Riding Tips

Horse Riding 101: How to Stay Safe in the Saddle

beginner riding dapple gray horse
Written by Susanna Wright

A Rookie Guide to Riding Safely

Understanding equine physiology and psychology, choosing the right horse, and selecting the proper tack and equipment leads up to what we all really look forward to—time in the saddle!

Maintaining a safety-focused mindset is important around horses at all times. When in the saddle, it should be paramount! Fortunately, we’ve got a bunch of beta for you about keeping safe in the saddle. 

woman riding ranch horse

Source: Canva

If you are just starting out, it is a great idea to start riding with a trainer or coach.

Selecting a Trainer

Need help selecting someone? There are many certifications available for equine professionals. These can be a great starting point in narrowing down which people are qualified to teach you.

Word of mouth is always a great starting point, as well! Just don’t be afraid to fact-check.

While some countries require riding instructor certification, the United States does not.

Regardless, certifications can be a good starting point if you are unfamiliar with the industry or have specific goals in mind. It also shows which instructors have taken the initiative to learn more about their chosen careers.

riding instructor english saddle

Source: Canva

Different organizations offer different certifications, so here are a few of the most common:

  • Certified Horsemanship Association: A non-profit whose mission is to promote excellence in horsemanship safety and education for the entire horse industry. CHI certifies equine professionals, accredits equine facilities, and publishes industry standards such as student horsemanship manuals
  • American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA): The American Quarter Horse Association publishes a list of trainers by state on their website. You need to be a member to access the list.
  • American Riding Instructors Association (ARIA): Certifies riding instructors in 15 different disciplines.
  • Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH): This organization promotes equine-assisted services (EAS) for those with special needs. Approximately 8,000 PATH Intl. members help almost 69,000 children and adults. Therapeutic horsemanship assists with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges to people of all ages.
  • US Dressage Federation: The list of certified instructors includes current members who have completed both a continuing education requirement and a Safe Sport Training requirement. The USDF uses three categories or designations: Honorary Instructors, Certified Instructors, and Associate Instructors.
  • US Hunter Jumper Association: This organization’s mission is to preserve the American Hunter/Jumper Forward Riding System by offering a comprehensive education program for professional horse trainers. The USHJA is overhauling its Trainer Certification program, re-launching under the name “USHJA Instructor Credential.” Trainers here also complete a Safe Sport Training and are well-versed in all USEF rules.

Most of these programs include safety education as part of the certification process, so you can rest easier knowing the professional you choose will help teach and prioritize safety when working with you.

There are also many talented, qualified trainers available who are not certified. Use your best judgment, ask for references, watch some lessons, and have an honest conversation about their teaching style and your goals.

Safety Gear Reminders

Refresh your memory with this video from JS Horsemanship about helmets, boots, and other basic safety gear you’ll need:

To recap, at a minimum you should have:

  • An ASTM/SEI approved riding helmet
  • Boots with a heel
  • Long pants (e.g. jeans, breeches)

You may also choose to use:

  • Safety stirrups
  • A protective vest (body protector or air vest)
  • Gloves
  • High-visibility gear

Pro Tip: Check out our Horse Safety Equipment That’s Worth Every Penny article to learn more!

Pre-Ride Safety

While some barns may hand you a fully tacked-up horse, ready to go, upon arrival, it is preferred to prepare your horse for lesson time yourself.

Completing tasks such as grooming and saddling helps to build a bond with your horse. The more time you interact, the better opportunity you have to build a relationship.

Spending time on the ground, pre-ride, can also help you read your horse’s mood and determine what to expect during your under-saddle time.

woman longing bay horse

Source: Canva

Some riders opt to lunge their horses before riding.

Lunging is exercising your horse on the ground, working on either a lunge line or in a round pen. Generally done pre-ride, it can give your horse an opportunity to stretch, work off any excess energy, and get in the right mindset for a ride.

Your horse’s behavior on the lunge line can also be indicative of what to expect under saddle.

Riding Warehouse created a helpful video about how to lunge safely:

If your horse has a lot of extra energy, you may opt to lunge for a bit longer. If your horse is extra quiet, you may only need a few minutes to determine it is safe to saddle up.

