Training, Showing and Learning to Ride a Horse

Learning to ride a horse the right way is an essential part of owning a horse and being able to enjoy the most of your time with your animal.

Training And Riding Your Horse

While learning to ride a horse, try to use the time to also become more acquainted with your animal.

Photo by Daniel Johnson

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Want to raise a healthy, happy horse, but don’t know where to begin? Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson provide an essential primer of horse ownership in How to Raise Horses (Voyageur Press, 2011), explaining things for beginner and veteran horse owners. This excerpt, which discusses many things a horse owner can do to become acquainted with his or her new horse, is from Chapter 8, “Enjoying Your Horse.”

Becoming Acquainted with Your Horse

There are many different things that you and your horse can do together so consider the possibilities and enjoy yourself. Whether you decide on trail riding, dressage, or attending breed shows, you’ll have a wonderful time as you explore these new opportunities and learn more about your horse in the process.

Learning to Ride a Horse

You may be thinking, “But I already know how to ride. I rode as a kid. I went to camp and rode horses and I only fell off once.” In that case, you may consider yourself already a proficient (or at least, a fairly proficient) rider.

However, as disappointing as it may be to hear, riding a couple of times as a child doesn’t really count as knowing how to ride. You may know how to sit on a horse and you may know the “cluck” to go and “whoa” to stop routine, but learning to ride properly takes time and education and, ideally, lessons.

Many riders want to ride for the fun of it; for the thrill of seeing the world from horseback and the enjoyment of hours spent in the saddle. They don’t really care whether their position is correct while doing so and don’t give much thought to sitting up straight and looking forward. Who cares where your hands are? It’s just supposed to be fun, right?

Correct riding position makes an effective rider, and the more effective you are as a rider, the better you and your horse will be able to communicate. The better you and your horse communicate, the more fun those trail rides and hours in the saddle will be.

Even if you don’t have aspirations to show, you might consider a few months of riding lessons just to give yourself the best start as you begin working with and riding your horse. A trainer can be an infinite help in working through any little difficult situation that might arise as you and your horse get to know each other while riding. Your own confidence can grow as you work and learn under the tutelage of an expert, and you will learn things about riding that may positively affect the time you spend enjoying your horse.

You can take lessons at a riding stable on the stable’s school horses, which can be an excellent way for a timid rider to begin. You can also trailer your own horse back and forth for lessons. Many riders prefer the latter situation, as they can utilize their own riding lessons as training sessions together with their horse. Or you can board your horse at the riding/boarding stable and have your horse conveniently accessible for every lesson you take.

In any case, the importance of proper instruction should not be underestimated. You are investing a great deal of time and effort into your horse and his care; so try to make the most of your riding experiences together by making sure that you have mastered the basics of riding and equitation.

Training Your Horse

Now that you have figured out what to do about learning to ride, you need to figure out what to do about any training that your horse might need. You might have purchased a horse that is already trained under saddle, as that is the most appropriate choice for a novice owner. But it’s also possible that your horse may need a little reminder course of training to polish him up and refresh his memory, especially if it has been a while since he was worked regularly. Perhaps you fell in love with a fabulous three-year-old mare with excellent conformation, a super pedigree, and a kind and gentle temperament, but not trained at all under saddle. In these cases, what’s a horse owner to do?

Training Your Horse Yourself

If you are a more experienced horse owner, training your horse yourself can be a fulfilling and rewarding challenge. After all, who knows your horse better than you do, and who better to undertake the task of training and educating him than you? If you decide to pursue training your own horse, you can benefit from the vast array of books, videos, and clinics available. The amount of information at  your fingertips is incredible, and the advice and insight from professional trainers can be invaluable as you begin training your own horse. Whether you’re starting fresh with a young, green horse or working on a tune-up with an older horse that has already undergone some training, you may find that doing your own training is a wonderful experience. Some horse owners feel that there is nothing more rewarding than going into the show ring with a horse that they have raised from birth, trained themselves, and now are ready to show off to the rest of the horse world.

Hiring a Professional Horse Trainer

Professional trainers can be a great choice for many horse owners. You may not feel comfortable starting a totally green horse under saddle or you might be working through some problems that you just can’t seem to fix. Or it could be that you just don’t have the time to devote to daily training sessions with your horse and you would like to maximize the time that you do have available to ride by simply riding, not by having issues with your still-a-little-green-and-spunky horse. In these cases you might seek the assistance of a professional trainer.

