With the advent of the car, horseback riding shifted from being a mode of transportation to ... well, to several things: a pastime, a competitive sport, or a way to enjoy nature. There are many reasons that people still ride today. Horses are still part of work on ranches, they are used in cattle roping and other forms of livestock management. Search-and-rescue officers use horses to cover difficult, mountainous terrain. Across the west, rodeos are a place for ranch workers to show off their skills and stay in touch with their heritage, and agricultural schools often field rodeo teams. On the east coast and in the UK, sports like dressage and show jumping are more popular.
As with nearly any activity, horseback riding is a good deal more enjoyable if you know what you're doing. That just takes a bit of time and hands-on practice. But even before you get on a horse for the first time, it helps to know some facts and ground rules. What's the number-one safety rule around barns and stables? Is it okay to give your horse a treat, and what kind? What's the difference between English and Western-style riding, and which should you learn?
How well do you know this sport and hobby? Show off your skills with our quiz, if you can't get out to the country and ride. Are you ready? Saddle up!
You likely knew this one. "Equus" is Latin for horse, after all. But "gentleman's sport" isn't far off. The Latin "equites" meant "gentlemen," because the nobility rode, in ancient Rome, while the plebes just walked.
We sometimes refer to humans as having a "gait," meaning the way they walk or run. It's important in horseback riding, because when you ride you'll be asking a horse to change gaits, and this will not only affect speed, but comfort.
The four gaits, from slowest to fastest, are walking, trotting, cantering and galloping. It sounds funny, but asking a horse to move up or down in its gait is not unlike shifting gears in a car!
People at a dude ranch will look at you oddly (and perhaps scornfully) if you call a lope a "canter." The canter or lope, a comfortable three-beat run that precedes a gallop, is one of several things for which English and Western riding have different names.
It doesn't take long to realize this, once you've started learning to ride. Many riders prefer to trot as a brief transition between the faster gaits and the walk.
"Tack" is a term that covers the bridle and saddle, saddle pad, maybe a halter (though halters aren't used while riding, just around barnyards). Your gear, like a wide-brimmed hat to keep the sun out of your eyes, does not count as tack.
The horn on a Western saddle was for looping rope around when lassoing and handling livestock. In this way, it served as a kind of third hand. You should quickly learn to ride without hanging onto the saddle horn; it's like driving with one foot hovering over the brake.
Only the last one, trail riding, is something you're likely to do as a beginner or casual rider. Of the other three, show jumping is done with English tack. Calf roping and barrel racing are rodeo events, done with Western gear.
Archaeologists think people starting riding horses around 3500 BCE. The use of horses to pull carts or carriages came a bit later.
Posting is a technique used in English riding. You don't have to lift your bottom very far out of the saddle to avoid uncomfortable bouncing. Western riders will tell you it looks silly -- but is it really any sillier than bouncing like a sack of potatoes in the saddle?
The purpose of shoeing horses is to protect the hoof from wear: the demands of being ridden, especially the added weight of a human, causes a horse's hooves to break down faster. Shoeing would only increase a horse's speed in the sense that hoof damage won't be slowing it down.
Never approach a horse directly from behind; they kick when startled. Why the left? It's what the horse is probably accustomed to. Soldiers of old used to wear their sword or bayonets on their left hip, so they'd mount from that side too, lest a long weapon get in the way during the mounting procedure.
Once in the saddle, an experienced rider doesn't make much use of the stirrups. But it certainly can be hard to get on a horse without one!
Yup, people actually give their horses red licorice as treats! But apples and carrots are a better choice from the standpoint of dentals health. When at a riding stable or ranch, ask the horse's owner or the manager on site what your mount can have as a a treat.
If you're going for a mellow trail ride, yes, people might think you a little nervous for wearing one. But in the more demanding equestrian sports, like jumping, they've become standard equipment.
The common unit of measurement is the "hand," based on the average size of a man's hand. The average horse is 15 to 16 hands at the top of the shoulders, not the head.
To novice riders, this might look pretty uncomfortable for the horse, but most take to it fairly easily. Sidebar: We hope you weren't fooled by "the curb" as an option. There is such a thing as a "curb bit," for hard-to-control horses.
The Western saddle provides more comfort for long rides. It was designed in the days when ranch workers and cowboys spent all the day in saddle, whereas the lighter English saddle was designed with shorter rides in mind: hunting, trips to town, or pleasure rides.
Ponies are, in essence, small horses. However, there are breeds that are specifically called "ponies," like the Shetland Pony. Making things more confusing, English riders often call a small, tame horse a "pony" regardless of breed. There's not a lot of agreement on this point.
We think this could pretty easily be called "equestrian quidditch." But polo precedes J.K. Rowling's work by a couple of thousand years.
The Arabian horse isn't just beautiful (though it is; go to Google Images right away if you've never seen one). It was bred to travel long distances in harsh conditions, and can generally outdistance other breeds (though it'll need a day or two of rest afterward).
This horse was bred to specifically have a smooth gait, and therefore a smooth ride. It has what's known as a "running walk," which is a trot nearly as smooth as a walk, or a walk nearly as fast as a trot, depending on how you look at it.
We mention this in the context of horseback riding because a stallion is not a good horse for a beginning rider. A "fixed" stallion, called a "gelding," is a better choice. Or a female horse, called a mare.
The rule of thumb is that a horse should carry no more than 20 percent of its body weight. With many riding breeds being about 1100 to 1300 pounds, this easily accommodates most humans, including the weight of the saddle and saddle pad.
This breed, often feral in the United States, is another poor choice for the beginning rider. While it's possible for a Mustang to have been born in captivity and trained to carry a rider from its youth, it won't have the smooth gait and innate tractability of a horse descended from generations of domestic horses.
You were probably familiar with this one, as the phrase "take the reins" is used well outside the world of horseback riding. But it's so often incorrectly written as "reigns" that we couldn't resist including a friendly spelling lesson here.
Clydesdales and Percherons are both draft horses, meaning they're bred to pull wagons. (Clydesdales are famously seen in Budweiser ads). We're not sure what a draft horse would do if you tried to jump on its back -- but for that matter, we're not even sure how anyone would get up there!
While none of these are good ideas, the one that can save your life is the last one. Horses kick readily when startled, and unlike their bite, which is blunt and rarely causes real injury, a kick from a horse can kill you. DO NOT WALK UP BEHIND A HORSE. PERIOD.
The pommel is the raised part of the saddle in front, which can help the rider keep forward balance. Don't confuse it with a "horn," which only Western saddles have.
The word "hackamore" appears to come from the Spanish "jaquima," meaning "bridle." It requires a more experienced handler of horses than a traditional bridle with a bit.
The Quarter Horse takes its name from its speed in quarter-mile races. Their strength comes from their big, rounded hindquarters -- these guys are the Kim Kardashians of the horse world.
This is simply the area of the seat that turns upward, giving the rider more protection from being unseated if the horse bolts. Both English and Western saddles have them.
Though no horse breed is truly native to the Americas, some have a long history here. Such is the case with the beautiful Appaloosa, bred by the Nez Perce tribe.
Technically, the "irons" are only the metal part of the stirrups, which also include leather upper straps. But "irons" is fairly interchangeable with "stirrups" in the UK.
Nope, polo came to an end as an Olympic sport after 1936. There are still equestrian events in the summer Olympic games, including pentathlon, in which show jumping is one of the five sports.