Riding Basics for the Non-Rider

levade_bvcRiding is a lot like writing. Everybody has seen enough of it in films and television or even in real life to think it must be pretty easy and anybody can do it. There’s also a general vocabulary that gets thrown around, a collection of words that are known to apply to the concept, so everybody must know what they mean. Right?

Well, not always. The great collective semiconscious knows what bit, rein, saddle, and spur mean. They know the end that bites is in front (with bit in it) and the end that kicks is in the back, and you sit in the middle. What exactly you do there is a little bit foggy.

In an earlier blog I mentioned the rider who knees the horse in the flank, from the saddle, to make him go. Other frequent errors include:

  • Floating up into the saddle of the impossibly enormous fantasy horse. This is especially prevalent when the character in question is a child or a young adult.
  • Shaking the reins to make the horse go.
  • Yelling “Hyah!”, ditto (most often seen on film).
  • Flapping the elbows as the horse gallops, on the apparent principle that it helps him achieve escape velocity.
  • Talking about jog when you mean lope, and gallop when you mean canter, and generally mixing up the gaits.

There are numerous other popular errors, but let’s concentrate on these for today. We will also assume that the horse has been groomed, saddled, and bridled before the scene begins. That exact process is a bit more arcane and less frequently described in fiction, and will serve as a subject for another blog.

Your character approaches the horse in character-appropriate fashion. A horse person will get to know the horse for a few seconds: look him over, make sure he has no obvious ailments or injuries, stroke his neck or (lightly) his head to say hello, check out his tack. He’ll make sure the bridle is properly adjusted (all buckles fastened, bit properly fitted and adjusted), and be especially careful to check the girth (or with a Western saddle the cinch–same thing, different name) to make sure it’s snug. If it’s not, he’ll tighten it.

Sidebar: Your fantasy character riding a la Gandalf, i.e. sans tack, will not do the tack check. However if she’s riding like that, beware of looking like a Fantasy Mary Sue. She’d better have a really good reason to be riding a naked horse, and be one hell of a rider. Also, she should not leap aboard the Wild Stallion in this condition. She’ll go splat and probably get trampled to a bloody pulp. If you’re not an expert on horses and riding, go for the safe and unobtrusive route: saddle, bridle, common or garden variety horse.

Your rider will mount in one of several ways.

  • In a culture in which stirrups are not extant (which is anything before about AD 500, or based thereon), she will spring aboard from the ground. She may use a rock, a fallen tree, etc., especially if she is not an experienced or athletic rider. She may get a leg up from a groom, servant, or fellow traveler. This means either the helper gets a grip on her shin and knee and boosts her up, or she puts her foot in his linked hands and uses them for a step (or, also, gets a boost).
  • These techniques can be used where there are stirrups, too. The leg-up method is especially apt if the rider is a lady and/or if the horse is tall enough to make getting a foot into the stirrup an athletic exercise. That 20-hand fantasy monster? He’s 80 inches at the withers. Do the math. Here is a horse who is 16.1 hands (65 inches) with a five-foot-three-inch rider. The stirrup, when the rider is on the ground, is about level with her breastbone. Admittedly this is a massively built horse in the old Baroque mode, with a deep barrel and relatively short legs, but she is plenty tall.pandoraride_bvcBig horse is Big. 20 hands is over the top even in our age of Giant Riding Elephants. A much more common and sensible definition of big is 17 hands (a hand, as may be clear by now, is 4 inches). That’s still plenty big for fantasy-government work.
  • If the rider is mounting from the ground and has stirrups available, the method is to run up the reins in one hand–here in the US we mount usually on the left, and this was common in societies in which the sword was carried on the right hip. Other cultures might mount on the right, or from whichever side was most convenient. (Note: A horse who is handled in only one way or from only one direction becomes habituated and may react negatively to being approached from any other direction. If he’s always mounted from the left, an attempt to mount from the right might result in the horse shying, spinning, and/or tossing the would-be rider.) For a left mount, gather the reins in the left hand at the base of the mane, insert left foot in stirrup, assist with right hand on back end of saddle, bounce up off right foot, get right arm out of the way, swing right leg over horse’s back, settle into saddle. Reverse for a right mount. Done right, this is very graceful and the rider will land lightly. Done wrong or by a heavy, injured, or inexperienced rider, any number of consequences may ensue. Saddle may roll and dump rider halfway up, horse may swing around or scoot, horse may spook and bolt and leave rider in the dust, rider may overshoot and go flying off the other side…the possibilities are numerous.
  • If the rider is a lady and the saddle is a sidesaddle, she will get a leg up, swing her right leg over the horse’s back, and bring it around to hook into the horns of the sidesaddle. This you should research, to see what it looks like and how a rider sits in it. She will, be it noted, use a long whip on the right side, as a substitute for the missing leg. Sidesaddle is much harder than riding astride, and takes a lot more guts and balance.

