A Writer’s Guide to Horses VI

“Keep a leg on either side and your mind in the middle.”

I have no idea where the above originally comes from, but my mother used to say it to me when I was a kid learning to ride, so let’s attribute it to her. It’s the least I can do, in thanks for her putting up with a kid who had no talent for riding, and occasionally, a distinct lack of talent. Luckily for her, me, and the horses I’ve known, I mostly grew out of that.

I’m actually the last person who should teach anybody how to ride a horse, because it feels so natural to me nowadays that any in-person lesson would be punctuated with constant, frustrated exclamations of, “No, do it this way. What do you mean, you don’t already know how to do that? Doesn’t everyone?”

But I’ll try. Remember, I get kicked out of Horse Addicts Anonymous if I don’t pontificate about them (really good group of people; none of us actually wants to be cured).

So, when your horse is all saddled up, and you have on correct attire- long pants and sturdy boots with a heel are usually appropriate for casual riding- it’s time to get in the saddle.

FYI, the post image is from pixabay. I unfortunately don’t have any good pictures of me playing polo. Or if I do, none are handy at the time of writing.


Mounting up

First point of interest: That term is uncommon when talking to horse people. Normally, one ‘gets on’ a horse, and when finished riding, ‘gets off’. A writer might use the more correct ‘mount’ and dismount’ so the reader can understand what’s going on, but I’ve never heard a horse person use those terms when riding. Interestingly, the wonderful old gentleman who taught me carriage driving would mount and dismount from the carriage, and called it that in conversation. So it might be a regional thing, or a quirk specific to certain subsets of the horse world. I’ll probably use the terms interchangeably in this post.

To get on a horse, stand on the horse’s left, facing the saddle. Hold the reins in your left hand, put your left foot in the stirrup, and jump up, swinging your right leg over the horse’s butt once you’re high enough. Some people use a good grip on the saddle or horse’s mane to pull themselves up, but that can strain the horse’s back muscles, so it’s best to develop the strength needed to jump that high, or stand on a mounting block/large rock/bucket/whatever’s convenient. Or, if there’s another person nearby, ask for a leg up. Your helper will grasp your left leg below the knee as you face the saddle, then usually count to three and give you a boost as you jump from your right leg. It can be very undignified the first few times, as with lots of horse-related things, and if the helper helps too much, you can fall over the other side of the horse. Remember to catch yourself.

Some people are strong enough to vault onto a horse. I can’t do this, but I’ve seen people do it, and the person stands as though they’re going to mount normally, then gives a little bounce on their toes and jumps up, swinging their lower body to the right and upward while their head and shoulders stay fairly steady. Then they hook their right leg over the horse’s back and land in the saddle as normal. It’s a neat trick.

Small children can do as my mother did when she was about kindergarten age, and put a pile of hay in front of the horse’s nose. When the horse is eating, straddle its neck and encourage the horse to lift its head, then shimmy down its neck and onto its back. Only for very small children; a horse’s neck is strong but not that strong.

Another good trick- and this is truly a trick- is to come up behind the horse, put your hands on its butt, and leapfrog into the saddle. Don’t do this with a horse you don’t know, or with most ones you do; you’ll get kicked if you surprise the horse, and even if it’s expecting you, unsuccessfully bouncing off the horse’s butt isn’t likely to endear you to it, and if you are successful, you can land quite hard in the saddle. It’s mostly a trick used in old movies.

Let’s assume you took the usual route of left foot in the stirrup, jump, and swing your leg over. Try to land softly in the saddle, so as not to strain the horse’s back, then lean down and slip your foot into off-side (right) stirrup. Make sure you’re holding the reins throughout. The horse should stand still but if it doesn’t, you want to be able to pull back on the reins and make it stop.


Your position in the saddle

Getting on a horse is pretty universal. The horse should stand still, and the order of operations is the same no matter what saddle you’re using. Minor exception for sidesaddle riders, who usually mount normally, then instead of putting their right foot in the stirrup (there isn’t one) throw their right leg over the horn and adjust their position from there.

