Horseback Riding For Dummies
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If you’re the kind of person who loves to get involved with activities and wants a horse to be part of your experience, you’re in luck. A whole slew of horseback riding activities are out there for horse owners (and even non-horse owners) who want to spend quality time with horses.

If you’re the competitive type, you’ll find plenty to do outside the show ring to keep you busy. If you just like to do horse stuff for the sheer fun of it, you’ll find no shortage of events to choose from. Whatever your style or preference, chances are there’s a horse activity out there for you, as you can see in the sections that follow.

Most of these events are geared toward people who own their own horses, with the exception of vaulting. If you don’t own a horse, consider leasing one you can use for your activity of choice. Just be sure the horse’s owner is okay with what you intend to do.

Take part in trail events

In days of old, most horseback riding took place out in the wilderness, on trails that had been forged by mounted travelers or migrating game. Riding on these trails was both exciting and challenging, and only the toughest horses and riders survived the harshest journeys.

Decades later, horse people who appreciate this legacy developed two events that celebrate trail riding while also adding a competitive factor: endurance riding and competitive trail riding. The following sections look at both of these sports.

Endurance riding

The sport of endurance riding has grown in popularity over the past 30 years. Its most noteworthy event, the annual Western States Endurance Run (informally known as the Tevis Cup), takes place in Northern California and receives international coverage. Hundreds of smaller, local events are also conducted around North America every year.

The object of endurance riding is to cover a given number of miles on horseback in the shortest amount of time. Endurance competitions often consist of 25- to 100-mile-per-day rides or multiday rides that usually cover 50 miles per day over a period of four to six days. The horse-and-rider team that gets to the finish line first is the winner. (Horses receive mandatory veterinary checks throughout the competition, and only horses who are considered physically fit are allowed to finish the event.)

Endurance riding calls for a horse-and-rider team that’s extremely fit and athletic. The team has to undergo serious training in the form of conditioning over a period of months before it can compete in an endurance ride. This rigorous type of riding calls for a horse who’s extremely well-conditioned and comfortable on the trail. Riders must be very fit, too. Imagine sitting in the saddle for 100 miles with only a few short breaks in between. Achieving that kind of muscle strength and stamina takes considerable work.

All lighter-weight horse breeds can participate in endurance competitions, although Arabians dominate the sport because of their great capacity to travel long distances. Horses in endurance rides wear any type of tack that the rider prefers, although most people use specially made endurance saddles and halter/bridle combinations. The following figure shows an endurance rider in competition.

endurance rides Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Endurance rides cover anywhere from 25 to 100 miles in one day.

The American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) can provide you with more info on endurance riding.

Competitive trail riding

Competitive trail riding is for those riders who enjoy conditioning their horses for trail riding and want to hone it to a fine art. Competitive trail events consist of approximately 10- to 50-mile-per day rides through various terrains. Unlike endurance riding, competitive trail events are not races; instead of using time as a determining factor, judges evaluate horses primarily on their physical condition, with their obedience to the rider along the trail also a factor in many events. Speed is not important, as long as the horse and rider complete the ride within the minimum and maximum time limits. A veterinarian and a lay judge periodically examine the horses throughout the ride to determine their fitness as the day progresses.

In order to compete successfully in competitive trail rides, horses must be comfortable being ridden on the trail, in good physical condition, and well trained and obedient. Riders need to be in good shape, too, because even a 10-mile ride can mean a few hours in the saddle.

The rider determines the type of tack, although most riders use endurance saddles and halter/bridle combinations. Just about any breed can participate in competitive trail riding.

The North American Trail Ride Conference (NATRC) has more details on competitive trail riding.

Working equitation

A sport that is catching on quickly in North America is working equitation. Combining dressage and cattle work, working equitation started in Europe and has made its way west.

The purpose of the sport is to showcase the equestrian techniques of different countries that use mounted horses to work in the field. Riders are expected to dress according to their style of riding, whether it’s western, dressage, hunt seat, or Spanish.

