them of packed dirt and possibly rocks.
After a good grooming, the horse is tacked up. A saddle pad goes over the back and under the saddle to protect both the horse and saddle. The saddle is strapped on across the horse’s chest with a girth. The bridle is then affixed to the horse’s head and horse and rider are ready to depart (don’t forget that helmet!).
A typical ride
Once the horse is cleaned and tacked it’s time to mount up. Some riders mount from the ground but it’s usually a bit easier to mount from the step ladder looking mounting block. Horses are mounted from the left side by placing the left foot in the left stirrup and then pushing up into the saddle. Western riders usually have one leather coming from each side of the bridle in the horse’s mouth. These split rains are then held in the left hand to leave the right hand free to work. English riders have a continuous rein leading from one side of the bridle to the other. The reins are then gripped two handed.
Horses, like any athlete, will need to be warmed up. Starting with a good walk and then graduating up to other gates tends to work best. Once the horse is ready, there are any number of horse related events and shows for the dedicated rider. Dressage demands precision and standard movements. Barrels is one of the most popular speed events and involves riding horses in a pattern around barrels at speed. Trail riding involves riding horses though open trails and possibly over obstacles. Once you get hooked, there’s something for everyone.
For more information
If you’d like more information on most of what I’ve said, take a look at the below links. Horse riding is fun, relaxing, good exercise, and it’s one of the sports that you can do later in life. Just ask my 82yr old neighbor who still rides ?
Originally published as Horse Riding for City Slickers by Pat Haggerty