Spending time with your horse pre-ride is also a good opportunity for you to decompress and mentally reset for time in the saddle.

If you are anxious, worried, or stressed out about your day, your horse can pick up on this—best to spend some time relaxing pre-ride and ensure you are both ready to have an enjoyable ride.

Pro Tip: If you’re interested in learning more about how to do effective groundwork with your horse, check out the Foundation Ground Exercises Course from Tanja Kraus Horsemanship.

Mounting Safety

Most horses are trained to be mounted from the left side. Always double (or triple!) check that your girth is tight enough before mounting.

Check and adjust your stirrup length from the ground to minimize how much adjusting you will have to do astride.

A mounting block can make getting on easier, faster, and safer for both you and your horse.

You should keep your left hand on the reins (it is acceptable to grab a little mane, too). Make sure the reins are short enough that you can stop your horse if s/he decides to take a step forward while you are getting on. Your horse should stand quietly as you mount; if not, spend some time re-training on the mounting process to ensure it is safe.

Want to see what it looks like? Check out this video from CRK Training:

In the Saddle Safety

When it comes to riding, there is SO much to learn. For this course, we’re focused on the basics of safety around horses—not on teaching you to ride step by step.

Luckily, we have several other courses in our Knowledge Center that do exactly that! See the “Keep Learning” section below this lesson.

rider in arena with mountain backdrop

Source: Pixabay

When it comes to safety essentials, here are a few things to think about while you are riding:

  • Keep calm and exude confidence; your horse will pick up on this.
  • Eyes up, and heels down! Maintaining proper leg position will help keep you balanced and secure, and your horse goes where you look.
  • Remember to avoid loud noises and sudden movements.
  • Keep your eyes and ears alert to anything that may potentially spook or startle your horse.
  • Maintain proper spacing with anyone else who may be riding in the arena. A good rule-of-thumb is to leave one horse length of space, minimum, between you and the horse in front of you. If the horse in front of you feels crowded or defensive, they could kick at your horse.
  • If riding in the opposite direction from others, passing left stirrup to left stirrup is recommended.
  • And above all, have fun!

Dismounting Safety

When you are ready to dismount, bring your horse to a complete stop. Many people will also dismount on the left side. Just like mounting, you want to hold onto the reins at all times so you always have control of your horse.

woman dismounting horse roping

Source: Canva

Take your feet out of BOTH stirrups, lean forward, and swing your right leg over the back of the horse so both legs are on the left side.
Slide down with your stomach against the horse and land with bent knees, on both feet. Again, your horse should stand quietly for this process. If s/he does not, it is well worth the time to practice standing nicely to avoid a future accident.

If you need to dismount a horse safely and quickly, spend some time learning the Emergency Dismount. This will help you make a quick exit if the going gets too tough to stick out!

The Emergency Dismount

Sometimes, things go wrong while you are in the saddle and you may need to ‘bail’ quickly. Practicing an emergency dismount before you need one will help you be prepared and confident in case things start going the wrong way.

Like a regular dismount, you will want to take both feet out of the stirrups.

This time, however, you will let go of the reins and leave them around the horse’s neck. When doing an emergency dismount, you want to push yourself away from the horse after you swing your leg over the back of the horse, instead of sliding down the horse’s side. This will help keep you away from moving hooves.

Land with bent knees to absorb the impact, ideally on both feet!

See it in action:

Keep Learning

Online Courses:

Parting Thoughts

Riding is a lot of fun–it’s why we’re all here, right? However, sitting in the saddle comes with increased risk. It can be mitigated with proper training, supervised riding time, coaching, and overall–time & experience.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to: 


Certified Horsemanship Association

AQHA: Find a Trainer

Riding Instructor Certification


USDF: Instructor Contacts

USHJA: Instructor Credentials

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About the author


Hey there, fellow horse lover and outdoor enthusiast! Horses have been my rock since day one. From my early days in 4-H to the college equestrian team, these majestic creatures have always been my passion. Riding Quarter Horses has been my gig for over two decades, snagging a few wins at the esteemed Quarter Horse Congress along the way.

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