Now you’re on the horse, what next? Shaking the reins won’t do much. That seems to be an extrapolation from driving, where you may indeed activate the horse this way–what you’re doing is slapping his butt and cuing him to move. That won’t work if you’re in the middle and the reins are just touching his neck.

What you do depends on the milieu and the conventions of training horses. Some horses are trained to auditory cues–click of the tongue, relevant word, etc. Much more common and practical is the use of the leg. In simplest terms, a kick makes him move. Kick harder, he goes faster. An accomplished rider will be much more subtle, of course: tighten the calf or move the lower leg slightly back. Or if he’s really good, he’ll do it by shifting his weight very slightly. This will be invisible to the casual observer, and look appropriately impressive, especially if he’s doing this to change speeds in rapid succession, and throwing in turns, spins, and sideways maneuvers.

There’s your accelerator. You also need steering and brakes. Keeping it simple again, for those things you use the reins. An English or European rider will turn by pulling a rein in the direction she wants to turn. A Western rider will “neckrein,” or lay the opposite rein against the neck and aim the hand in the direction of the turn. Both styles stop by pulling the reins. Leg means go. Rein means stop (or turn). Your Master Rider of course will turn up his elegant nose at this and use his weight and the toning of his legs and torso–in short, he’ll stop and turn with his seat (which actually refers to the rider’s body from the neck to the knees). Much prettier, much more invisible, much harder to learn and train. But nice if you can use it.

No Hyah!, you will notice. No flapping the elbows. The rider sits as quietly as possible considering she’s on top of a moving object with a mind of its own, and signals as subtly as she can. She will signal for the following basic gaits:

  • Walk. Self-explanatory.  Nice, slow, non-threatening. A horse will walk at about 5mph, though a good, strong walker can go faster.
  • Trot or jog. Trot for English/European, jog for Western. Jog in the main is slower than a trot, and smoother to ride. An English rider from the 18th century onward may post or rise to the trot. This maneuver was developed by post riders (hence the term), most of whom did a lot of trotting. The trot is a bone-jarring two-beat gait and is very unpleasant to ride unless the horse is exceptionally smooth. Most aren’t. Posting lets you go up and down with the movement, and keeps your teeth from rattling out of your head. A good rider can post anything, with or without saddle or stirrups–it’s done by using your balance and the horse’s movement in synch, not by hopping up and down in the stirrups.  A Western rider will sneer at a rider who posts. He will train his horse to jog as smoothly as possible, which removes the rattle-the-teeth problem, though it also eliminates most of the speed of a good, fast trot. The average trot is around 8-10 mph; it can get much faster, especially in driven horses–harness racers race in the trot (and its cousin the pace).
  • Canter. A slow, rocking, three-beat gait, supposedly so named because it was the favored gait of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. This is the most pleasant gait to ride, like sitting in a rocking chair.  A Western lope is a slowed-down version of this. It may not necessarily be faster than a trot, though the bounding motion of the gait may cover more ground (and be much smoother to ride). It’s possible to slow the canter down to a near-stop, then send the horse around its back end in a tight circle. This is called the canter pirouette and is a quite advanced maneuver.
  • Gallop. Not the same as a canter. Four beats instead of three. This is the top speed of the horse, the one with which he covers the most ground in the least amount of time.  Your racehorse or your desperately pursued horse or your urgent messenger’s horse will gallop. A racehorse can gallop  up around 30mph;  a good gallop for an ordinary horse is in the 15-20mph range. The gallop is fairly easy to sit; the scary part is the speed and the fact that the horse may have shut his brain off and gone into full-on freaked-out-prey mode. Getting him to calm down and slow down can be a challenge.