But your position can vary drastically based on the saddle, type of horse, and what discipline or subset of riding that you’re practicing. In general, the rider sits upright and level from side to side, with a straight vertical line from ear to shoulder to hip to heel. The rider’s feet should be level with the ground, or the heels slightly depressed. This helps to keep your feet from sliding through the stirrup and getting stuck. Some old-fashioned Western and Australian saddles have a leather covering over the front of the stirrup, called a tapadero, to prevent this, but they’re not allowed in the show ring and most modern riders don’t use them. Western and Australian riders tend to sit a little more relaxed in the saddle- some trainers advise sitting on your back pockets- and their feet tend to be slightly forward, due to the construction of the saddle. Sticking your feet out in front of you means ‘back up’ to a lot of Western horses, so the key here is ‘slightly forward’. Western and Australian riders hold the reins in their left hand, originally so they could rope cattle with their right. Going further back in history, knights would hold reins and shield in their left hand and a sword in their right. The reins are usually held so the right rein is between the thumb and index finger, and the left rein is between the index and middle finger. This gives the rider a bit of independent control over each rein. The rider also holds the reins more loosely than in other disciplines, that is, they don’t have any contact with the horse’s mouth unless they’re asking it to do something.

In the past, before about 1800, riders sat further back in the saddle, and often carried their legs further forward. This is a holdover from medieval knights, who braced against the high cantle of their saddles so as to absorb the impact of a joust on their lances. But it strains the horse’s back, so the style fell out of fashion, as can be seen from paintings.

Riders of the above disciplines sit deeper in the saddle than most other riders. This means they allow the saddle to carry their weight, instead of resting their weight in the stirrups. Sitting deep is a more secure position in general, and particularly for these types of horses (mostly Quarter Horses or similar breeds), because when they move quickly, they tend to sink lower to the ground and scramble. Other horses are more aerial, or need to be, in the case of hunters, jumpers, and polo horses, and the rider adjusts accordingly.

Riders using an English saddle sit a little more forward, with their legs well underneath them. This prepares the rider to rise slightly out of the saddle if the horse jumps over an obstacle- remember, a lot of English riding traditions were developed on the fox-hunting field. English riders hold one rein in each hand, between the ring and little fingers. If the bridle has two sets of reins, the rein lower on the bit is held between the ring and little fingers and the rein higher on the bit is held outside the little finger. The ends of the reins come up past all of the fingers and out the top of the rider’s hand- which is held nearly vertical- between the thumb and index finger. English stirrups are usually adjusted shorter than Western ones; most English riders like the bottom of the stirrup iron to bump their ankle bone when they let their legs fall naturally.

Saddleseat riders, like your hero of the antebellum South, sit further back in the saddle, with their legs thrust forward, and their hands a little higher. They hold the reins the same as an English rider, but because saddleseat horses- like Morgans, Saddlebreds, and Tennessee Walking Horses- have higher head carriage, the rider is obliged to hold his hands so his elbows are at a slightly acute angle. This allows a mostly straight line from the rider’s elbow to the bit, which is the strongest position. Other riders also seek that straight line from elbow to bit, but because their horses hold their heads lower, the rider’s hands are also lower, usually a couple inches above the horse’s neck, just in front of the saddle. Saddleseat stirrups are usually a little longer than English stirrups, so the rider’s legs can slide a little forward. These horses are usually ridden in a double bridle, which has two bits for better micro-control. The snaffle rein is held on the outside of the rider’s little finger, and the curb rein is held between the little and ring fingers, so the reins actually cross on their way from the horse’s mouth to the rider’s hands.

Polo players are weird. They sit forward in the saddle like English riders and hold their reins all in the left hand. Since a polo bridle has two sets of reins, this can be complicated. Some people hold all four of the reins together, but I prefer to separate each rein by a finger, starting with one rein on the outside of my little finger and going from there. This method gives more micro-control, while the all in one approach gives better macro-control (a good thing if the horse is prone to bolting). The mallet is held in the right hand, even if the rider is left-handed.

