Getting Back on the Horse:
Returning to a Life in the Saddle
By Suzannah Kolbeck
After a childhood spent dreaming about horses, a young adulthood reading about them, and my 20s and 30s going about the work of building a family, I finally got my first horse, a 21-year-old OTTB who had already had her second act as a dressage school horse before ending up at the rescue barn at which I was volunteer.
I adopted her, and spent most of my time with her on the ground. I might clamber up on her back and clumsily hack around the yard for a bit, but I was uncomfortable, unconfident, and worried I was going to somehow damage our bond by riding her poorly and, to my mind disrespectfully. She was big-hearted but sensitive, and I was too scared to do more than ride her very occasionally at the walk.
Fast forward 15 years later. Sadie is gone, and her pasture mates - an Amish plow horse and a Paint/draft cross, are now living their second act with friends in Georgia who could care for them after the untimely death of my husband. My child is grown, my life as a writer and artist in Baltimore established and solid.
It was finally time. I signed up for riding lessons.
Maybe you are a grown-up like me, one who has never had the joy and pleasure of a regular horse connection in their life. Maybe you have finished raising children and are ready for whatever comes after that. Maybe you rode all the time as a child, put it aside for a bit and are now ready to come back. Whatever the reason, no matter how you got there, you are coming back to horses, coming back as a rider, even though you might feel decidedly less elastic than you did 10 or even 20 years ago.
Whether you are a brand-new adult rider or a re-rider tuning up, here’s what you need to know.
You need less gear than you think – and your options are endless
There are endless variations on horse gear these days, and depending on your budget, you can spend relatively little – or an amount equal to a small mortgage payment.
But don’t let this range stop you. To start riding, you really only need three things.
1. Horseback riding clothes
Clothes for horseback riding should be comfortable, with plenty of stretch. English riders generally go in full-seat or knee patch breeches (but jodhpurs or tights are also options). Full-seat breeches may offer more security in the saddle to begin, so you might try these if your confidence needs a boost.
Breeches can be pull-on or come with a zipper and a button. Look for moisture-wicking fabrics (or something nice and warm for fall and winter rides) and any additional features you might like (e.g., cellphone pocket on the thigh and a couple of real pockets on the front or the back).
Western riders often choose jeans, and some choose breeches made of denim.
Ultimately, choose what’s comfortable for you, and take your time in the dressing room.
2. Appropriate Footwear
At a minimum, you need a boot with a small heel (about an inch). After that, the options are limitless.
English riders might look for a tall boot, or they might choose a paddock boot/half-chap combination. Half-chaps protect your calves from bruises during posting.
If you are planning on doing barn chores, look for boots that can stand up to mucking stalls.
Western riders can choose paddock or cowboy boots. There is no real need to protect the leg, as a western saddle’s fenders (wide pieces of leather that attach to the saddle and run the length of the rider’s leg) are not likely to pinch or dig.
The most important piece of horseback riding gear is your helmet. The current safety standard for helmets in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico is helmets that are ASTM approved (sometimes with an additional group of letters – SEI). The American Society for Testing and Materials develops manufacturing standards, and then independent labs evaluate whether or not helmets meet this standard.
But a helmet is only as good as the fit. To ensure your helmet fits well, follow these guidelines.
The helmet should fit above the eyebrows without obstructing your vision
Your eyebrows should move if you move the helmet
The helmet should stay in place with any movement (wiggle around to check)
After wearing your helmet for five minutes, there should be no marks on your forehead (it’s too tight if it leaves indentations)
The clasp should touch under your throat when you open your mouth – not your chin
And keep in mind: if your helmet is in an accident, it needs to be replaced. Damaged helmets are not safe – even if they look ok.
A great horseback riding lesson program is a must
Lessons aren’t just for tiny kids propped up on docile ponies going around in a circle. Taking lessons is a crucial piece of the puzzle when it comes to tuning up rusty skills, gaining confidence, and figuring out what it is you want to get from your time with horses.
But not all lesson programs – or all trainers – work for everyone.
When you are looking for your horseback riding lesson program, consider the following.
Do you want private, semi-private, or group lessons?
Private lessons are a great way to practice specific skills at a pace that suits you, but sometimes it can feel intimidating to be the focus of close attention for a full hour.
A semi-private lesson is usually a group of no more than three riders of similar skill levels. This gives you the opportunity to observe others and hear instruction while also working on your own riding.
Finally, group lessons are a more affordable way to get back into horseback riding and can be the perfect choice for a rider who is looking for both riding instruction and a social experience.
What kind of trainer will work best for you?
Your trainer makes all the difference in your lesson, no matter the size.
Asking a few questions before signing on for a lesson package can help you choose the trainer who’s right for you.
If you are an older rider, are you comfortable with a younger instructor, or would you like someone with more life experience?
Does your trainer have experience working and training in the style of riding you’d like to learn?
In terms of instructional style, do you learn better with a “tough love,” or do you prefer a more gentle approach?
Above all, you need to feel safe with your trainer. A good trainer knows when to push and when to stand back – they will never ask you to do something you feel unsafe doing. It’s important that you feel like you can have an open conversation with your horseback riding instructor, so select someone you can establish a good rapport with.
Most barns will require an evaluation lesson before you enter their program. Keep in mind that it’s a great time for you to evaluate the barn as well.
Cross training will make you a better rider
Even if you were clearing oxers with room to spare and crushing your personal best times around the barrels just a decade or two ago, it’s easy to forget which muscles horseback riding requires.
But you’ll know it the second you step off your horse after your first lesson!
For everyone who scoffs, “Horseback riding isn’t a sport; the horse does all the work!” there is a world-class equestrian who is in the gym six times a week, working at their personal fitness.
While this type of commitment is not entirely necessary, there are some exercises that can help you improve both your fitness and your seat while you ride.
Yoga works core muscles, stretches and strengthens the lower back, and eases open hips, all in one workout. A variety of yoga – yin yoga – focuses almost entirely on opening the hips. This allows you to sit deep in the tack and ride comfortably. Plus, the core work in yoga helps to stabilize your lower body and keep your back strong.
Hiking (especially hills)
Hiking improves leg strength and cardiovascular fitness. If you expect to ride in disciplines like three-day eventing and barrel racing, you will need to be physically fit enough to keep up with your horse.
Yes, a dedicated type of exercise that is an excellent catch-all for returning rider fitness. Planks work the entire core, lower back, shoulders, and arms. Throw in some stretching in the lower calves and activity in the hamstrings, and this simple exercise turns into a whole-body workout. There are 12 different types of planks to choose from. Find yourself a 30-day plank challenge, and get started!
It’s all about joy
Remember why you came back to horses?
That lovely smell of a horse’s shoulders as they graze in the sun. The quiet, kind eye; the lope across the pasture; that feeling of communicating with another creature in a profound and meaningful way. The soft feeling of their muzzle in your hand as they take a treat.
These are the most important parts of returning to riding. Take the time to enjoy each moment you have with horses, even on days when there is fear or the horse you are riding is challenging.
Bringing thoughtful attention to your time in the saddle means that your time is well spent. If, as Rebecca Carroll says, “A pony is a childhood dream. A horse is an adulthood treasure,” don’t forget to stop, breathe, and enjoy these treasures.
Suzannah Kolbeck is a writer living, working, and riding in Baltimore, MD. Her lesson horse is Traverse, a mopey lug of a fellow who nevertheless still hauls her around at times with something akin to joy.