Now you’ve got some options for your fictional rider, and some accurate details to enrich the story. Your horse-loving readers will thank you, and put you on their list of Writers Who Get It Right.




Riding Basics for the Non-Rider — 15 Comments

  1. Love the blog! Glad to see someone with an author’s rep helping the horsey-disabled. 🙂

    As a longtime sidesaddle rider and instructor, I have a minor quibble. “If the rider is a lady and the saddle is a sidesaddle, she will get a leg up, swing her right leg over the horse’s back, and bring it around to hook into the horns of the sidesaddle” Not exactly. These days, for convienence, and to help ensure a straight seat on a novice rider, we do straddle the horse first. However, skilled riders, and historically speaking all sidesaddle riders, would take a leg up off their left leg, bring the right leg between horse and left leg, then land either facing sideways or with the legs in proper position. (Or just use a mounting block.) Obviously this takes practice, but it’s actually quite practical and elegant, especially in an historical full skirt. I have a 3-photo sequence of this if you’re interested.

    Also, I think you know this, but just to clarify for the readers…. Most sidesaddles you see these days have two pommels (or horns) on the left. The right leg goes above or to the right of the top one, the left leg goes below the lower one – it curves OVER the left leg to keep you from popping forward too far, it is not a leg rest. Some older saddles will have a pommel on either side, and the right leg will go between these.

    Thanks a lot for helping authors get it right!

  2. Actually, Western riders do post the trot. We call it a “long trot” to differentiate from the jog, and it’s a valuable tool when you want to cover ground fast, or take the starch out of a snuffy horse. I saw a lot of cowboys posting at the junior rodeo I went to back in June. No scorn involved, and I saw the same rider when posting the trot to hurry across the arena also sit a lovely jog with one of the softest, supple backs I’ve seen in a rider. My trainer (who is also a judge, at pretty reasonably high level) teaches both jog and trot, and he’s pretty picky about the quality of the posting trot in either English or Western.

    Speed of “lope” is only applicable for Western Pleasure, where it can be horribly abused into a godawful broken backed, four beat gait. The lope my little reining mare does is nothing that would win prizes in a WP class, but I call it a lope when we’re in Western tack and canter in English tack. Otherwise, canter=lope, same speed, same pace. Except for WP.

    Old-timey cowboys were always on the lookout for horses who gaited–generally a single-foot, for comfort in covering ground quickly on long rides. There’s a subset of gaiting stock horses out there (AQHA and ApHA don’t talk about them but they exist) based on the old-timey singlefooters and foxtrotters. Gaiting Appaloosas and QHs still do exist, but often have to be encouraged to pick up that single foot or fox trot. I’ve seen my mare’s brother singlefoot under saddle, and it wouldn’t be hard to convince her to do it as well.

    For writers wanting to talk about riding long distances, looking up information on amblers, single footers, or fox trotters would all be good.

  3. Thanks, guys! Wonderful clarifications and additions.

    Joyce, if you’re writing old cowboys, i.e. pre-21st century, they did indeed sneer at the “perking coffee pot” posting trot, and at the “pie plate” English saddle, too. These days, with breed shows differentiating between disciplines solely through changes of tack and rider outfits, they’ve all blurred together (OMG, stock-horse “hunter” classes are…OMG), but there used to be clear distinctions and quite a lot of rivalry. At that time, which wasn’t very long ago at all, the hunter, the Western Pleasure horse, and the Saddle Seat horse all looked different and moved differently, and the riders played up those differences. The Western rider would never, ever post the jog. The whole point was to make the gait so smooth there was no need to. The lope was indeed a more leisurely gait than the canter, though it stil had the same three beats, and in hunter classes you did hand gallop, which was a different gait altogether than the canter.