Sidesaddle is also an interesting case. In the past, sidesaddles were made to individual specifications, so riders had a certain amount of latitude in their position according to the saddle. But in general, a sidesaddle rider perches on top of the horse, facing forward, with her hips squarely on the horse’s back. She does not actually sit on the side of the horse; only her legs drape to the side. Her stirrup is shorter than most riders’, to take advantage of the leaping pommel, which is the lower horn on a modern sidesaddle. Her left leg should be tucked up underneath the leaping pommel, and her right leg should drape over the higher pommel. There is debate among sidesaddle riders about the position of the right foot; some people think the rider’s toe should be pointed up and others think it gives more security to have the toe pointed slightly downward. Presumably historical riders did what was comfortable for them. Since sidesaddles come in Western and English styles, the modern rider carries the reins according to which type she’s using. Holding them in two hands might have helped to keep her torso from twisting and therefore kept her more secure. But some paintings show riders holding their reins with only one hand, so, again, historical riders probably held the reins as they felt comfortable. Your medieval heroine will probably ride pillion, that is, sitting on a cushion on the horse’s butt, behind another rider who held the reins, with her legs to one side. Or she might use a saddle that looks rather like a chair placed sideways on the horse’s back, and have her horse led by a groom. These were rather inconvenient methods of riding, so medieval women also rode astride when they had to.



I’ve talked about basic verbal cues in earlier installments, but in case you missed them, the standard verbal cues for riding horses are whoa (pronounced ‘hoe’; it means ‘stop’, walk, trot, and canter. Some horses also know back up and move over.

As with all things horse-related, these animals are individuals, and some horses respond better to voice commands than others. To assist in cueing the horse, the rider uses ‘aids’, natural or artificial.

If you nudge or kick a horse’s sides with your heels, it will generally move forward. The harder the kick, the more rapid the horse’s departure, so don’t ever kick an unfamiliar horse unless it’s completely ignored your previous, gentler, commands. You’ll go flying in one direction or another when the horse takes off running or throws a buck of surprise. Spurs and whips are artificial aids used to make the horse move quickly. These are used with extreme care, as it’s possible to hurt the horse. Spurs are made of steel and if used too hard, can cut the horse’s sides. Whips can be made of leather or, in modern times, a fiberglass rod one to three feet long. Writers may choose to signal a villainous character by having him spur or whip his horse, particularly if he does it in anger.

To stop, pull equally on both reins. Again, the amount of pull depends on the horse and the tack it’s wearing. Some horses have very soft or light mouths, and only need a little pressure to stop them, others need more. A villain might yank on the reins so hard the horse throws its head up and opens its mouth to escape the pressure, while a sympathetic character uses very small movements of his hands to keep control. And bits vary in harshness. Most beginner riders start out with a jointed snaffle, which is traditionally used for English horses but can also be used for soft-mouthed horses of any type or discipline (during casual riding; the show ring has stricter requirements). A type of bit that’s been mentioned in the comments and was used in the Old West is the spade bit, which puts a lot of pressure on the roof of the horse’s mouth. Horses ridden in a spade bit didn’t necessarily have hard or tough mouths, but the rider had to have VERY soft or gentle hands, or he could do real harm to the horse. Most Western horses wear a curb bit, though, which is gentler but can still create a lot of leverage on the horse’s mouth. The most common curb bit is called a Tom Thumb. So, no matter the horse, don’t yank on the reins unless it’s an emergency and you need the horse to stop RIGHT NOW. Racehorses are a different case because they’re taught to lean into the rein pressure, so pulling harder on the reins tells a racehorse to go faster. Racehorses are halted by leaning back in the saddle.

Those are the basic commands. Different disciplines have variations on everything else. In particular, there is the difference between direct-rein and neck-rein. These are the means of turning the horse. If a rider holds the reins in both hands, he uses direct rein pressure; so, he pulls back on the left rein to make the horse turn left, and the right rein to make it turn right. The harder the pressure, the tighter the turn. The horse should bend its neck in the direction of the turn.

Neck reining is used by riders who hold the reins in one hand- Western, Australian, and polo. The rider gently moves his hand in the direction he wants to turn. This lays the rein against the horse’s neck, and the horse turns away from that pressure. The horse bends his neck in the direction of the turn, but not to such a degree as a direct reined horse. The rider also must be careful he’s not inadvertently pulling back on the outside rein; it’s confusing to the horse.

Riders can also use their leg to turn a horse. Since horses move away from pressure, a rider will press his calf into the horse’s side, and the horse should turn away. So, left leg pressure should produce rightward movement. A rider’s weight is also a cue. Many though not all horses will speed up when the rider leans forward, slow down when the rider leans back, and will turn away if the rider leans to one side or another. That last bit is slightly counterintuitive, but it helps the horse keep its balance.


