Pony 101: Riding for Non-Riders
Updated: Feb 27, 2021
Hello Hello Beautiful Fox Folx!
How ya doing? I’m happy to report I am ½ through getting my Covid-19 Vaccine and I couldn’t be happier. Who would have thought that getting a vaccine would move me to tears of joy?
Anyway, are ya ready for the next installment of #Pony101, aka, where I #NerdItUp about all things equine and offer a quick reference for all y’all putting horses into your stories. You can check out the first installment here: Pony 101: Travel & Movement. Today, I’m focusing on the riding aspect, because hoooo-boy do I have a lot to say about riding in books, movies, and just in general to people who have NEVER ridden in their life.
So mount up folx, here we go.
*pulls out soapbox*
RIDING IS HARD. IT IS NOT *JUST SITTING THERE*
*puts soapbox away*
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people say this to me and it burns my bacon every time….wait, wait. Sorry. I said I put my soapbox away. *kicks it further into the dark recesses of the cabinet*
Real talk though--riding is difficult and it requires a lot of fitness on the part of the rider for anything more casual than riding an extremely well trailed mule through the grand canyon. Rider fitness has a cardiovascular component as well as a muscle component. The main muscles that are affected are: core/abs, thighs, and back. Depending on how handsy you are (or if you have a death grip on the horse's mane), you might also have upper arm/shoulder fatigue.
As a semi-upper level rider, I rode one horse, 5-6 times a week, for 45 min to 1.15 hours. Most of that was spent at the trot (generally the most tiring of gaits), then the canter, and the least amount of time was spent at the walk. It took me several weeks to build up my fitness. When I was at peak fitness, I was also going to the gym for an hour everyday, as well as doing an intense core workout video in addition to riding. My riding instructor rode five-ten horses a day and also regularly went to the gym and she was insanely fit. I struggled if I had to ride more than one horse a day. Basically, the take away here is that it takes a lot more effort than it looks. (Which is the point, the point of riding well is to make it *look* like you're not doing things)
So, as you write, some things to keep in mind are:
How often does your character ride? Because even with my comfort level and fitness level, I was exhausted after spending more than 2 hours in the saddle. If your protagonist is going to ride all day and they usually only do light hacks through the park, they're going to be tired and sore, no matter if they're an experienced rider or not. (I once attended a clinic/video filming that required us to be mounted all day and oh, boy was I sore afterward and this was me at peak fitness!)
What type of riding are they doing? Riding for fun & sport? Cavalry? Pony Express? This will dictate how long they spend in the saddle as well as how skilled they need to be.
What type of horse are they riding? If they're riding a bigger, drafty warhorse, that's going to be different than riding a narrow light riding horse. Think of it as the difference between straddling a HUGE barrel and sitting on a chair backwards--the bigger the horse, the more open you need to be through your hips.
Terrain and obstacles. If they're just cruising down a main road, it's probably pretty easy. If your rider is needing to navigate up & down hills, steer around trees or jump over obstacles, this is all more strenuous and tiring. (I'll talk about the scene from The Man From Snowy River in a future blog--but this rider is galloping down an almost vertical slope--super hard on both horse and rider)
What else are they doing? If your character has never ridden before, don't put them on a warhorse and send them into battle--they don't have the capacity to steer and use a weapon. The more complicated things you do on horseback, the less other *non* riding things you can do at the same time. Most riders can talk to friends when they're trail riding or just moving forward, but if they are doing something specific, like jumping or navigating obstacles, their focus is on their horse. They aren't going to be doing anything else unless riding is second nature and they're very comfortable with it.
Keep all of those things as mind as your character moves through the story and think of the ways they may or may not be affected by riding. Which brings me to my second point:
Learning to Ride:
If you’re familiar with the #BeanDad discourse, you know that just throwing a person at a horse’s back and saying FiGuRe It OuT! ExPlOrE tHe MeChAnICs oF tHe HoRse! Is the worst possible teaching method. Although to be honest, because I had a horse, but no horse experts in my life, my own education at first was very much trial and error and it was NOT fun. I read a lot of books, watched a lot of movies with horses in them, but I didn’t start taking lessons until I went to college, nearly 8 years into my horse ownership.
However, I can give you magic formula for being able to ride. Are you ready? Follow this advice and you'll be winning gold medals in no time: All you need to know to ride is that you must have the shoulders of a queen and the hips of a sex worker. That’s it. You are now a successful rider. Have a great life.
