Like many things in life, horseback riding is not quite as easy as it looks. And like many things, there are a few newbie mistakes that will not only immediately brand you as a rookie, but more importantly, will thwart your efforts to effectively handle and safely enjoy your horse.

1) Holding the reins too tight.

Don’t: Your horse always tries to go faster than you want to, no matter how much you try to hold him back. The horse’s head is held high, his mouth is often open, and he won’t relax. He may be jigging, shaking his head, or trying to pull the reins out of your hand.

Do: Although it might seem counterintuitive to a beginning rider, you need to loosen the reins to allow your horse some relief from the bit, which will allow him to relax and lower his head, and likely slow him down.

The reins are intended as a communication device with your horse, not a manual brake. Ask your instructor or trainer how to cue with your reins and then release the pressure (or purchase a training DVD from a reputable clinician). If your horse still won’t behave, you may need a more beginner-friendly horse.

Consider a horse with a different temperament, a lower energy level, or more advanced training.

2) Legs too far forward and poor posture.

Don’t: Your mother was right: good posture is important! Sitting as if in a chair with your legs forward, slouching with your shoulders collapsed, or pushing hard into your stirrups (are they sticking out to the sides or relaxed next to your horse’s sides?) are all to be avoided.

Do: Riders are well balanced when the shoulders, hips, calves, and heels reflect a more vertical line.

Tip: Try rolling your pelvis forward to help position your legs farther to the rear. Take a deep breath and relax your lower back, hips, letting your legs drop naturally to the sides of your horse.

3) Letting your horse walk off while trying to mount.

Don’t: Never hop along the side of your horse with one foot in the stirrup while the animal is moving. Not only is it extremely dangerous to have one foot in the stirrup of a moving horse, but the tone you take mounting your horse is the very first introduction to your riding relationship with this animal.

Either your horse is testing you to determine what behavior he might be able to get away with, or he has never been trained to stand still when mounted. In either case, the situation must be corrected before moving on to riding.

Tip: You may be causing this problem yourself. Are you mounting quickly using the strength in your legs and arms–or pulling your horse off-balance with your weight as you awkwardly clamber aboard?

Do: There are almost as many techniques for training horses as there are cowgirls who ride them. When mounting, some prefer to bend the horse’s neck and head toward them as they mount, which makes it difficult for the horse to move. (Be sure your off-side rein is loose enough or your horse may start stepping backward.).

Others keep the closest rein relaxed and “hold” the horse stationary with the outside rein. Some simply keep both reins relaxed and insist the horse stay stationary with a strong verbal “whoa.” Most all agree that after mounting you should require your horse to remain still for varying periods to reinforce the lesson: “We don’t move until I say we move.”

Tip: Face the front of your horse, not his rear when mounting.

4) Not looking where you are going.

Don’t: Even experienced horsewomen sometimes forget to look where they’re going! When just learning to ride, there are many things to remember, but one critical component is to keep your head up and look where you want to go.

Focusing on your legs, your stirrups, whether the horse has the correct lead, or what’s on the ground all create subtle and not-so-subtle weight shifts (and other almost imperceptible but confusing messages) that will prevent you from skillfully controlling your horse and enjoying your ride.

Do: Look where you want to go! You’ll be amazed at how your horse will “know” where you want to get to, and how much more balanced and effortless riding will feel.

5) Letting your horse take advantage of you.


  • Your horse snatches bites of grass or other treats while trail riding.
  • Your horse rubs his head on you “affectionately.”
  • Your horse pushes you with his head or body, or nips at your fingers.
  • You sometimes have to move so your horse doesn’t step on you.

Do: All of the problems are a result of one issue: Your horse is not respecting you. For the grass-snatcher, jerk the reins sharply and then release until the horse responds and continue to do so every time he pulls toward some greenery. Trying to pull his head up with brute force only teaches him to brace against your hands.

The other problems are dominance exhibitions, a symptom that you need to be more assertive with your horse. Requiring horses to maintain physical boundaries with you is not only good horsemanship–it keeps you safe. These skills are best practiced out of the saddle, with proven horse handling techniques called “ground work,” Ask your trainer or explore the many horse training DVDs and educational shows by reputable clinicians.

(Originally published in the June/July 2013 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).