What it feels like

Riding a horse can feel awkward or weird at first but most people get used to it quickly. The walk is the easiest gait to ride; the trot is usually rather bumpy because the horse’s feet fall in pairs so the impact isn’t as spread out; and the canter usually has a rolling feel like riding in a boat on small whitecaps. Just like riding in a car, you tend to shift forward when braking and backward when accelerating.

Riders hold on in different ways depending on the type of saddle, the horse’s gaits, and their personal preference. Most of a rider’s ability to stay in the saddle comes from their balance, and making minute changes of position as the horse moves. This takes practice, of course. The actual ‘holding on’ usually comes from the rider’s leg muscles. The first time you ride a horse, your inner thighs will hurt like hell. Beginner riders tend to be tense, and clamp their legs around the horse, which can convince the horse to go faster, and tires the rider quickly. More experienced riders can make rapid minute adjustments to their balance, and don’t have to hold on so hard.

Western riders in particular don’t hang on very much, unless the horse is doing some very athletic activity like working cattle. The saddle has a deep seat, which helps keep the rider in place. English saddles are flatter, so the rider wraps his legs around the horse, keeping most of his weight in the stirrups. Riders using English saddles also ‘post’ when the horse is trotting, that is, they rise and sit, never quite standing in the stirrups, in rhythm to the horse’s gait. This keeps the rider from bouncing out of the saddle, since English horses trot faster than Western horses, and the gait is more aerial. A Western horse jogs, which is a slower version of the trot- same pattern of footfalls- and it’s smoother for the rider.

Polo tends to be fairly libertarian about a lot of aspects of horsemanship. The focus is on the game, so riders develop a horsemanship style that suits them. Some riders balance their weight in their stirrups, some grip with their knees. The rider’s style can also be affected by the horse’s individual personality. UConn had- and probably still has- a horse who moved in such a way that the rider was required to ‘surf’ by balancing his weight all in the stirrups and never sitting down on the saddle. Princess was a very interesting horse to ride, for certain values of interesting, and it took a lot of leg strength to ride her effectively. On the opposite end of the spectrum of UConn polo horses is Madonna,  who will leap out from under her rider if the rider doesn’t sit down enough in the saddle. Or Tulsa, who feels trapped by too much rein pressure and actually stopped a national championship game a few years ago because she flatly refused to move after the rider had been applying too much pressure on the reins for too long.

Since polo players use English saddles, they also post to the trot. Some riders ‘post’ when the horse is cantering; they stand in the stirrups every other stride. Opinions differ on whether this is the correct way to ride, but as I said, polo is fairly libertarian when it comes to style.

Sidesaddle riders hold onto their horse very differently than any other rider. As previously mentioned, the modern sidesaddle is made with two pommels, one pointing up and the other pointing down. The rider hooks her right leg over the upper pommel at the knee, and can use that to hold on. But her real security comes from the leaping pommel, which is the lower one. Because she keeps her stirrups shorter than normal, the rider’s left leg is tucked up under this pommel, and by standing on her toe, she can force her left leg upward, gripping the two pommels between the top of her left thigh and the underside of her right knee. This is an extremely secure position, and necessary when the rider is doing something risky, because she has no way to wrap her legs around the horse, but it’s also tiring. Most sidesaddle riders use their sense of balance to stay in the saddle under normal circumstances, like other riders, and only hold on when the horse is moving irregularly.

Historical sidesaddle riders are another kettle of fish altogether. Many historical sidesaddles had no leaping pommel; it was invented around 1500 but only became widely used around 1800, and up to the 1860s, there were sidesaddles being made with no leaping pommel. So the rider could grip with her right knee, which was hooked over the upper pommel, but couldn’t get that same nutcracker grip with both legs that is allowed by the addition of the leaping pommel. If she tried, she’d start to turn sideways in the saddle, and loose all ability to control the horse. Modern sidesaddles can be almost too secure; it’s hard for the rider to dismount quickly in an emergency, but historical sidesaddles were worse, because the rider’s position was less secure in general, but when she needed to dismount, she was still stuck with her leg wrapped around the upper pommel. I’ve used this as a plot point, and seen it used by other writers to explain a character’s death- the character in question was riding in a parade when the horse shied and reared up, but since there was no way to dismount quickly, she was crushed when the horse lost its balance and fell over backwards. So there’s a reason women’s horses were very well-trained and docile.