Fine, fine, I’ll give you better tips that will be more useful for writing.
Writers LOVE to throw non-riders onto a horse and have them flee at top speeds to safety. Which while wildly entertaining, is quite possibly the farthest thing from the truth. The classical school of riding insists that you spend years being a passenger before you actually get to influence the horse and give commands. In an ideal world, this would be how everyone learns. The Spanish Riding school does this (check them out, they are super cool and will be a focus of a future blog--in the meantime, once the pandemic ends, if you ever have a chance to see the Royal Lippizaners perform, DO IT. It is fantabulous).
If you want to write a book where your protagonist *learns* how to ride, take some lessons yourself, or read Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst, which does a GREAT job with horse accuracy and gets a gold star from me. The MC is taught how to ride by her LI and it’s fantastic.
In the world of books & movies, this is an area where I mostly just suspend my belief because it’s FANTASTIC POW POW AWESOME ACTION so I’m just like cool, they have never been on a horse, now they ride like a pro. But it won't hurt to dig into some of the basic problems your newly minted rider might be facing.
Balance! This is a huge thing. Keeping your balance on horseback is the key to everything. You need to keep your body weight centered over the horse’s center of gravity, which shifts as the horse picks up speed (this is why jockeys are hovering above and slightly in front of the saddle). They also need to keep side to side balance so they don’t just fall off the side. Horses' manes are GREAT for balance. Have your character wrap their hands around those silky locks to help keep them steady. (Take a look back at the GIF of the rider galloping down the hill--he is practically laying straight back in order to maintain balance)
Sitting up straight! When presented with an unknown situation or physical experience, the human tendency is to adopt the fetal position. Curling up on a horse is A REALLY BAD IDEA and is a quick way to end up on the ground. Even if your rider is laying low against the neck, their posture is still excellent! They aren’t just slumped over (unless they are like super injured and in that case: SUSPENSION OF BELIEF is the only thing keeping that rider on the horse)
Steering! Okay, there are two basic ways a rider steers a horse--with the reins, or with their weight and legs. Ideally, its a combination of both.
First up, the reins. Reins are attached to a bit that is held in the horses mouth by the bridle. Bits use pressure and leverage to give the rider the ability to guide the horse left, right, and to control the rate of speed. This is the 101 version so I'm not going to do a deep dive here. But here are a few basics. You can either direct rein or neck rein (or a combination of the two). Direct rein means that if you want to turn left, you pull back on the left rein, directing the horse's head in that direction. Neck reining means you press the rein against the neck and the horse moves away from that pressure. So to turn right, you would press the left rein against the neck. Most horses have a combination of both in their training. In general, horses trained in the english disciplines are trained to direct rein and horses in the western disciplines are trained to neck rein. (There will be a future blog that will be solely on bits, reins, and hands...#HorseNerd)
Please don't: Flap your reins, slap your reins, or snap your reins. These are all silly, theatrical things that probably drive horses crazy, but it makes the audience think "oooh, this is exciting!" *eyeroll*
Weight & Legs. Again, keeping it basic here, so if you were showing up for your first riding lesson, your instructor would tell you the following. If you want to turn left, pull on your left rein and then push with your right leg (calf). If you're turning right, pull on your left rein and then push with your left leg. Them's the basics. Please don't say that your character steered with their knees. This happens all the time in books and I'm always like, NO. your knees are only "on" the horse if that horse is bucking--its a safety measure to keep you on. Otherwise your knees should be loose and open and they do nothing to actually help with steering. There are much more complex ways of steering, which I am not going to get into, because PONY 101.
Kicking. *takes a deep breath* This one is complicated. yes, technically speaking you kick your horse to encourage forward movement. However, please don't do the exaggerated cowboy kick. Your horse says thank you. There are times when you have a stubborn horse and you have to do this kick, but in general it's another cheap theatrical tactic that I wish would die a quick, fiery death in movies and tv. A nudge, a tap with the heels, a squeeze...that's all it takes to get most horses to move forward. And on that note, if you're horse is already galloping for its life as you flee from the enemy, don't keep kicking it. It's not doing any good. You look like a goof and your horse is like I'M GOING I'M GOING I'M GOING PLZ STOP.