    It’s a good idea to research the period the piece is written in, and not assume that what’s current right now applied even as recently as fifteen or twenty years ago. Styles and approaches change, and riding is very much subject to changing fashions. Looking at photos of Quarter Horses from the Fifties and Sixties and comparing them to the major players now can be quite an eye-opener.

  4. I’m sure I have a couple of he sprang into the saddle sentences to fix. In fact, since I have a scene with a squire wearing light chain mail with a useless and bleeding left arm, he won’t have an easy time of getting back up into the saddle.

    I’m pretty sure that’s not one of my springing into the saddle moments but I think I need to take a look at that and see whether or not I glossed over the difficulty he would have had.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  5. I’ve hefted a shirt of “light” chain mail. Your guy is going to need a boost. He can mount from the right but wouldn’t be too thrilled about the operation.

    You can btw have people mount from various objects around the landscape: fence, lowish wall, fallen tree, tree stump, rock or boulder, put horse in ditch and rider pull self on, etc.

    The horse had better be well trained, unspooked, and preferably familiar with the rider btw. Horses like to walk off as you mount. I train mine to stand completely still until I say move, but that’s not universal.

  6. Hi Judith. As a lifelong rider, (past trainer and instructor) I have to echo the thanks for helping spread the word on getting some of those stock fantasy horse issues fixed (and modern ones too).

  7. Thank you, Sue! Don’t hesitate to add, extend, correct, or clarify. We’re aiming to get the really right story across to as many writers as we can.

  8. Thanks so much for this, Judith — super-helpful for those who of us without much equine experience.

    I know this is titled “Basics,” but I don’t suppose you could add a bit for when writers finagle two people onto the back of a horse? I’ve wondered about whether it’s easier to get the second person on in front or behind the first, and how the first person can assist the second in mounting…

  9. Hello, Ms. Tarr. It’s been a long time (darnit!) since I’ve managed to get in the saddle, but I used to ride english as a child. I’m happy to see someone explaining some of the fine points of riding and etc to authors in need everywhere!

    One thought occurred to me when you were talking about horse heights and practicalities: I’m 5’4″, and one of my favorite mounts, Boomer, was 17.2 hands tall. This guys was a real sweetie, but I sure did have fun tacking him up – all he had to do was raise his head, and I couldn’t get his bridle on! And I always mounted using the ‘stone wall’ fence we had on hand – there just wasn’t any other way I was getting up there on my own. When I was astride, my heels in their correct position were still a good 2-3″ above the bottom-line of Boomer’s barrel. Of course, it didn’t help that Boomer was blocky as all get out – you would have thought he was a warmblood cross instead of a thoroughbred!

    Anyway, just thought you’d like an example of a ‘big horse/ normal rider’ combination.


  10. Great article.

    Another point to mention is that the more advanced moves and ways of stopping, starting and steering are as much reliant upon the horse’s level of training and fitness as the rider’s. A green horse isn’t going to know what the heck to do if an expert dressage rider gives a fine cue for a pirouette… the horse can guess, but you’re probably going to get some half-tripping maneuver that eventually gets the horse facing the right direction, but with haunches splayed and forefeet hopping all over the place. 🙂

    Likewise, a highly trained horse with a novice rider will have trouble — especially if the horse primarily has a single, advanced rider. The horse won’t be getting the cues he’s accustomed to, and the rider will probably be kicking away, flapping arms and yelling to try to get the darned creature to move.

    A rider that treats a horse like a vehicle will have the best luck on a horse that’s trained to be a vehicle; a trick rider will do best on a trick horse. Mixing them up could very well lead to frustration and/or hilarity, depending on which side of the fence you’re watching from. 🙂

  11. Hi Judith! Love this blog series, especially as a longtime fan of fantasy and a longtime rider. Some things I’ve seen authors try to do with horses drive me crazy. Great idea. 🙂

    Something that might be useful for writers to note is that for someone skilled at it with a horse who is trained for it, mounting a cantering horse can actually be easier in some ways than a stationary one. I ride a 19 hand horse (non-horse people, that’s 6’4″, pretty close to your standard “fantasy monster horse”) and he is GIGANTIC. For visual size, this is what I, at 5’5″ look like on him — a mere flyspeck! I literally cannot mount him without assistance or something to stand on, preferably in the 3-4 ft range, though as little as a foot is passable.