Effects of riding

Riding a horse can take a toll on the human body. Characters in a horse culture are likely to have knee and hip problems, from constant outward articulation of the joints. They’ll also have extremely strong inner leg muscles (stop snickering, you in the back!) and a certain amount of core strength from keeping their balance. Personally, I have problems in my left shoulder because it’s my rein hand, and so that arm is slightly more extended than the right when I’m in the saddle. If the stirrups aren’t properly adjusted, I lose feeling in my toes on long rides. And my mother had to have her wedding ring reworked because it was bent slightly out of shape by holding the reins in that hand for so many years. Riders might also be, ya know, dead. Head injuries are a real danger; a rider’s head is 6-10 feet off the ground and a fall from that height can be lethal. Most battle helmets are useless at protecting against the sort of injury that comes with a fall, and even bicycle helmets don’t do much to slow down the process of stopping when the fall starts at such a height. Your knight in shining armor is in as much danger from falling off his horse as he is from human attacks, which is part of the reason historical saddles were made with a high pommel and cantle; it keeps the rider in place, like a modern Western saddle.

Handling horses from the ground can be nearly as dangerous. Horses can’t see in front of their noses, so your fingers appear as tasty carrots to them. If you startle a horse, it may kick out, and most horses are strong enough to break bones. They also can’t see their feet very well, so you might get stepped on. All of these seem awful, and can be if there’s no medical care, but they can also serve a purpose in your writing. Want a character to be out of commission for a while? Have a horse step on his toe. Want to show that a horse is bad-tempered? It can kick out at a person; even if it misses by a mile, the reader will understand that this is not a nice animal.

Scared yet? Don’t be. Horses are subject to their own set of injuries and illnesses, and I think that’s the next installment. Now I just have to write it.


  1. This is a great series of posts. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    One clarification on mounting…

    “Hold the reins in your left hand, put your left foot in the stirrup, and jump up, swinging your right leg over the horse’s butt once you’re high enough.”

    So, the spring is all in the right leg? As a male, how in the world do you jump that high and not land in a moment of intense glandular agony on a semi-regular basis?

    1. Most riders use both legs, pressing down on the ground with the right foot and on the stirrup with the left foot. Too much pressure on the stirrup can strain the horse’s back muscles, so riders are encouraged to develop as much strength as possible in their right leg. Some people also hold onto the horse’s mane for extra leverage. And to answer your second question, the rider only jumps as high as is necessary to get into the saddle. The stirrups are adjusted so he can’t be more than a few inches above the saddle, and most riders learn to carefully lower themselves into the saddle, using the strength in their left leg. This is also better for the horse’s back.

          1. I ❤ mounting blocks. Maneuver horse into place, step onto block, step onto horse, put feet into stirrups, proceed with step two.

            I learned "mount/dismount", and "emergency dismount" which was a controlled fall so you didn't break things. That's about the time i decided that I preferred riding smaller horses. Shorter distance to the ground.

    1. One of the requirements of Girl Scout horse camp was proper footwear, which meant boots with heels (to keep from sliding through the stirrups.) I think I had to use the lending boots, since mine had insufficient heels.

    1. I once met a wonderful pony that had learned a bit of a quirk, not intentionally taught but it made sense. Sometimes he was used for kiddie rides and thus learned “light weight… go boringly slow.” And sometimes adults rode for barrel racing so “heavier weight… I get to RUN!” Which meant that an adult seeking a slow ride might have some work to do. This pony also stood out as while he would eat some fruit or vegetable, he preferred grass or such and trying to give him sugar cubes or such got the equine version of “Styrofoam? I don’t eat styrofoam.”

  2. One command that only makes sense with a team (perhaps cart etc. is another post?) that I have heard is ‘swing’ – when the teamster (driver) wants the team to move sideways but NOT (significantly) forward. Which way, being indicated by rein.

  3. Could we persuade you to discuss riding bareback or on a blanket?

    Once upon a time the female writer friend of a friend wished that someone would write a sensible story of a stfnal culture in which it was the men who rode side-saddle. I included this in my next novel, a habit supported by the custom of wearing kilts.

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