At the upper levels, working equitation has four phases: dressage, ease of handling, speed, and cows. For those just getting started in the sport, the lower levels include just dressage and ease of handling. Any breed can participate, and horse and rider teams can move up in the levels as they gain experience.

The two North American organizations devoted to working equitation, the U.S. Working Equitation Association and the Confederation for Working Equitation, can provide you with more information.

Play polo, the sport of kings

Although the fast-paced sport of polo is thought of as a contemporary activity, this game is actually thousands of years old. Historians believe that polo originated in the Middle East around 500 BC — amazing that this sport is still played today!

Nearly everyone has heard of polo, but few people know how it’s played. Like soccer on horseback, polo is a team sport with the objective of scoring goals against the opposing team. Riders use a long-handled mallet to drive a ball into a goal. Four riders make up a polo team, although many riders have more than one horse so they can trade off mounts throughout a game — hence the notion that wealthy people play polo with a “string of polo ponies.”

Although the mounts used in polo are called ponies, they’re not technically ponies at all. (Ponies constitute certain breeds of small equines that measure 14 hands or less.) Just about any breed of horse can be used for polo, but the faster and more athletic the mount, the better.

You don’t need to own a string of polo ponies to play polo. In fact, you don’t need to own a horse or even know how to ride at all. Polo schools are available throughout the country, and they provide riding and polo lessons to adults at costs that run about the same as skiing or scuba diving lessons. Contact the United States Polo Association for help in finding a polo school in your area.

Vault into gymnastics

I love watching the gymnastics competition at the Olympics every four years, which is probably why I get such a big kick out of vaulting, too. Vaulting is basically gymnastics on horseback.

In vaulting, participants perform a number of actions on the back of a moving horse who has been fitted with a special surcingle, a leather strap with handles that goes around the horse’s barrel (see the following figure) and gives the vaulter something to hold onto. Rider movements include

  • Basic seat: The vaulter sits on the horse with arms held out to the sides.
  • Flag: The vaulter jumps to his or her knees on the horse’s back and extends one leg out straight behind with arms extended.
  • Mill: This move is equivalent to the work done on the pommel horse in gymnastics. The vaulter swings his or legs and body into different positions while holding onto handles on the surcingle.
  • Scissors: The scissors requires swinging into a handstand on the horse’s back as the legs scissor out to either side.
  • Stand: The vaulter stands on the horse’s back with arms held out to the side.
  • Flank: In this complicated series of movements, the rider holds onto the vaulting saddle and swings his or her legs up and through the air. Eventually, the vaulter lands next to the horse in the finale of the movement.
vaulting Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

A rider performs in vaulting, a form of gymnastics on horseback.

Vaulting is done competitively and also for exhibition. In vaulting competition, you can participate as an individual or as part of a pair or team. You start off competing at the trot and work your way up to the canter. Some therapeutic riding programs also use vaulting maneuvers to help the physically and mentally challenged gain balance and muscle strength. Vaulters learn their craft a on a barrel horse (a fake horse) first before graduating to using a real horse.

To get involved in vaulting, join a local vaulting club. You can find a club by contacting the American Vaulting Association.

Drilling on horseback

If your favorite scenes in Hollywood Westerns feature dramatic footage of the cavalry coming to the rescue, drill team riding may for you. Drilling is having a group of riders perform maneuvers together as a rider who sits alone calls out directions. Drilling on horseback is tons of fun, and it gives riders an opportunity to meet and socialize with others who enjoy the same activity.

Drilling on horseback is a very old activity, one that goes back all the way to the Roman legions and possibly before. In the olden days, when horses were the primary vehicles of war, drilling was used to train mounted soldiers to follow commands with precision and obedience. Today, drill team work is for fun. Riders who enjoy drilling get together and form clubs that practice at least once a week. They perform their precision drill work in parades, at county fairs, and during horse shows.

Most drill teams consist of ten to twelve horse-and-rider duos, sometimes more. A drill caller gives commands that horse-and-rider teams follow. Each command requires a specific movement, and when several horse-and-rider teams perform these moves in conjunction, the group ends up moving as a unit. The figure shows a drill team working together.

horseback drilling Photo courtesy of Sharon P. Fibelkorn

Drilling is based on military movements from the mounted cavalry.