    However, his “day job,” at which he is quite talented, is to be used for equestrian vaulting, and good vaulters, even ones who are shorter than I am, have very little trouble just … well, vaulting on him. I’m told that, basically, the motion of the horses back, if you’re correctly in sync, will pull you right up there. Observe: http://www.clubequestrian.com/videos/watch/1204437608.aspx

    So springing on a horse isn’t without precedent, and even less so when the horse is in motion, but writers, beware! It’s specialized, even most experienced riders can’t do it, and even if your rider can, most horses would probably flip out if he/she tried it without training first.

    Karalynn, I’ve always found it’s easier to pull up a second rider behind the first. #2 can use the stirrup as usual to mount if there is a stirrup, or use a rock/log/wall/anything handy if not. #1 can help first by keeping the horse standing still (heh), and maybe give a pull up on #2’s arm.

  12. More great input from commenters. We have good commenters. 🙂

    Patty R makes a good point about what a horse is trained for versus what the rider may know to use for signals, plus the level of horse or rider affecting responses. When I was first learning to ride Spanish Riding School style, I had a lot of trouble with horses trained for it because I wasn’t subtle enough and I couldn’t get out of the horse’s way so he felt free to move. One day I was riding one of my instructor’s horses, and the horse would not budge. It didn’t matter what I did. He was rooted. When the vultures started to circle, I wailed at the sky, I’M NOT DEAD YET!!

    Now I’ve got my horses trained the same way, and unaccustomed riders will either find the vultures circling, or if the horse is the other kind (the kind that goes fasterfasterfaster if the signals are confusing), running uncontrollably around and around. Luckily they don’t get mad and start trying to shed riders, so the experience is educational rather than dangerous. :/

  13. cedunkley: the problem with springing into the saddle isn’t that it can’t be done, particularly if the horse is smallish and the saddle is low. (A high-backed saddle, will catch out a novice or tired rider because they don’t raise their leg high enough to swing into it – hilarious for onlookers, rather embarassing for the rider). But the other thing is that unless you want to show off (which young men, let’s face, it, do) or you’re practicing for a reason (you’re in the army and you need to be able to do it), jumping on a horse all too often means that you’re landing hard or awkwardly on his back, which makes the horse more likely to move off or otherwise express his displeasure. Good horsemen don’t put more strain on their mounts than necessary and know better than to annoy them. Mounting with a leg-up or from a block saves the horse’s back, saves the equipment, and saves the rider’s hips. (In Germany, where many people mount tall horses from the ground, I’ve known a lot of riders with hip problems. In England, where horses are shorter and people use mounting blocks most of the time, it’s not a common complaint at all.)

  14. In the time of Xenophon (I’ll find the quote, Judy) as he wrote in the “Art of Horsemanship” many of the horses were trained to lower the front end to the ground so as to make stirrupless mounting simple.

    I also come from a western background and even back in the 60s posting was sneered at. What we did, on young, green horses, or even seasoned horses that were moving out hard at a trot, was stand in the stirrups. Perfectly acceptable, as was holding onto the horn for balance.

  15. Here we go, Xen. Horse. 6.16:

    “[16] When the groom presents the horse to his rider, we take no exception to his understanding how to cause the horse to crouch, for convenience in mounting. We think, however, that the rider should get used to mounting even without his horse’s help. For a rider gets a different sort of horse at different times, and the same one does not always serve him in the same way.”


    That might come in handy for anyone writing a period piece, especially one set in the early Celtic times. I’m sure the Greeks weren’t the only ones who figured this out. They were just the only ones who wrote about it and have surviving manuscripts.