Finding a good trainer might be as easy as utilizing the resident trainer at the barn where you board. You might also ask for references from friends who have used different trainers in your area. You can visit different trainers in your area and ask questions about their methods, theories, and fees. Ask about horses that they have trained in the past. Are they competing in shows? Are they winning? An efficient and thorough trainer can get a lot of training accomplished on your horse in 90 days, yet you should be leery of trainers who promise miracles in minutes. Training takes time and repetition, and your green horse shouldn’t be walking, trotting, and cantering under saddle the first day. It takes many training sessions for a horse to learn the basics, and it’s more important to have the basics firmly established than it is to have a rushed training job. You might feel that the training is not progressing as fast as you think it should be, but you must remember that every horse is different. What one horse takes three weeks to learn, another understands in three days. There’s no predicting how your horse will respond to training until it has begun. Check in regularly with the trainer to see how things are going.

Showing Your Horse

If you’re like many horse owners, you’ll find the idea of showing to be an appealing one. There’s something exciting about loading up your horse into the trailer before dawn and heading off down the road to the nearest show. There’s the exhilaration of waiting for your class, the suspense of heading into the ring, the nail-biting moment when the judges have their eyes on you, and the hopeful anticipation of hearing your name announced over the loudspeaker as the winner! There are many opportunities for horse owners to show, so let’s take a look at some of the options. 

Breed Shows

For those who have purebred, registered horses, showing at a breed show can be a very enjoyable event. You’re only competing against those of the same breed and you have the advantage of showing under judges who have specific knowledge of the breed standard and rules for your particular breed. You don’t have to worry about taking your Connemara to an open show and having to show under a judge who breeds Arabians and doesn’t have any particular knowledge about Connemaras and their breed standard. Breed shows often have high point systems with year end and lifetime awards to increase the fun of competition and allow breeders to prove the quality of their breeding stock by accumulating these points and awards.

Depending on the popularity of your breed (and your location), you might have access to several sanctioned breed shows within close proximity of your farm, or you might have to drive for many hours (or days) to reach a competition strictly for your breed. Obviously, the more popular breeds will have more options for showing nationwide than a more unusual breed.

Breed shows usually offer good opportunities to campaign young horses due to the increased emphasis on breeding (halter) classes. Many breeders like to show yearlings or two-year-olds at halter for a season or two to get them accustomed to bathing, trailering, showing, and the hustle and bustle of the show ring while they are still at a young and impressionable age. Once they are old enough to start in performance, they already have good experience in showing and being accustomed to new situations.

Some breeds also offer classes for crossbred horses (such as for registered Half-Arabians or registered Half-Welsh) at their sanctioned breed shows, which expands the opportunities for showing. The drawback to these types of shows is that they can be somewhat expensive, especially if you must travel long distances to attend them, and thus incur additional expenses such as hotels, gas, and time away from work.

Local Open Shows

You wake up early on a Saturday morning, load your horse in the trailer, drive for 20 minutes, unload, warm up, show for three hours, load back up, and arrive back home by noon. Total time away from the farm: five hours. Total expenses: less than $50.

Local showing at open shows can be a fun and inexpensive way to have some fun showing your horse. Open shows are typically very inexpensive ($5 to $10 for an entry fee for a class), you don’t have to stay overnight, and you don’t have enormous gas bills. Most open shows offer a variety of classes to appeal to a wide cross-section of exhibitors, so you can show in everything from halter classes to showmanship, Western pleasure, English pleasure, hunter classes, driving classes, speed events, and more all in a single day.

In addition to the low cost of the open shows, you’ll also have the chance to meet many local horse people and make good contacts, which is great if you’re looking for another horse to buy or if you’re trying to sell one. It’s also very good if you’re trying to get started with a small breeding program. You can get your farm’s horses out and about for the public to see and begin to drum up interest in the type of horses you produce.

Even at the small shows, the competition may still be stiff. There are many people who strive for excellence, and just because it’s a local show doesn’t mean that the exhibitors aren’t serious about their horses and their showing.

One drawback to local open shows is that the judges aren’t always able to be totally knowledgeable about every breed or discipline, and might have preferences for or bias against a particular breed. This is just a part of showing at multi-breed and multi-discipline shows. Some judges will love your horse and others might not. That’s what keeps showing exciting and keeps exhibitors coming back for more.

Discipline-Related Shows

Discipline shows aren’t a breed show or an open show. They are specifically targeted for exhibitors and enthusiasts of a particular discipline. There are dressage shows, hunter-jumper shows, and driving events. Whatever your interest, there’s probably a show with classes strictly limited to the discipline. These shows offer a chance to exhibit in your specific area of interest or expertise. Again, because these are more specialized shows they offer a wider selection of classes in these specific areas with more options (divisions split by the age of the rider, size of the horse, or level of training) than open shows are able to do. These shows usually have highly trained judges with extensive knowledge of the particular discipline. As with breed shows, these shows can be somewhat more expensive and may require more driving time in order to reach them. There might not be an upper level dressage show right around the corner from your horse, but if showing dressage is your passion, then traveling to a special event might be well worth your time and effort.

