Riding Tips

Rookie Rundown: What NOT to Do When Riding a Horse

Trail ride
Written by Michelle Greene

Learn these hard lessons the easy way!

Maybe you’ll be adventuring with a loved one on a trail ride, or maybe you’re fulfilling a childhood dream of learning to ride. Regardless of your goals, here are some basics every rider must know before interacting with horses.

Although majestic and very fun to be around, horses are big animals with minds of their own. You have to know what NOT to do in order to NOT get hurt.

Horseback Riding 101

It doesn’t matter if you’re riding English or Western, the basics of horseback riding are the same. To begin, we’re going to talk through some introductory concepts.

The Basics

Horses have four main gaits – the walk, trot, canter, and gallop. If you are just starting off riding or going on a trail ride, you’ll probably only be walking (and maybe trotting).

  • Don’t Shift Around: The most important thing for the health of the horse and your enjoyment of your ride is to stay balanced in the middle of the saddle. Shifting from one side or the other isn’t easy for the horse and you definitely do NOT want to hinge forward. That’s a great way to fall off. When in doubt—or if things are getting too fast—sit back and ask the horse to stop.
  • Don’t Get Tight: Horses are intuitive creatures, and they can sense when you’re anxious. If you are showing fear while tacking up or getting on—they will notice and that can affect your ride. Try to breathe, relax, and have fun!
  • Don’t Go Too Fast: “Whoa” means stop. A lot of horses have been trained with vocal cues as well as physical cues. Saying whoa when pulling on the reins in a backward motion should make your horse stop.
Riding lesson

Photo Cred: Canva

Basic Gear for Horseback Riding

Helmet: A helmet is required at any good lesson barn or trail riding program. If they say helmets are optional—this is a red flag and you might want to reconsider riding there.

A riding helmet is different from a bike helmet and you shouldn’t substitute one for the other. A good helmet is replaced every 5 years or when you have a fall.

If you are visiting a place, you have every right to ask how often their helmets are used and replaced. After all, you only have one brain!

If you are looking to purchase your own helmet, a good beginner option is the Ovation Deluxe Schooler. Regardless of what helmet you choose, it must be ASTM/SEI certified to provide the correct protection for horseback riding.

ovation deluxe schooler

Click to see it at Amazon

Pants: When riding a horse you always want to wear long pants. Jeans are a great option if you are just beginning, but you may want to invest in breeches or riding tights if you are planning to take lessons.

Footwear: For trail rides, the best option for footwear are boots with at least a 1” heel. These can be work boots, cowboy boots, or Doc Martens. For people just starting horseback riding lessons, paddock boots are a great choice.

What are the best horse riding options for beginners?

When you are just starting out riding you have a few options to choose from on getting your feet wet in the riding world.

  • Go on a Trail Ride: Trail horses are usually very calm and your trail boss will give you lots of instruction on how to have an enjoyable ride. This will give you an idea of one or two of the gaits for the horse and you will spend anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour in the saddle.
  • Riding Lessons: Find a reliable instructor that follows safety protocols and looks out for both your welfare and the welfare of the horse is the best option for learning to ride. When you take riding lessons, you can either have a private one-on-one lesson or a group lesson with a few riders at similar ability levels.
  • Riding Camps: In the summer, a lot of barns offer riding camps for children and young adults. These are immersive week-long camps that are great for a young person looking to start riding.

Regardless of what you choose, remember safety is FIRST not THIRD!

Safety Around Horses

Not to be an alarmist or anything, but horses can severely injure you. (Like cars, mowers, and other things we take for granted.) If you follow basic safety practices, it is unlikely, but it is a reality of the sport and one worth recognizing and respecting.

Now that we have that out of the way—let’s talk about ways to make sure you stay safe.

Equine Behavior 101

To understand the horse at your barn, you need to understand the horse in the wild. Horses, in the wild, are herd animals. They move as a group and are not solitary creatures.

In the herd, there is a dominance hierarchy and it is important as a rider to insert yourself at the top of the hierarchy.

Another important thing to know about horses is that they are highly communicative. They talk to each other and us with body language and vocal sounds, such as whinnies and neighs.

For example, when a horse pins their ears back it means they are not happy or agitated. It is a warning sign—give them some extra space, or realize if they are near another horse, they may kick.

Fight or Flight

Horses are herbivores and prey animals. In the wild, their biggest predator is the mountain lion. Since they are prey, horses have the flight part of the fight or flight response. They may respond to a threat by bolting and running away or they could respond by striking out and kicking the perceived threat.

