'A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!'
- Richard III by William Shakespeare
First, a disclaimer: h2g2 takes no responsibility for anything that may occur during any activity involving large, live animals – live horses being, arguably, the only horses worth riding. Please also note that the printed word is no substitute for the real, physical experience, sights, sounds, and smells of riding horseback. If you should visit a riding stable, be sure to listen to instructions and advice regarding the area and the specific horse with which you'll be spending time.
These large quadrupeds have been relegated to a class of animals known as 'beasts of burden'. Once upon a time they were captured wild and trained. Most horses today have been raised in captivity with different breeds being used to pull wagons or carriages, or mounted for riding, yet some are still very difficult and dangerous to handle.
Inexperienced riders would be well-advised to visit a local riding stable where the mounts are familiar with the fumbling attempts of the uninitiated. In addition, be prepared to find you are requested or required to wear protective headgear for insurance purposes and personal safety (they are quite useful, in wooded areas, to protect one's noggin1 from the occasional branch and help protect the eyes).
Talk to Your Transportation
A horse is a horse, of course, of course
And, no one can talk to a horse, of course
- Mr Ed, Ray Evans and Jay Livingston
Riding, ultimately, is about communication. You need to communicate that you respect the horse, while at the same time letting it know what you want and expect. The horse, if well trained, will communicate too; especially if you get overly callous in your treatment of it.
Just like your own pets, they understand more if you let them know how well they are doing. Conversely, they often understand other tones expressing dissatisfaction. Keep the language clean; they don't know most of our words, just the tenor of the voice.
A good horse is one with many good, few indifferent, and no bad points.
Animal Management, British War Office Handbook, 1908
There are few options for mounting a horse. Unless your horse is a very tiny horse that can be straddled, mounting will consist of getting into a seated position with your face facing the same direction as the horse's face. Tiny ones probably would not be worth attempting to ride.
There are five methods of mounting a horse that have proven value.
Method One: Hoists
Armoured knights were often lowered on to their horses from hoists, especially for jousting. Although a viable option, the chances of finding access to such a device is unlikely - and it would not be of value at any point except the initial mounting. If you were to get down in a meadow somewhere, likely the hoist would be precisely elsewhere.
Method Two: Stirrups
The more common method, nowadays, is to place a foot in the saddle's left stirrup (did we forget to mention the necessity of a saddle?), grabbing the pommel, and leaning forward while lifting your weight up and swinging the right leg over the horse until your right foot can reach the right stirrup.
It's much like mounting a bicycle, really; only be sure that your mounting your horse from its left side, as that is the side with which most horses are both familiar and comfortable. American Indians used to mount from the right-hooved side and rode bareback, but you are not likely to come across either a horse that finds it familiar or an American Indian.
Method Three: Step or Block
'The Step', whether man-made or natural (eg, a convenient rock), can also be used if the horse can be led to the relatively advantageous spot. A slope is a wonderful alternative, provided it brings you close enough to the horse, Just be certain that you are on the upward part of the slope, and that the horse is on level ground.
Method Four: Helper
Failing the availability of saddles and/or stirrups, horses can be mounted with a 'leg-up', normally performed by a non-rider.
The helper stands on the left side of the horse, leans forward and either cups their hands (interlacing the fingers) or grabs your left calf and ankle. You grab the saddle's pommel (or, horse's mane), and the back part of the saddle. On the count of three, jump up, and swing your right leg over the horse. Try not to land hard on the horse for fear of startling him into running. Also, avoid kicking him with your right foot or knee as you swing your leg over, since that too could cause him to bolt.
Method Five: The Vault
Rodeo and circus riders emulate the actions seen in Western television programmes and films where the cowboy runs up from behind the horse, jumps up (placing his hands on the flanks of the horse) and vaults into the saddle. It's a very sharp effect, a very slick move, and very highly discouraged.
Whatever your purpose in riding, be sure that it includes the elements of fun and appreciation of your horse. Then you will be well on your way to becoming a true horseman.
- Invitation to Riding, Sheila Wall Hundt
General Body Posture
While riding at a walk, you should keep your heels down, your knees bent, and your chest out. Sit straight up in the saddle, do not slouch; a ramrod straight, military posture is not necessary, unless that is your area of focus. Your feet should be level with the ground, and your eyes should be kept looking forward, since where your eyes go, your head goes, and where your head goes, your body goes.
Once you become more proficient at riding, it is important that you do not keep your weight on your posterior, but try to hold yourself up with the inner thighs while pushing against the stirrups. This is accomplished with inward pressure. It will also keep uncomfortable bouncing to a minimum. At a fast gallop, you'll never even feel the saddle.
There is a tendency to want to lean forward when riding. This is largely unnecessary at most relaxed riding speeds. Even in a full gallop (unless racing professionally), only the slightest forward angle is necessary.
Holding the Reins
You should attempt to keep your hands as still as possible, since the horse can feel every move you make with them, and will be much more controllable if ridden without bouncing hands. You should also keep a little bit of constant pressure on the reins, against the bit in the horse's mouth. A good image to help you remember is to try to make the horse smile. This once again gives you more control, and it will make the steed have much better posture.
If you are constantly raising the head of the horse, you're using far too much pressure. Names such as 'Kicker' or 'Buck' may well give you some idea of the amount of control communication a horse requires. These horses are probably not for the beginner, as they have more spirit than the inexperienced are likely able to handle.
