Horses · Olaf the Gentle Giant

I rode bareback for a year and this is what happened…

If you’re an equestrian, you’ve no doubt heard of No Stirrup November. It’s when riders all over the globe try riding without stirrups. Some of them go bareback and some remove the stirrups leathers and irons from their saddles. The goal is to improve your riding by forcing yourself to use your seat and not rely on stirrups for balance. It’s also considered a form of torture that trainers use on their riding students, because if you’re not used to riding without the help of stirrups, you will be SORE. I did an entire year of no stirrups, somewhat accidentally, and I’ll tell you what happened to my riding as a result.

It all started when someone gave me a mule. She has a severely roached back, and was near impossible to fit a saddle to. I tried 10 different saddles and the 11th one worked well enough, but wasn’t perfect. The one I settled on was a cheap, no name dressage saddle. I didn’t feel balanced in it but, at the time, it was better than nothing. Because my mule’s back is sloped downward toward her head, I always felt like I was going to slide right off the front of the saddle and down her neck like a playground slide. It forced me to kick my heels out in front of me to stop myself sliding forward. I never felt secure riding like that, even though I made it work temporarily.

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My mule and her roached back

In September of 2018, I took my mule to an endurance ride and I rode in that saddle. She had major race brain and I ended up having to get off her and walk a good bit of it (we only did the 10 mile intro). She wanted to canter the whole thing, I wanted her to power walk, and we compromised with a speedy trot. I felt out of balance though, and the more tired my legs got, the more out of balance I felt. Posting the trot kills my back as well, so by the time we finished the ride, my back was KILLING ME and I was not a happy camper. Neither was my mule, because I made us lose. She could have won the whole thing, and she knew it.

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The first time I got on my mule bareback.

After that ride, I decided I needed to up my riding game. I needed to condition myself to ride longer distances so that I wouldn’t tire out so quickly. I rode 3-4 times a week, all through the winter, in all kinds of weather. They were only short little rides, but every minute in the saddle helps. I ditched the saddle too, and started riding in a bareback pad from Amazon with a regular saddle pad and a half pad underneath it. Part of it was a desire to ride better and part of it was pure laziness, not wanting to fully tack up for a 20 or 30 minute ride.

Last winter I was given a Belgian cross that needed to gain quite a bit of weight. When he got to the point where he had gained enough to be ridden, I didn’t have a saddle that fit him well. I used the bareback pad on him too.

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One of my first rides on Olaf the Belgian

It’s now October of 2019, and in the past year I’ve only sat in a saddle twice, both of those times in the last week. I rode exclusively in the bareback pad for an entire year, on both my mule and my Belgian. They are vastly different shapes, one narrow and roach backed with almost no withers, the other round as a barrel with huge withers.

The biggest and most surprising change is that I now prefer riding bareback to riding in a saddle. Believe it or not, it’s way easier to bail off the side of the horse in a sticky situation if you don’t have to drop your stirrups first. I actually feel more secure with less gear.

Second, my seat has improved dramatically. I can now sit a trot, no problem. Both my mule and my Belgian cross are big horses, 16.2 and 16.1 respectively. They don’t have little quarter horse jogs. They have big, floaty trots. I can ride it though! I do notice that my sitting trot will be less pretty when by body is tired after a long ride, but it’s still vastly improved over how it used to be. I find that I don’t TRY to sit the trot; it just comes naturally.

Third, I’ve found that I prefer riding one-handed. I know that I used to rely heavily on my reins for balance because I felt much more secure with both hands on the reins. Now I usually have one hand on the reins and one hand resting on my thigh. Something about having the one hand free makes it easier to balance, especially while cantering.

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One of my first rides on Olaf. He still had a lot of weight to gain.

Next, my body soreness issues have disappeared. I used to become severely uncomfortable in both my knees and back after riding in a saddle for short distances. After 4 or 5 miles, my low back would start aching, my toes would be falling asleep and my knees would hurt. In trail riding, 5 miles is nothing. That’s a warm up! But that’s all I could do comfortably before the pain would take the fun out of it.

People suggested lowering my stirrups, and I tried it, but it made very little difference. After about an hour, the back pain always got to the point where I wanted to get off my horse.

In 2017 I did an 18 mile competitive trail ride on my old mare. By the end of the 18 miles, I was in so much pain I could barely walk. My low back muscles were starting to spasm. This past weekend I rode for an hour and a half in my bareback pad set-up and my back and knees didn’t hurt AT ALL. My legs were sore, because that’s the longest I’ve gone bareback so far, but the knee and back pain were gone. It makes me think that maybe I could do some distance riding if I did it without stirrups!

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Olaf in his bareback pad before our ride this weekend. He’s looking a little chunkier these days.

Finally, my overall confidence in my riding ability has improved. I wouldn’t say I’m a timid rider by any means, but I used to have a lot of moments where I would think, “I’m not sure I can do this!” That would be while I was riding tricky terrain, riding at speed, or going past something that I was sure would spook my horse. I used to wonder pretty often if I was capable of the task at hand. I still have doubts about my abilities, and I still hope I don’t get dumped, but learning that I could walk, trot, canter and ride over tricky terrain, all while bareback, was a boost for my confidence.

I’ve heard many times that riding bareback over the long term will harm a horse’s back because there is no saddle tree to distribute the rider’s weight evenly. I know endurance riders who go 50 and 100 miles in treeless saddles and finish with sound horses, so they would beg to differ. I pay very close attention to my horses’ backs, and regularly check for soreness. So far, so good.

No Stirrup November is right around the corner and I would encourage anyone who is serious about becoming a better rider to ditch the saddle for at least a month. Going bareback has had a pretty amazing effect on my riding ability and my confidence. But beware, once you go bareback, you may not want to go back!

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “I rode bareback for a year and this is what happened…

    1. I was taught to ride bareback originally.
      As a child we used to have strip jumping lessons! First stirrups away. Then saddle away. Then reins in a knot on the neck so no hands. The game was to keep going higher like this. They used a jumping lane to steer us.
      I agree completely about being able to get off quickly when needed.
      I rode all paces including gallop and jumping bareback.
      I have ridden a full 8 hours and about 25 – 30 miles in a day. This included some jumping. The horse had an injury from a girth so I rode him bareback. We finished the day swimming in the sea. Fantastic!
      I have seen lots of saddle injuries to horses backs over the years, never one from bareback.
      One horse I used to ride was definitely always happier when I jumped on him bareback. Not least 10kg less to carry.
      I never used a pad just straight on.

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