Both of these can be dangerous for beginning equestrians. In the saddle, a horse bolting can make you unbalanced and may cause you to fall. On the ground, a horse kicking out can cause serious damage to human bones and tissue.

Blind Spots

Since horses are prey in the wild, it means they have pretty great vision in order to see predators in the wild. In fact, a horse almost has panoramic views.

But there is a blind spot directly in front of and directly behind the horse.

You want to refrain from moving quickly and making fast loud noises particularly in these areas as their instinct may tell them you are a predator and they could strike out.

If you are moving behind a horse, it is recommended you touch them across the croup (the rump!) as you move and speak softly to let them know you are there.

You also want to stay close to the horse—if they were to kick, better to be close where a kick will act more like a push. If you’re three feet behind a horse and get kicked, physics dictates a potentially much more severe injury.

What NOT to do when Riding a Horse

Listening to your instructor is the best way to stay safe, but here are some things you should definitely NOT do when riding a horse:

  • Make abrupt movements or loud noises—on the ground or in the saddle
  • Ride without a helmet
  • Kick and pull at the same time
  • Ignore your instructor
  • Be unbalanced in the saddle or lean too far forward
  • Try and be a trick rider or rodeo star by “showing off” 
Kid and horse lesson

Photo Cred: Canva

Common Injuries around Horses

When working with a large animal with a mind and opinions of its own, there is a chance you can get hurt. Let’s talk through some of the most common injuries around horses and what to do to avoid substantial injury.

Falling Off

A trainer once told me “Kid, you aren’t a true equestrian unless you’ve fallen off 100 times.” I think she said that because I had just had the wind knocked out of me when I fell off a rather spunky (and rude) pony named Mikey, and honestly—who wants to risk injury 100 times?

It’s a silly saying but does speak of the inevitably of falling off when riding a horse.

You can fall off for a variety of reasons but here are some important things to remember:

  • Try and stay relaxed as you fall. Easier said than done… I know… but bracing for impact (especially by trying to catch yourself) is a great way to break bones. If you can, try and roll out of the fall to minimize the impact.
  • ALWAYS. WEAR. YOUR. HELMET. WHEN. RIDING. Excuse me for ‘yelling’ this, but it is so important to protect your head from traumatic brain injury.
  • According to a UConn report, “Medical Examiner reports show that 60% or more of horse-related deaths are caused by head injuries. Helmets can reduce this possibility by 70-80%.” Wearing a helmet is a MUST for anyone on a horse.

Getting Stepped on or Kicked

We’ve already addressed how to make sure you let a horse know you are behind them, but sometimes horses kick out because they are trying to get rid of a fly and you may be in the way.

The key to avoiding kicks in the cross ties or the field is a calm demeanor and key awareness of everything going on around you.

If you do get kicked, you need to let someone know immediately. It is probably best to go get checked out to make sure you didn’t break anything as the horse has a kick force of up to 1,000 pounds per square inch. For comparison, to break a rib only requires 792 psi.

Staying focused can also help you from getting stepped on, but it isn’t foolproof. A horse may shift his weight and suddenly, he’s on your foot.

Accidents do happen, but the best way to prevent some bad injuries is to wear closed toed shoes any time when you’re at the barn. Seriously, Google “flip flop horse injury” and you’ll see why you never want your toes exposed at the barn.

Being Bitten

In the wild, horses use nipping and biting other horses as a form of communication and establishing hierarchy. It should not be a behavior encouraged around humans.

A horse can bite with a force of 500psi and do some major damage to your extremities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is a common mistake beginners make around horses?

Moving quickly behind a horse or directly in front of the horse is a common mistake—this may create a fight or flight response in the horse and can cause injuries.

Another common mistake is that beginners may act timid around the horse. Act confident and relaxed—your horse can pick up on your energy!

Q: How do you safely feed a horse a treat?

To safely feed a horse a treat, you want to make sure you put the treat flat on your palm and hold your hand flat. Do not pinch the treat when you offer it to the horse or you could get your fingers bitten!

Q: What is the best way to learn how to ride a horse?

The best way to learn how to ride a horse is from a qualified professional instructor.

Parting Thoughts

Now that you know what NOT to do around horses, I hope you are ready for your first (or next ride!) Just remember to stay alert, stay calm, and have fun!

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About the author


Michelle began riding through Pony Club at age 5 and continued training through high school. After a hiatus for school and family, she's now back in the saddle with her hunter/jumper.