Whether it’s to feel the freedom or experience the excitement of riding as one with your horse, sooner or later, many of us try riding bareback. Doing away with the layers of leather and piles of padding between us and the horse’s back can provide a heightened “feel” and new level of unison riding.
While most of us have jumped on a horse with nothing but a halter and lead rope and rode in from the pasture, true bareback riding is much more. Riding bareback helps you develop an independent seat, which means you don’t have to depend on your stirrups to keep you steady in the saddle. It means not having to grab the horn or mane every time your horse sidesteps or pops over a log. When you have a true independent seat you never have to hang onto the horse’s mouth or dig your heels into its sides to keep you from sliding around in the saddle. And a good way to achieve that is to learn how to not slide around without a saddle.
We’ve all seen those fortunate few who have a natural seat — their hips, seat bones and thighs seem to rotate and quickly, and they smoothly adapt to any change in the horse’s movements, while their upper bodies stay in line with the horse’s changing center of gravity. But that natural “flow” is something you can cultivate, and riding bareback can help.
Riding without stirrups and a saddle will immediately affect how you stay with your horse. With those props pulled out from under you, you’ll have to learn to depend on your balance. And with a little practice you can learn to ride in rhythm with you horse.
Riding bareback isn’t technically much different than riding in a saddle. The lower legs should be hanging soft and free, without gripping, ready to use as aids. But without the support of the stirrups that take can take a little getting used to.
A good way to start is to ride your horse saddled, but without stirrups. Have a friend longe the horse while you concentrate on being centered in your seat without depending on your stirrups. Close your eyes for a few seconds and feel the horse moving under you. It’s a good idea to practice a little in this controlled situation with your hands free and a friend at the end of the longe line.
Walk and trot, but don’t move into the canter until you feel confident at the slower gaits. Concentrate on keeping your seat and “rolling” your hips in motion with the horse. Once you’ve gained confidence try being longed without a saddle. When you feel fairly secure, try it on your own.
Experienced horsemen say wet saddle blankets — meaning doing a lot of riding — can cure many problems for both horse and rider. While riding bareback will improve your seat, you may not want it to be your jeans or breeches that get wet, so a bareback pad may encourage you to ride bareback more often. It also may make the horse less “slippery” and keep your jeans from getting caked with ground-in sweat and dirt.
Finding A Good Pad
We tried several pads from different manufacturers to try to determine what worked best for us. While pad selection is somewhat a matter of taste and budget, we learned a lot.
First, and foremost, we recommend against riding in a bareback pad with stirrups. While we tried a nice one that came with stirrups, we didn’t like using them. Because a bareback pad has no tree to keep the pad perched over the horse’s withers, stirrups may be not only a disadvantage, we feel they may be dangerous.
Not everyone rides with a perfectly balanced seat and if you tend to lean a little harder in one stirrup than the other, an unstructured bareback pad can start to slip in the direction of your drag. While most bareback pads have a handy leather or nylon loop “handle” where the pommel or horn normally is, it won’t do much to help you regain your seat if the pad is already sliding down the horse’s side.
All the pads we tried were well-made and easy to care for. But one thing we decided we liked early on was a good, secure way of attaching it. This was particularly true with pads made of more slippery materials. We rode some nicely made pads constructed of tough nylon material, but they tended to be a bit slippery.
Pads backed with felt fared better, gripping the horse’s back and absorbing sweat. The attractive Abetta pad from Action Company had a good felt backing. This pad has a core of closed-cell foam, which the manufacturer says won’t absorb water. It also came with a neoprene girth that buckled on securely. It had a good leather handle grip. However, it also came with Western stirrups, which we removed. It was a better pad without them. The good-looking Southwestern-style weave of the Abetta pad provided a comfortable seat.
But comfort isn’t the only criteria. Security was high on our list, and our testers really preferred the grip of a rough-out leather seat. The nicely contoured pad from Parelli Horse-Man-Ship not only gripped the rider, but also conformed comfortably to our horse’s back. This rough-out leather pad had standard saddle-like rigging that allowed it to be used with whatever girth you normally use on your horse. Unlike the other pads, this one can’t be washed: You’ve got to brush it to remove trail dust and horse sweat.
One notable exception to our lean toward leather was the comfortable synthetic pile pad from Toklat Originals. The deep down, cushy comfort of this Coolback orthopedic pile pad made you feel like you were riding on a sheepskin pad — and you feel more like you are sitting in it than just on it.
The unstructured core really lets you feel the motion of the horse’s back muscles through it. The double-thick web girth was simple to adjust, and it was surrounded by a sleeve of the pile fabric that extended all the way up the pad to under the buckle, which we liked. The completely washable girth could get tossed into the washing machine right along with the pad. This pad — and girth — came out of the washer and dryer soft and fluffy and ready to ride again.
The same easy care was true of the bareback pads from Best Friend Equine Supply. While the square-skirted Trail Pad model provided welcomed pockets to stash a compass, cold drink or sandwich — we believe cell phones should be attached to your body, not the horse’s — it didn’t conform to the horse’s curves as well as their trim Lady Godiva Bareback Pad model.
Both were lightweight and had just enough foam padding under your seat to help you stay out on the trail longer. Both attached with an unusual buckle and webbing arrangement that we had a hard time figuring out and a harder time getting tight enough to keep the pad from slipping around on the horse’s back. The manufacturer assured us instructions and a diagram are now being inserted in the pad packaging.
For quality and security, we liked the leather pad from Parelli Horse-Man-Ship best. This pad performed best among the ones we tested, but at $224, it’s certainly priced beyond many budg ets.
For comfort, simplicity, feel and ease of care the $52.50 Toklat Coolback pad is our Best Buy and our overall recommended pad.