Learning to be an expert horse rider is not easy – especially when beginning as a teen or adult. In a culture that values expertise but not the long process of learning a new skill, it can be hard to get through the process of becoming an expert rider.
Knowing how to recognize the difference between an experience horseback rider and someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing is important! It can actually be an essential safety skill. After all, if you’re renting a horse for a day or interviewing a potential riding instructor, you might avoid a very bad experience by simply knowing how to recognize if the person you are dealing with isn’t a good horseback rider.
Clues that someone is a good horseback rider
They have good posture
When riding, the expert rider sits at ease in the saddle with their shoulders back- even when riding a canter transition. An experienced rider will have learned to sit straight up, with their shoulders back and their head forward (except when in two-point position). Although it looks easy, this can be a skill that takes years to develop
Their hands are steady
Beginner horseback riders tend to let their hands bounce around a lot, or, when they cue a horse to turn or stop, the movement in their hands is very visible. The opposite is true for good horseback riders. A rider with plenty of experience keeps their hands steady in front of them, except to cue a horse for a half halt or for neck reining. Their hands will not bounce even when riding a hot horse or navigating a tricky jumps course.
Their heels stay down, and their legs stay quiet
As you’ll learn when we talk about bad riders, the human body’s natural reaction to being off balance is to draw our legs up under us and lean forward. Therefore, a good sign that someone is a very good horseback rider is when their legs are dropped fully into the stirrups, with their heels lower than their toes.
While there are a few circumstances where it’s okay to raise heels temporarily, a reliable indicator of a good horseback rider is when their heels stay down and do not creep up during a ride.
How to know if someone is a bad horseback rider
There are many giveaways that someone is new to horses, uneducated in riding well, or simply incompetent. Here are a few big red flags that a person doesn’t know how to ride a horse:
1. 🚩 They seem crouched, with heels up
If a rider’s leg appears to be drawn up towards their bottom, and their heels are higher off the ground than the balls of their feet, it’s a dead giveaway that the rider hasn’t spent much time in the saddle at all.
Even novice riders without access to riding lessons or riding coaches, tend to learn on their own to lengthen their leg and keep their heel down. These things help a rider stay centered and balanced on the horse. Without the benefit of formal riding training, many riders learn the skill intuitively or by falling off a horse enough times to learn the hard way!
2. 🚩 They bounce, jiggle, or seem unsteady
It takes many hours in the saddle to learn to develop a “deep-seat” that allows the body to move in a fluid way with the horse’s movements. This kind of riding is key to learning how to sit the trot. If you see a rider jostling in the saddle, with disjointed movements, bouncing hands, or flailing legs, it’s a sure sign that the person is a beginner rider.
3. 🚩 They pull on the reins
Bad riders tend to get aggressive or simply clumsy when they are giving the horse cues through the reins.
While experienced riders understand the reins are connected to an extremely sensitive part of the horse’s body, novice riders may pull or jerk on the reins.
Agressive or bad rein handling results in a horse getting very irritated – and occasionally bucking or rearing or bolting. If you, as someone watching a person ride a horse, can see visibly the cues that a rider is giving their horse through the reins, it’s a sign that this is not a very good horseback rider. With the exception of neck raining, hands should stay quiet, and stable, and cues given nearly invisibly.
4. 🚩 They lean forward or hunch their shoulders
The natural inclination the first time we climb into the saddle is to draw our legs up, and curl our upper body forward. While this is a normal response to feeling unbalanced which works in most environments, it actually makes it much harder to balance a horse.
Good riders have learned how to balance in the saddle and no longer reflexively lean forward or hunch their shoulders. Instead, they ride with their shoulders back, sitting upright in the saddle. This helps their body root deeply into the saddle and stay balanced even if their horse spooks or bolts.
How to look like an expert horseback rider
Even though I am a riding coach, I cannot tell you how to be an expert horseback rider to an experienced eye. Riding well simply takes time, practice, and feedback. That said, there are a few simple hacks you can use to look way more experienced than you are. Horseback riders use these techniques all the time in the show ring, but they can also benefit you during a vacation trail ride, ride on the beach on your honeymoon, or other first-time experience riding a horse.
How to look like an expert horseback rider
move slowly and confidently
Jerky, unsure movements are a dead giveaway of a not-expert horseback rider. If you don’t want to give away your novice status before you even make it in the saddle, approach your horse with slow, deliberate, kind movements. Avoid cockiness, horses can sense this, and it’s a dead giveaway of someone with more arrogance than experience.
Mount and adjust your body to sit deeply in the saddle
Inexperienced riders perch on top of a saddle, experienced riders settle deep into the saddle by opening their hips. Performing a quick stretch exercise after you have mounted is a great way to find a deeper seat.
Relax your legs and let your heel fall farther down than your foot
Let your legs drape at full extension down the horse’s side. The stirrup should hold the ball of your foot slightly higher than your heel. If you find this is not the case, your stirrup length may need to be adjusted. Asking for help adjusting your stirrups won’t make you look like a novice. Stirrups of the right length are important to help keep you stable in the saddle.
Square your shoulders and keep them squared
To look like an expert horseback rider, keep your head up and your shoulders back. Natural inclination will be to roll your body forward, but a crouched forward position is a dead giveaway of someone who doesn’t know how to ride a horse. Instead, remind yourself to sit back and open your shoulders.
Steady your hands
Hands are a dead giveaway of a beginner horseback rider. To look like a pro rider, keep your hands low in front of you. You can even stabilize your hands by grabbing a bit of mane. While grabbing for a horse’s mane to balance yourself can be a dead giveaway of an inexperienced rider, grasping just a tuft or two to help stabilize your hands is fine. It is not noticeable from the ground and can help you balance and keep your hands steadier.
By moving slowly and confidently, finding a deep seat in the saddle, relaxing your legs, squaring your shoulders, and steadying your hands, you will look like an experienced horseback rider – at least, more like one. It is likely that throughout your time riding, you will need to constantly remind yourself of these things. Don’t worry, that’s the very essence of good horseback riding! Until these strategies for *looking* like a good rider become muscle memory and second nature, reminding ourselves and practicing them are how we all ride well and learn.
Safety Advice for Faking it
Becoming a good horseback rider, for real, takes time and practice. Many of us are nervous about the first time we go horseback riding. We may be ashamed of being a beginner or even scared of riding such a large living animal.
It’s important to communicate clearly with professionals about your skill level. If we lease a horse and tell the company that we are expert riders, we might very likely get paired with a horse that won’t be fun to ride – and what’s the point of riding if it’s not fun and safe?
If you want to make riding a regular hobby, it’s crucial to get expert instruction from a trained professional. They not only provide support and assistance to get really comfortable on a horse, but these professionals can also help us develop the skill to be expert riders ourselves.
Even seasoned professional riders were once a beginner, so they understand it well and should be able to relate to what you are going through. By sharing their own insights, like how I reflect on my journey of learning to ride as an adult, they can help you grow the confidence to ride authentically at the skill level you’re at and grow your experience. Learn more about how long it takes to learn to ride a horse.
If you want to look like an expert horseback rider, the best way is to become an expert horseback rider
Riding lessons are the typical path towards developing skill in this area. You can sign up for one riding lesson or continue going to lessons for years. Even one or two lessons can help you develop skills to look more experienced, grow a bond with a horse, and experience many of the other benefits of horseback riding.
In this article, you have learned how to look like an expert horseback rider, how to recognize a bad horseback rider, and easy ways to tell if a rider is a good horseback rider.