The Benefits and Drawbacks of Riding Your Horse Bareback

08/10/2022

Want to canter bareback across the field like the riders in your childhood books? Who doesn’t?! If you’re a bareback riding fan, you’ll know that there’s definitely a connection you feel with the horse when bareback which you can’t easily replicate in the saddle. After all, you can literally feel their heartbeat against your legs!

But is it good for you to do it often? And more importantly, is it harmful for your horse?

The Benefits of Riding Bareback

Let’s start with one of the most attractive benefits of bareback riding. There’s no doubt it can vastly improve your seat. If you’ve ever climbed on a horse bareback you’ll know it feels totally different to riding with a saddle – and often a little more precarious! Why is it so good for developing your seat? Part of it is because you’re in close contact with the horse and can feel the movement of their back and shoulders more easily, so you’re more aware of the way you’re sitting and whether you’re in sync with them. Part of it is also because there’s less to disguise seat issues! You can’t brace into the stirrups, rely on your knee blocks, or grab onto the pommel.

You’ll also probably notice your muscles are a lot more stiff afterwards than they would be if you rode with a saddle. It’s a good workout because you’ll need to properly engage your core muscles to balance without a saddle, and you’ll be using muscles that are (probably!) getting away with doing less when you ride all tacked up.

So there’s no doubt that riding bareback is great for developing your feel and improving your seat. For any rider, that’s a huge benefit. We all want a better seat!

Then there are a few other benefits to riding bareback as well. Of course, we mentioned above that it can really help you to connect with your horse. Trying anything out of your comfort zone can do this, truth be told, but being in close contact with your horse and learning to build trust in one another is always a great feeling.

There’s the fact that it’s quicker and easier to tack up, so can sometimes be a great compromise if you’re rushed or are struggling with motivation to go and do all the standard pre-ride chores. That might seem like a small and silly benefit, but sometimes those extra ten minutes are what gets you on the horse’s back (if not in the saddle, as such!) on a day where you otherwise might have skipped riding.

The Drawbacks of Bareback Riding

So we know you can improve your seat from riding bareback, but is it really necessary? Riding without stirrups can also be beneficial for your seat (on the right horse, of course) and means you’re less likely to take a tumble just because you lost your balance for a second or two compared to bareback riding. If you have a horse who’s likely to spook hard, throw a buck, or bounce you off their back then you might be better sticking to the saddle to keep both of you safe!

There is some debate about whether riding bareback is good for your horse’s back or not. Originally, riders tended to think it would be more comfortable for the horse. After all, there’s no chance of a poorly fitting saddle – and people must have ridden bareback for years before saddles were invented. But over time, we’ve also realized that well-fitting saddles evenly distribute pressure and can actually be very helpful in preventing sore backs in horses.

The jury is still out on whether bareback riding is good for horses. Some studies indicate that it might be uncomfortable for them because your seat bones can put pressure on their backs and cause muscle strain. But again, this does depend on your level of ability as well as the size and weight of the horse in comparison to the rider, and the length of your ride. While an occasional bareback canter isn’t likely to cause harm, five trail rides a week might.

And of course, many opinions don’t take into consideration the conformation, age, and general strength and health of the horse. Jumping on an old horse with no muscling who has poor back conformation or back pain issues is likely to cause them some problems.

Conclusion: Should You Ride Bareback or Not? 

At the end of the day, the choice is up to you. Should you be riding bareback every day? Probably not. Will it do your horse harm if you incorporate it from time to time? Also probably not! 

As always, your individual judgement is key here. If your horse suffers from a sway back or has kissing spine, for instance, then you would probably want to skip the bareback riding. But if they’re strong and healthy and you have relatively good balance or want to stroll around for 15 minutes in walk instead of tacking up for a schooling session, maybe it’s something you want to explore more often. 

If you do choose to ride bareback sometimes, do everything you can to make it a pleasant experience for your horse. That means adding a neckstrap to grab if you think you might lose your balance rather than pulling on your reins, coming back to a walk if you find yourself bouncing in faster gaits, keeping rides relatively short, and being the best passenger you can be.

Do you ever ride bareback? Why or why not? Let us know your reasons by leaving a comment below.

Comments

I almost always ride bareback. If I could show dressage bareback I would. I love the feel of bareback, my horse has had several saddle fitters and she is hard to fit and hates being cinched up. I hate how long it takes to keep tightening the cinch and when I’m by myself I have to get off and tighten it one last time after several minutes of riding. My trainer just giggles at how much she has to tighten the girth half way through the lesson. Hate saddles and so does my horse.
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