Because of its military foundation, drill-team work calls for discipline on the part of the rider and obedience on the part of the horse. You need to memorize each maneuver and have your horse execute it at the moment you hear the command. In drilling, you rehearse exhibition drills, and after a few practices with your group, you know exactly what’s coming from the drill caller. The choreographed drills you perform at exhibitions, horse shows, and drill team competitions are the same drills that you and your team have practiced at home (or in the arena) many times over.

Most drill teams use Western saddle tack and apparel, although English saddles and breed-specific tack (such as traditional saddles made especially for the breed being ridden) may also make an appearance.

You can locate a drill team in your area by asking at your local tack and feed store for a referral. Or try looking online or in a regional horse publication for notices of exhibitions or drill teams seeking new members.

Riding in parades

If you’ve always wanted to participate in a parade but you can’t walk and play the sousaphone at the same time, then a horse may be just the answer. Maybe you can ride and play the sousaphone, instead! Then again, maybe not, but have you ever seen a parade without horses in it? Horses and parades go hand in hand. And as an equestrian, you automatically qualify to move from parade watcher to parade participant.

Riding in a parade can be tremendous fun. You and your horse are in the spotlight (along with your mounted comrades), and all you have to do is look good and wave!

The equestrian units you see in big spectacles like the Tournament of Roses Parade are part of organized riding groups. The riders may be members of a youth riding club, representatives of a breed organization or local riding club, or part of a horseback drill team group (see the preceding section). The group’s theme in the parade usually represents whatever the club is all about. For example, if the club is a military-style riding group for youngsters, the kids wear their uniforms and most likely carry flags. If the riders represent a local palomino horse club, all the horses are palominos tacked up in their finest garb.

To participate in a big parade, you have to be a member of an organized riding group (unless you’re a local celebrity and can justify participating on your individual merits) and have a number of smaller parades under your belt. If you live in a small town, your local parade may be small and informal enough that individual riders can also sign up.

If riding in big parades is for you, your first step is to join a local riding group. Of all the different kinds of riding groups, pick the one that best suits your age group and riding interests. Your parks and recreation department should be able to provide you with some names and numbers of riding groups in your area.

Reenact history

If you like to watch period films, particularly those set during the Civil or Indian Wars, you’ve no doubt seen reenactors in action. Although the vast budgets of today’s motion pictures may lead you to believe all those soldiers and cowboys you see on the silver screen are professional actors, in reality, these characters are usually mounted reenactors who dress up in period garb and ride their own horses in mock battles on a regular basis, whether cameras are present or not.

Reenacting famous battles has been the hobby of thousands of horsemen for decades, as well as of non-horsemen who play the part of foot soldiers in this mock warfare. These people live in all parts of the country and recreate battles from a variety of wars and periods. Civil War reenactments are the most well-known, although reenactments of Native American and U.S. cavalry fights, Revolutionary and British battles, and scuffles from the Mexican-American War are among the many other events that are commemorated year-round in the U.S. by riders who seem to be possessed by the spirits of those who’ve gone before us.

Getting involved with reenacting first means joining a reenactment group. These groups aren’t hard to find if you have Internet access. Putting “reenactment” and “horse” and your state in search engine should give you a list of groups near you.

After you find the reenactment groups in your area, you can decide what type of person from the past you want to portray. If the Civil War intrigues you, you need to decide whether you want to be on the Union side or the Confederate side. If you like the idea of reenacting U.S. cavalry battles, you have to decide which role you’d like to play. After you join a group, you’ll find out all about how reenactments work and how you can incorporate your horse.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Connie Isbell is a former editor and writer atAudobon magazine, as well as the editor of numerous pet books. Audrey Pavia is the author of many books on pets and animals, including the bestselling Horses For Dummies and The Rabbit: An Owner's Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. She has been a frequent contributor to numerous pet publications, editor-in -chief of Horse Illustrated, and senior editor of The AKC Gazette.

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