Credit: Cappy Jackson Photography
To develop balance bareback, let your legs hang down naturally—don’t grip with your calves or clamp with your knees.
Think “bareback” and you’ll probably smile with a memory from childhood. We all rode that way back then because it was fun. But did you know riding bareback as an adult can supercharge your balance? Clinician Stacy Westfall knows it. She rode almost exclusively bareback as a kid, then switched to a saddle to pursue goals in competitive reining as an adult.
In 2006, however, while preparing to compete in the Road to the Horse colt-starting challenge, she returned to bareback to improve her balance--“in case I needed it on one of those colts,” she explained.
What she discovered is that riding bareback is not quite like riding a bicycle.
“I was blown away by how much I’d ‘lost’ from childhood,” she recalled. She’d been riding horses for eight to ten hours a day for years, but when she went back to saddleless she found herself “slipping and sliding around like crazy. That’s when I realized all those years in a saddle had led me to rely on my stirrups, instead of balance, to stay on.”
Her bareback practice fixed that problem plus boosted her confidence, and she went on to win that colt-starting championship. Later the same year, she won the freestyle futurity riding bareback and bridleless at the All American Quarter Horse Congress. (It was a performance that later went viral. If you’ve never seen it, check it out…it’s amazing. And if you’ve never seen talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres trying to explain Stacy’s feat to a studio audience, click here. It’s hilarious.)
Stacy went on to be inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2012. Would you like to learn the secrets of this bareback virtuoso? The balance and confidence you’ll gain riding bareback will carry over to riding in a saddle, and besides all that…bareback is a blast.
First, some safety considerations. If your horse isn’t “bareback-friendly,” borrow one that is. Work initially in a round pen or other enclosed small space for extra control. Skip the spurs; add a safety helmet. Consider a bareback pad, which gives you a little extra purchase. Grab mane as need be in the beginning to avoid jabbing your horse in the mouth or gripping with your legs—both absolute no-no’s.
OK, so what’s the secret to Stacy’s secure, relaxed, fluent position bareback? Just this: Rely on balance, not leg grip, to stay on and follow your horse’s motion. It sounds simple, but it takes considerable know-how and practice. Here’s how to get started:
• Sit upright. Your position without a saddle should be similar to a correct position in a saddle. The tendency is to lean forward--don’t.
• ‘Drape’ your legs. Allow them to lengthen, but let them lie naturally against your horse’s sides, without clamping or even wrapping them around his barrel. Remember, you’re not using them to stay aboard; you’re relying on balance, instead. Keep your toes raised slightly or at least level with your heel.
• Walk and jog—a lot. As you sit upright with relaxed legs, walk and jog on a straight line as much as necessary to begin developing a feeling of security. Whenever you feel tippy or slippy, grab mane—don’t fetal-crouch or grip with your legs.
• Add circles and turns. These are more challenging. When they begin to feel routine at a walk and jog, add an extended trot. (Bonus: Work at an energetic trot will make the eventual lope a breeze by comparison.) If walking and trotting are all you do for your first several bareback rides, that’s fine. Don’t rush. Let your balance develop naturally.
• Move up to a lope. When you feel you’re ready to lope without gripping with your legs, give it a try. To keep your bottom down through all three beats of the lope, you’ll need to fully release your lower back through both the up motion of the gait and the down. Concentrate—you can do it!
From there it’s all about regular practice—and lots of fun.
For more of Stacy’s bareback tips, including using ground poles and playing games to supercharge your balance, plus learning an emergency dismount for added safety, click here.