Halter Classes

Many people thoroughly enjoy showing their horses in halter classes. They bathe, clip, polish, prepare, and strive to give their horse the best possible advantage when they step into the ring. Halter classes are the equine version of a beauty pageant, with the most beautiful, most correct, best conformed individuals standing at the head of the line, followed in successive order by the remainder of the class. Turnout and manners also count and you can invest a lot of time and effort in the preparations for showing your horse in a halter class, including lessons in standing for inspection and moving out in hand at the trot.

Other people find no interest in showing in halter and prefer to point their energy toward using their horse in performance classes and want to spend less time on primping and polishing than the halter enthusiasts.

Halter classes at breed shows are judged against the written breed standard, thereby comparing each individual to the entire standard of excellence and the judge’s mental picture of the ideal or perfect example of the breed. Conformation is also of vital importance, as the judge is looking for the most correct individual in the class.

Typical halter classes begin with walking the horse toward the judge, then trotting away and around the perimeter of the ring. The entrants line up and the judge begins the individual inspection of each entry. The horses may then be asked to move again to give the judge a second look at their movement. If the judge is trying to decide between two entrants, they may be asked to trot out again for the judge to have a final look.

The first- and second-place winners usually come back for a championship class later on to compete against the first- and second-place winners from each halter class of the day. The best two animals of this group are named the Champion and Reserve Champion of the show.

Halter classes are a great way to introduce a young horse to the sights and sounds of the show ring. By the time you’re ready to start showing him under saddle, he will have already had the opportunity to get used to the show routine of bathing, clipping, loading, and tying. Many horse owners use halter classes to begin early training with their yearlings and two-year-olds.

Many people also use halter classes as a way to market and advertise their breeding program. If Top Notch Stallion and Super Duper Mare produce A+ Show Champion, then it helps breeders when they have A+ Show Champion’s full sister for sale the next year. Show ring wins in halter help validate the quality of a breeding program. Producing consistent winners in the show ring under a variety of judges and competition illustrates that you are producing young stock that will win anywhere and for anyone. It also helps buyers to feel more comfortable buying a youngster if they know that he has already been shown and placed well under several judges. It shows that his conformation and type have been evaluated by expert professionals and deemed satisfactory.

Driving a Horse

Move over Chevy and Ford, many horse owners are returning to a more traditional form of driving: their horse. This doesn’t mean that horse owners are abandoning their cars, trucks, and SUVs and heading to the grocery store in their buggies. What it means is that interest in equestrian driving is increasing all the time, whether it’s enjoying a drive on the farm or participating in a driving show against stiff competition.

Driving can be, at its simplest, a horse hitched to a small cart. At its most impressive, it can be a four- or six-horse hitch pulling an enormous carriage or wagon. Other configurations are pairs (two horses, hitched side by side), tandems (two horses, one hitched in front of the other), and unicorns (three horses, with one in front and a pair behind). There are drivers who specialize in carriage driving, others who prefer pleasure driving, some who like draft driving, and drivers who specialize in fine harness or roadster driving.

The American Driving Society (ADS) was founded for the promotion of carriage driving. The organization’s website states that there are over 100 driving clubs across the United States, with over 60 of these being ADS-affiliated clubs. These clubs host driving events and competitions and bring together enthusiasts who share a passion for driving horses.

Also gaining in popularity are Combined Driving Events (CDEs), which are three-day competitions, similar to eventing, where the competition consists of driven dressage, marathon (cross-country), and obstacles (cones). These competitions are truly the test of a versatile driving animal and are fantastic events for exhibitors to enjoy.

Camping and Trail Riding With Your Horse

If you are fond of camping, it’s natural that you might consider the idea of taking your horse along on your wilderness excursions. Many people enjoy camping with their horses, trail riding through the woods, and experiencing the outdoors together. If your horse has a steady temperament and is good on trail rides near your home, he might be a good candidate for taking along on a camping trip.

You will want to make sure that you’re fully prepared before embarking on such a trip. Much like preparing for a show, you’ll want to be sure that you have everything with you that you might need. Unlike a show, you won’t be near any stores or other horse people in the event that you forget something vital. Make your list and check it twice because forgetting something important can really put a damper on your trip.

Safety is, of course, the most important thing for yourself and your horse. Make sure that he is securely tied at all times, introduce him ahead of time to any unusual sights and sounds that he might encounter on the trip, and be certain that he is up to-date on all of his vaccinations and dewormings before you go. Always take along his negative Coggins paper, as well as an interstate health certificate, if you are traveling out of state.

Bring along more than enough hay and grain, and it’s also wise to haul water from home so that your horse has the option of drinking the water that he is used to. If he’s at all reluctant to drink the water that is available out on the trail, such as in a stream, you might put some in a bucket and mix it with the water that you’ve brought from home to make the taste more familiar.

