Thinking about getting back in the saddle (or hopping in for the first time)? Whether you’re five or fifty, have serious equestrian ambitions or just want to learn a new skill, riding horses can be rewarding for both your mental and physical health. Plus, it’s so much fun!
But it’s not just about hopping on the back of a horse and saying, “giddy up.” Before you even get in the saddle, there’s a lot you need to know, including which style of riding you want to do, how to find a trainer, what to wear, and more. We talked to Staci Graham, owner and trainer of Horizon Arabians in Dixon, California (a highly rated Thumbtack pro), to find out what you need to know before taking your first lesson.
English or Western?
There are a lot of differences between the two styles of riding, but the most obvious one to a beginner is that they use different equipment (“tack”). Graham explains that Western style originated for cowboys who were using the horses to work on the ranch and collect cattle, so you’ll use a bigger saddle, which is built for comfort and security on long rides, but also to hold ropes and gear. This is the type of saddle most people are used to seeing in movies, at rodeos, or when they take a trail ride on vacation.
The English style of riding originated as a sport for ladies and gentleman to go hunting, Graham says. It’s a smaller and lighter saddle designed to give the rider closer contact with the horse’s back because not only did these people not bring a lot of gear with them, but they needed to be able to get the horses to easily move and jump over obstacles like stone walls.
There are other differences, as well, like the way you hold the reins, proper attire, and the types of sports within each style, like dressage, jumping, and hunting (English) or penning, roping, and barrel races (Western).
If you’re not sure if you want to ride English style or Western style, you’ll want to find a stable that offers both, so you can try them both out. Graham says that for a beginner, both styles are great as they both give you a chance to learn all of the basics, like asking the horse to stop, turn, and go forward.
Take Your Time Choosing a Style
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when you’ll be ready to go in one direction or the other,” Graham says. “But if you’re not sure, a year of taking lessons once a week is probably a good jumping off point for deciding what you want to do next.” This is because most people learn all of the basics within a year and are comfortable with starting to ask the horse to do more.
How Long Will It Take Me to Be Comfortable on a Horse?
Graham says that kids will not only pick up horseback riding much faster than adults, they may be ready to choose which style they want to proceed with after just four or five lessons. “Horseback riding is extreme and foreign for most people, but little kids have an easier time because they bounce around, don’t care, and are just enjoying being with the horses,” Graham says. “If they fall, they just get back up.”
Adults, on the other hand, tend to take longer to get comfortable with the horse. “They lose their kid inhibitions, are worried about falling, and just think way too much. It makes sense though; there’s a 1000-pound animal between your legs with its own brain! For some people that is quite scary.” Still, Graham says, because of this, it usually takes adults a lot longer to get comfortable with basic tasks and can take two or three times as long for them to get to where a kid is after just a few lessons.
“Anyone can say they’re a horse trainer, so make sure to do your homework,” Graham says. The biggest thing she recommends before even taking a lesson is making an appointment to see the facility and the horses. “You want to meet the instructor and talk to them and make sure you like them because you are going to have an intimacy with this person, so you want to get a good vibe from them.”
In addition, Graham suggests you walk the grounds of the facility and the property. “You might find you don’t like their setup or how they do things.” While you’re walking around, you may also meet current students. Use this opportunity to chat with them about the horses and the level of instruction. If they give you an answer you don’t like or makes you uncomfortable, considering looking elsewhere.
You also want to make sure the horses and the barn are in good shape. “You’re paying this person to instruct you on horses and that money should be going to the horses’ care. You want to make sure the facilities are in good shape, the barn is clean, and the horses look happy and healthy.”
If you like the person and like what you see, set up a lesson and go from there. “You don’t have to be committed to the first trainer you meet,” Graham says. “There are a lot of ways to get the same results, so a lot of trainers do things different. Ultimately, you have to figure out what best fits you and your personality.”
The other thing to consider is what you ultimately want to accomplish. “If you just want to get on a horse and learn how to ride, your run of the mill training facility with your run of the mill training horses is going to be fine,” Graham says. But if you’re looking to eventually show, you’ll want to find an instructor who has titles and shows and has clients who are achieving success in that arena.
You don’t need to buy all of the expensive riding clothing and boots before your first lesson, but you do need to show up in long pants and closed-toe shoes, preferably with a small heel to lessen the chance of your foot slipping out of the stirrup. Ask your instructor if the barn will be able to provide you with a helmet or if there’s anything else you should know.
How Much Should I Expect to Pay?
“Horseback riding is not a cheap sport,” Graham says. You’ll want to get quotes from different barns and if a quote seems to be a lot higher, then ask why. Lesson rates will vary all over the country, but beginner lessons are usually around $40 to $70 for an hour of teaching in either group or private settings.