Voices! Horses are masters at interpreting your tone of voice and, with training, understanding voice commands. In dressage, you're not allowed to use your voice--its a 2 point penalty each time you do. Your characters can kiss to their horses or cluck to them to encourage forward movement. My horses were all trained that cluck meant trot and kiss meant canter. It was totally a cheater way to get from gait to another and depending on the loudness and exuberance of each noise, my horse would respond accordingly. If you go to a horse show and hang out on the rail for any length of time, you'll hear every spectator kissing and clucking to encourage their rider in the ring (lifetime horse people are known to cluck at people in grocery stores or at traffic as they drive, we can't help it). So anyway, have your character talk to their horse. Have them lean forward and whisper to go faster (not to be a total #NERD but every time I galloped my horse I would lean forward and whisper "Noro lim, Asfaloth, noro lim!" and it totally made us go faster. I also replaced Asfaloth with the name of my horse, just to be clear)
Other Tips & Tricks:
If your character has to spend the day in the saddle and they have no riding experience, they will do best at the walk or canter. Please don't have them trot. They'll have fallen off a gazillion times and it won't be pretty. I know what you're thinking, the canter is faster! True, but its a comfortable 3 beat gait that as long as you sit upright, it's pretty easy to maintain your balance. So have your character lurch back, scramble for balance and then breath and they can settle into the canter.
Also, they're gonna be so sore the next day. Like, imagine if you decided you were going to start doing squats as your exercise and you've never done squats before so on day one you do like 200 INTENSE squats. The next day you'll have so many regrets. That is what a rider who has never ridden before will feel like if they have to do more than walking for an hour or two. Your inner thighs & abs are gonna burn. Your back is gonna ache. If they just spend the day walking, they will be sore, but it will be more manageable.
Depending on clothing, your character may or may not have chaffing/open sores. I have never known anyone to get sores on the inside of their thighs--although this seems to be a super popular book riding problem (I mean, I guess it could happen? but I always question this). Without gloves, your hands will be a bit raw until you build up those callouses. Sores at the ankle, mid calf, or knee are common depending on the style of boots your character is riding in and how regularly they ride. There's a reason riders wear the clothing they do--fitted clothes don't rub as much. So if your character is wearing loose fitting clothes, chances are there will be more chaffing. Also--if you have characters with breasts, this could be an issue. The larger the boobs, the more they're going to jostle when riding--so if your character doesn't have a REALLY GOOD sports bra, this is going to be uncomfortable fast.
Riding double. Okay, I cringe every time this happens in a story. EVERY. TIME. Riding double is not comfortable for the riders or for the horse. Someone is either in front of or behind the saddle--not comfy. And this means you're either riding on the horse's neck or behind his rib cage. Either way, there is no structural support there for bearing a rider's weight. Walking or canter has to happen if you're riding double. Please don't make that poor horse trot. I don't even care how difficult it would be for the humans--I am just cringing thinking of that poor thing's back. Walking is really the only *decent* solution. If your characters must romantically ride double and flee on horseback, that horse can not travel as far with that extra weight and being forced out of balance.
The same applies to dead weight extra passengers. Humans thrown over a horse's withers like a sack of grain are going to slow that animal down for the same reasons--this is also very uncomfortable for the horse (and for the person, you have a pommel in your gut and your face is smashed against the horse's shoulder. ugh). I mean if your character is in this position, they aren't there to be comfortable--but just think about how it's going to affect the horse's ability to travel and how it will affect the rider, physically and mentally.
As the "experienced" rider in either of these situations, your job is to steer the horse AND make sure the other rider doesn't fall off. So with a rider behind you, they can hold onto your waist. If the rider is in front of you, you've gotta have one hand on them.
Recommended Reading: The USPC Manual of Horsemanship: Basics for Beginners. All of the United States Pony Club manuals are great resources & are written to be easily understood and have lots of pictures and illustrations.
Okay, there is SO MUCH I have not covered. And these will be topics of future blogs. Including:
Driving & Carriages
Tack & Equipment
Appointments (the crazy word we use to name the ridiculous outfits we wear)
Colours & Breeds
Fighting While Riding
Navigating Obstacles while riding
AND MORE! (I have a lot of #HorseNerd to share)
This installment was a bit harder to write as it was hard to narrow it down to the really bare bone essentials. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via Twitter! Remember, this is a very basic overview to help non-riders get their bearings when including horses in their writing. The reality is a lot more complex than this, but you probably don't need all the nitty gritty details for the three sentences in your story that happen to be horse-adjacent