If camping overnight isn’t quite your cup of tea, you can still experience the great outdoors on a smaller basis by going for a trail ride. Trail riding can be a relaxing, enjoyable way to spend the day, and best of all, you’re back in your own bed at the end of the day.

The number one rule of trail riding (or camping) is that you should never go alone. You need another person along for safety reasons so don’t go without a friend. Besides, all of those hours walking along the wooded path will be much more interesting if you have someone to talk to. Horses are great at listening and great at secret keeping, but they are quite poor at keeping up their end of a conversation.

In addition to your friend, make sure that you bring along a cell phone. You don’t want to be caught in the wilderness somewhere without the ability to call for help if necessary. Bring along snacks and drinks for yourself and the tools to remove a horse shoe if necessary. Miles into the forest is not a great time to realize that your horse has lost a shoe, but the situation will be considerably less stressful if you have the tools needed to rectify it.

Be sure to bring along plenty of first-aid equipment. In the event that your horse encounters any sort of scrape or cut while out on the trail, you’ll want to be able to fix it up immediately. Also stick a roll of duct tape in your saddle bag. You will be amazed at the multitude of uses you will find for duct tape.

Horse Dressage

For many people, the word “dressage” conjures up images of the Olympic Games with fabulous riders and phenomenal Warmbloods completing their dressage tests in the magical Olympic setting. This is undeniably one of the pinnacles of dressage competition, but it does not mean that the discipline is inaccessible to the average rider with an average horse. Dressage, in French, means training. Dressage is the foundation for all other types of riding because it emphasizes the fundamental basics of balance and suppleness that are necessary for all types of equestrian sports.

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) boasts over 30,000 members, which illustrates the great interest and support that dressage has among equestrians. This is due in part to the fact that dressage training can benefit any horse at any stage of training, from a green horse all the way up to a Grand Prix dressage champion. There are many competitions across the country where you can compete in dressage tests, from simple schooling shows all the way up to major dressage events.

A well-trained, upper-level dressage horse is a beautiful sight to behold. The intense level of communication between horse and rider with the subtle, scarcely noticeable cues that prompt amazing displays of athleticism and talent. These are the reasons that dressage has long been a perennial favorite in the world of equestrian sports.

Finding a Horse Trailer

If you’re going to take part in all of these fun activities, you’re going to need a way to transport your horse. You can look into borrowing a trailer from a friend or renting one, but the convenience of owning your own trailer is an asset that many horse owners feel is a “must-have.” Even if showing is not your cup of tea, there will still be instances when you want to take your horse somewhere (to the national forest for a trail ride, to the vet for vaccinations, or to the breeding farm to be bred), and you will be glad to have your own trailer available to use whenever you want it.

Your choice of trailer will depend on what type of vehicle you will use to tow the trailer. Horse trailers come in two varieties: goose-neck and bumper hitch. Your vehicle’s hitch will determine which type of trailer it can pull. Goose-neck trailers can only be towed with a pickup truck, whereas a bumper hitch can be pulled by a variety of tow vehicles. There are additional options such as aluminum or steel, straight load or slant load, and step-up or ramp. You will have to decide whether you want to spring for the extra amenities of a tack room and/or living quarters or if a simpler model will suffice. If you have only one horse, there’s certainly no need for you to run out and purchase a four-horse trailer when a smaller model will be sufficient for your needs.

If you decide to purchase a brand-new trailer, you will want to get a good idea of the options available before making your choice. Spend some time browsing the websites of trailer manufacturers or visit trailer dealers and examine several different models so that you can judiciously choose the one that best suits your needs.

Used trailers are widely available. Horse owners are constantly upgrading their equipment, so there are many options to choose from if you are considering a used trailer. Ask around at the local riding and boarding stables or watch the ads in the newspaper. Some dealers who sell new trailers also deal with used and you may be able to get a good bargain on a lightly used model. Be sure to thoroughly evaluate the condition of any used trailer that you purchase, including checking underneath the mats to examine the floorboards, looking for rust, and checking the condition of the tires.

Once you’ve purchased a trailer, you will need to perform regular maintenance to ensure that the trailer stays in good condition and is safe for travel and for your horses. You will want to regularly inspect the hitch, check the air in your tires, and inspect the floorboards. It’s wise to check your brake and signal lights before each use. A few moments to double check everything will save you trouble later on. It is best to have a place to keep the trailer indoors. Protection from the elements will certainly keep your trailer in better condition than if it is left outside in the rain, sleet, and hot sun.

Want to learn more about buying, riding and raising horses? Try these other articles:

Buying Your First Horse
Choosing a Horse That’s Right for You


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Horses: Everything You Need to Know, by Samantha Johnson and Daniel Johnson, and published by Voyageur Press, 2013.