No Saddle? No Problem

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Remember when you were a kid and hopped on your pony bareback? Even if you never had a pony, we'll bet you hopped on your pony bareback in your mind.

Maybe you want to get "back to nature" and feel that oneness with your horse, so you're considering riding bareback. Or perhaps you only have a few minutes to ride and dragging your saddle out is just one chore too many. For lots of reasons, you may be tempted to take a bareback ride.

As much fun as it can be, riding bareback can also be slippery or uncomfortable. That's where a good bareback pad comes in handy. When we go shopping for a pad, we want one that's padded enough to give us some protection, has a non-slip surface so we're not fighting the pad and is something easy to take care of.

With that in mind, we looked at the various styles available in bareback pads, and we scanned the market for individual features that we'd look for when we go shopping.

Bareback Preferences

  • Non-slip fabric.
  • A secure cinch that's easy to adjust.
  • Easy care outer material.
  • Enough cushion, but without bulk.
  • No stirrups.

Cinching Up
Even though our comfort rates high, being able to girth up the pad properly rates higher. Saddles have an advantage when it comes to staying on the horse. Their tree straddles the horse's "backbone," which helps prevent the saddle from slipping. Not so the bareback pad, which can slide around on a horse's back almost as easily as a horse blanket does.

We'd like a girth that's not too thin, as thin web girths roll more easily and are more likely to cause irritation to the horse. With wider material, pressure is distributed over a larger area.

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We also found that we preferred cinches that fasten with a traditional belt-buckle type of closure. The cinches that used a tooth-style buckle that required threading the cinch through them weren't as easy to close or adjust, though they have an advantage in that they don't require cinching up to a preset hole.

Just as the girth on your saddle gets loose once the horse starts working, the girth on a bareback pad can do the same. Getting off and on to tighten the girth is inconvenient. So it's ideal if we can to tighten the girth from on top of the horse, though that's not mandatory.

No Stirrups
Despite the difficulty of mounting without stirrups, we strongly prefer bareback pads without stirrups. In fact, we think that using stirrups with a bareback pad is inherently unsafe. That's because a pad is much more likely to slip than a saddle is, and you can't avoid putting excess weight in one stirrup if the horse makes a sudden move.

Handhold
Though we wouldn't "grab leather" if we were riding in a saddle, the availability of a handhold at the withers is convenient. It allows you to hang up the pad, which is helpful when you're drying it after washing it. And if you're working on getting a deeper seat, you can occasionally hold the handle while you reposition yourself.

Tips for Riding Bareback

Riding bareback has its plusses and drawbacks. If you're new to bareback riding, here are a few tips.

Ride first in an enclosed area with good footing. An arena is ideal. It will take some practice to learn to move with the horse, rather than bracing against him.

Sit on your bottom, letting your shoulders relax and your legs hang. Most bareback riders get into the habit of tensing their shoulders up and gripping with their legs. That causes the rider to tip forward and lose balance more easily. Since one goal of riding bareback is to learn to move better with the horse, relax and go with the flow.

Stick to a walk and jog and only ride for a few minutes the first day, unless you are a kid. Kids seem to be able to go all day without getting too sore, but you'll be amazed at how stretched out your legs feel after a 20-minute ride.

Washability
Let's face it, you're going to have sweat and hair on the bottom of the pad. You have to find a way to keep it clean, so it doesn't get crusty and irritate your horse's back. While we don't require that a pad be machine washable, materials like felt don't clean up as easily as fleece or foam.

Comfort Ride
Though even the thinnest pad can protect our seat from the horse's sweat, we'd like protection that offers us comfort, too. So we appreciate pads that cushion the ride, without being too bulky.

Personal preference is a big deal here. We tried out a number of pads in the course of determining what preferences were most important. Some of our riders preferred foam material, while others thought it was too hot. Some preferred fleece, while others thought it was too bulky. A lot depends on whether you're riding

in jeans or shorts, and the shape of your horse's back. Don't forget that a pad helps cushion the horse's back from the rider, too. When the rider is more comfortable, she'll naturally sit quieter.

When you start shopping for bareback pads, you'll find lots of patterns and styles to choose from. You can go high-tech or soft and fuzzy. And given our guidelines, you'll have no trouble finding a pad that suits you, your horse and your budget.