Can Bareback Riding Improve My Seat?

Melonie Kessler answers this reader question.
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Q: I watch kids at the barn ride their horses bareback, and they seem to have such secure seats. It makes me wonder if I should start incorporating some bareback rides here and there. —Name withheld by request 

Courtesy, Melonie Kessler

Courtesy, Melonie Kessler

A: Bareback riding has many benefits for both horse and rider. Getting back to basics by developing your balance through effectively following the mechanics of your horse’s gait is invaluable to the discipline of dressage. The blending of two beings into one in order to perform smooth, harmonious exercises is only achieved when the rider has complete control of her own balanced body. As in other sports, riders must rely on strong muscles and supple joints in order to support their balance, but with horseback riding, one must be constantly aware of the movement of the horse through the most elastic, supple seat and steady, supportive leg aids. This is what is referred to as “feel.”

Developing your feel through riding without a saddle is the easiest way to learn to comprehend the natural movement of each gait. The horse moves differently in the trot than in the walk and canter. Bareback riding can help you learn to catch the beat of the trot (a two-beat gait), which, for many riders initially, is their biggest challenge. If you are able to catch the beat of the trot, you have learned to use the right amount of isometric muscle tension.

An additional way to practice suppling your seat and coordinating your timing is to straddle a large yoga ball and bounce gently to emulate the motion of your horse in a steady, rhythmic trot. Work to keep the ball in motion with the rotation of your hips as you practice “sitting” the trot.

After successfully being able to sit the trot without bouncing, you can learn to influence your horse’s gait by understanding the principles of a closed seat and thighs to slow or stop your horse, and then to drive the horse forward by opening your hip angle and pushing him with your seat and back muscles. As in bareback riding, there is no saddle to buffer the aids, and you will learn to use smaller aids to achieve a greater response. Remember, this can be a difficult lesson to learn as your horse is a very sensitive creature and your legs without the additional layer of the saddle between your horse and your body might frighten the horse and create a nervous, tight back, resulting in negative tension and bad behavior.

When you are ready to work on the canter, remember it’s based on the same mechanics as the walk. This means that you swing your seat from back to front, and the bigger the swing, the bigger the stride. Bareback riding will open your hip angles and allow you to feel as if you are sitting “in” the horse as opposed to on top of him.

Bareback riding can be a lot of fun and it is a great workout for the hips and lower back. As you learn how to turn, start and stop your horse from your seat, the pieces of the puzzle will start to fall together soon and you will learn why the seat is the number-one aid.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in beginning to learn to ride bareback start on a school horse with experience in this style. If your own horse has not been ridden bareback before, you will want to have a helper steady him until he is comfortable with the feel of your legs and seat. After he accepts your weight without the saddle, he can be taught to understand your muscles’ meaning as they contract and relax, and his response time will become quicker. Lessons from a qualified instructor with experience is also important as the safety of you and your horse is always most important. As with all sports, it looks easier than it is, so take it slowly and steadily, and enjoy the bonding you will have with your partner as you embark on developing and refining your aids. 

Melonie Kessler is a USEF “S” dressage judge and a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. She is a graduate of Pleasant Hollow Farms Horse Career School in Coopersburg, Pennsylvania. A successful competitor and trainer through Grand Prix level, she trains out of Spirit Equestrian in Somis, California.

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Dressage Today.

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