Driving Your One-Horsepower Transport
A man named Chi-liang tells this story to his ruler in an effort to dissuade him from his plans for war:
'I came across a man at Taihang Mountain, who was riding northwards. He told me he was going to the state of Chu.'
'In that case, why are you headed north,' I asked him.
'That's all right,' he replied. 'I have good horses.'
'Your horses may be good, but you're taking the wrong direction.'
'Well, I have plenty of money.'
'You may have plenty of money, but this is the wrong direction.'
'Well, I have an excellent charioteer.'
'The better your horses,' I told him, 'the more money you have and the more skilled your charioteer, the further you will get from the state of Chu.'
Many variations are used for controlling the horse. Steering is accomplished by using the reins to point the head of the horse in the direction you want to travel. Additional cues to the horse are delivered through the pelvis and thighs, shifting weight, and slight body leaning in the direction of the turn.
Remember that the horse is a living entity. As such, it is less likely to run into a tree than a car; but it may well walk under a low-hanging branch, so pay attention to where you are pointing it.
Many trick-riders, and not-so-tricky riders, also use their knees to communicate with the animal. At the beginning, you'll be doing well enough to hold on with your knees, so let's concentrate on rein control and verbal commands.
Different countries have developed different sorts of verbal commands; but almost any loud vocalisation, combined with a sudden movement in the saddle and a shaking of the reins and the thrusting forward of the pelvis, will break down any communication barrier with the horse. Do these three things somewhat softly, if all you want to do is get the horse moving from a standstill. Do them more forcefully if you desire a good run.
Non-verbal commands that involve making sharp noises, clicking or clucking using the tongue and/or teeth, are also effective for milder reactions such as getting the horse to walk. Save the 'Heeeeee-YAAAAAHs' for much, much later.
Length of Rides
The human/horse relationship can become lifelong, but there's no reason to start out that way. Short rides (from half an hour to an hour-and-a-half) are plenty to start. This limit is more important to the human posterior than to the horse's back.
Experienced riders can spend hours in the saddle, and cover long distances. In the Western United States, a short-lived mail service, referred to as the Pony Express, made mail delivery quicker than it had ever been. The riders, however, had to switch horses several times as the hard work was being done by the horse.
Field hands might spend the whole day riding about on one horse and never have it work up a sweat. But even after short periods, especially if the horse has been allowed or encouraged to run or gallop, a cool-down period is advised. Like all mammals, horses can become subject to a form of heat exhaustion.
Be kind to the animal and allow it to walk itself cool; simply stopping is dangerous for the racing heart. And be careful not to allow the horse to drink water immediately after running. It is much healthier for the horse if it is first allowed to cool down after running, and then watered.
You can't teach a horse to whistle. It's a waste of your time, and it annoys the horse.
- Will Rogers
Etiquette, as always, is largely about common sense. Be nice to your equine companion, but also to others you meet:
- Don't get too close to other riders, some horses spook more easily than others (and you never know when one of them might owe the other money).
- Stay to one side when travelling along roads. It's best not to get in the way of faster moving, heavily-armoured traffic.
- Don't take it upon yourself to open or close gates. You may not know the reason for their current state. If you must, then do both, leaving the gate as you found it.
- Don't touch or strike another person's horse; or, another horse's person for that matter (and, try not to fall off onto them).
- Don't make unnecessarily loud noises or quick movements that might frighten others or their horses. Whistling tunes is often fine, but sharp whistles may represent signals to some animals. Stables tend to gather their horses from a variety of locations. There's no telling what kind of training they've had.
- Basically, 'don't be an idiot' seems to cover it.
Show caution around all horses. Many horses do not trust people behind them, so do not approach them from an angle they cannot see. When walking behind them, do so only beyond their kicking distance.
Horses, though not entirely defenceless, are not well-equipped for fighting so much as for flight. Their survival instincts have left them skittish at perceived dangers that we would not instinctively recognise. The small animal or reptile can excite them into bucking or running. Just as easily, a bit of breeze-surfing paper or plastic can 'surprise' them and make them nervous or panicky.
Be aware of your surroundings for this reason, and the fact that the horse may not know your riding area much better than you do. Any sudden ravine, hole, crevice, or cliff can catch a horse by surprise if it is moving faster than is safe on unfamiliar ground.
Dismounting and Falling
'When you're young and you fall off a horse, you may break something. When you're my age and you fall off, you splatter.'
- Roy Rogers
Getting down from the horse's back is impossible, of course; you get down from ducks and geese. The correct term 'dismount.' Although gravity is part of the process, it is best not to leave the whole thing to such an arbitrary force.
The best technique may be simply reversing the one used for mounting, even the hoist.
Lift your now-tender backside from the saddle by standing on the stirrups. Hold on to the saddle, and/or the mane, in the same fashion as you did in mounting. Keep your left foot in the left stirrup and swing your right leg backwards over the horse and lower yourself to the ground before extracting your left foot.
Alternately, if you are not certain of the level of training the horse has had, remove both feet from the stirrups and swing your right leg over the back of the saddle (and the horse) to dismount, avoiding sliding and landing on both feet. This will prevent getting an extra bit of ride, with the left foot caught in the stirrup and the right leg hopping along.
You should be standing on your own shaky legs now, next to an appreciative new friend.