Riding a horse is a wonderful experience. With the right know-how (and the right horse), you can take in breathtaking views on a trail ride, take an exhilarating lap or two around a race track, or compete with fellow riders and their horses in a dressage competition.


But before you get to that point, you’ll have to master the basics! Here’s what you need to know about horseback riding.


A brief history of horseback riding


Humans have been riding horses for a very, very long time. Historians believe that the first horses were domesticated sometime around 3,000 B.C. , or perhaps even earlier. Horses were smaller back then (to be fair, so were humans), but they were still very useful to early human beings. Horses were stronger, faster, and larger than human beings, just as they are now. They could be ridden as a form of transport or used to operate machines or draw carts.


Humans began to keep horses and even breed them. Over time, specific breeds of horses emerged that were bred for specific traits. That’s the main reason why we have such beautiful and unique varieties of horses today. Some are big, strong animals that can pull carriages and carts with ease. Some are speedy animals that are great for herding other animals. And many of them are just perfect for different forms of horseback riding.


Saddles and riding styles


There are different forms of horseback riding. For our purposes here, two are particularly important: the English and Western horseback riding traditions.


English and Western horseback riding differ in a few ways. One obvious difference is in the style of the saddle. A Western saddle is generally larger. It’s designed for comfort, for both the horse and (perhaps especially) the human. The rider’s weight is spread out over a larger area of the horse’s back in a Western saddle, perfect for long days of riding and hard work. An English saddle, on the other hand, is smaller and puts the rider in closer contact with the horse. That can be ideal for shorter rides, and it perfect for sports like dressage.


The histories of the riding styles aside, there are personal and aesthetic reasons to choose one or the other. The sports you enjoy and your region’s local culture might influence your decision. Of course, you can always try both.


Horse gaits


Horses are easier to ride when they have steady speeds, almost like gears in a car. And switching between these speeds is smooth and easy. Many modern horse breeds have these traits, and horses with them are said to be “gaited.” Each of the “speeds” or “gears,” as we called them a moment ago, is more accurately called a “gait.” And speed isn’t the only difference between each gait: different horse gaits have different movements of the legs and hooves. Horses will put down their hooves in different orders depending on what gait they are using. The number of times that one or more hoove hits the ground at once in a gait (before the gait repeats itself) is described as the number of “beats.”


Gaited horses generally have (from slowest to fastest) a walk, trot, canter, and gallop. Some horses also have an “ambling gait,” which is a gait that is faster than a walk but slower than a gallop and, usually, slower than a canter as well. Such gaits are hereditary, and only certain horses (and breeds of horses) have them.


Learning to ride horses


It’s important to have a basic knowledge of horseback riding before you mount your first horse, but don’t put it off forever! A horseback riding lesson from a trusted local teacher is a great place to start. You’ll open yourself up to the wonderful world of horseback riding.