10 Ways to Improve Your Western Riding

Last Updated on February 19, 2022 by Allison Price

Although western riding can seem effortless, it is hard work and skillful horsemanship that make it look that way. You can either hire a professional trainer or learn how to do it yourself. Here are some tips from Dana Panella, American Quarter Horse Association professional and trainer of the Mustangs, and TJ Clibborn, an Australian-born trainer.

Ways to Improve Your Western Riding

Eyes up

It’s common to hear the phrase “Look where your horse wants to go,” but how often do we actually do this? Although it may seem like commonplace advice, it has a lot of substance. Panella, a judge and trainer from Mukwonago (Wis.), says that looking down can cause you to lose your ride.Get our weekly Enewsletter about horses

“Keep your eyes up,” says Panella. Panella says that it helps you to see where you are going and also improves your balance which will help your horse. Your horse will travel more accurately if you are more accurate.

She mentions that horses are most likely to look at their riders when they ask for a lead, or when turning.

Exercise: To counter leaning, Panella recommends adding a little more weight to the outside stirrup. Panella also suggests keeping your eyes open. Your horse is under you. Feel what he’s doing and not look at him.

Take your legs with you

Clibborn, a Milton, Wis.-based natural horsemanship trainer, said that many of the riders he trains resort to using their hands to pull and control horses instead of using leg pressure to guide them.

Clibborn says that horses move away from pressure but riders want to balance their horses and drive straight from their bit. “There are many horses who are very heavy on their front ends because they cannot get off of their shoulders.”

Exercise When you improve your horsemanship, your horse should show a shift in his way of going.

These exercises will teach you how to use your leg more effectively and your hand less.

Clibborn places four to five barrels (or cones, if you don’t have barrels), at intervals of 15 feet and asks his horses to tell their horses to weave from a leg-yield. Your horse should take three to four steps past the barrel by extending your leg. Then, move to the left and continue with the leg-yield. This will train your horse to walk off your leg and not lean into the bit, dropping his shoulders.

To isolate the shoulder, do pivots at the walk. Begin by walking along the rail and ask for a 90-degree turn with your leg. Continue to walk along the rail, then ask for a 90-degree turn using your leg. After your horse has been consistently turning for the 90-degree turn, you can try 180-degree turns. After several lessons, request a 270 or 360.

Clibborn says, “You must slow down to achieve it.” Clibborn says that people want immediate results, but the horse tells them, “You have to slow down to get it.”

Reserve a Seat

Your muscles may be sore or tired, or your calves are exhausted, and you might need to get up. Horsemanship riders are often seated very upright, with arched backs. This position is not only uncomfortable for the rider but also annoying for the horse.

Panella suggests that you imagine sitting on your pants pockets and soaking the horse in your legs. Panella says, “But you don’t want to get so far back that you’re sitting on the cantle.”

Riders may also brace against the stirrups. Sit down, extend your stomach, bend your knees, and keep your heels low. Your leg will not function if your stirrups become too long or you drop your toes. Your stirrups should be too short and you’ll end up standing in the saddle.

Exercise: If you are guilty of arching your back, or just want to improve your balance and riding style, Panella suggests two English-riding techniques. Panella recommends riding in a 2-point position and trotting.

Two-point refers to a forward jumping position in which your seat is raised out of the saddle and your weight is in your heels. Although this exercise can be difficult, it is very beneficial for balance. Focus on creating a straight line between your ear and your shoulder, through the middle of your hip and to your back heel. Allow gravity to pull your heels down.

Posting is the act of a rider rising in the saddle to keep up with the horse’s stride while trotting. Riders in western disciplines like to post during training to help their horses move out. Panella’s students often post during training to improve their timing and balance, and to help the rider feel the horse’s legs move underneath them.

A good exercise for correcting your seat is to ride with no stirrups. Instead of letting your legs dangle, try to maintain a straight line from ear-to-heel. Place your hands on your hips, and bend your knees slightly. Relax your thighs. Do not lean forward or grip with your knees.

Ride Relaxed

Horses are able to take our energy from us, so why should we ride when we’re stressed? Clibborn states that the best way to have a bad riding experience is to not ride when you are stressed. He says, “You should be capable of riding your horse as if you were sitting in an armchair.” You should feel relaxed while riding. Tense people tend to be anxious. Horses will sense your tension if you are tense.

Give yourself enough time when you go to the barn to ride. Clibborn says, “You cannot be around horses and be in hurry.”

You might feel tension and be gripping the horse with your legs rather than hugging him. To give effective cues, you need to release the pressure. Your horse may be experiencing increased speed due to a stressed-out temperament.

Clibborn says, “I have a client who has a high-pressure job.” Her mind is racing. She’s ten times faster than the horse when she does a rising trot. You must slow down if you want your horse slow down. You must speed up if you want your horse speeding up. It’s as simple as that.

Clibborn recommends that riders practice four speeds at walking, three at trotting and two at canter to correct a racing mind. Simply think slow and slow. These things will help you slow down your horse or speed him up.

ExerciseTo encourage your horse and you to think, set up ground poles. Set the poles closer to your horse and slow down if you are going too fast.

Forget about the Fads

Fads often have more to do with style than substance. Panella states that a common trend is to ride your horse with your fingers open, not passing the reins through your fingertips. This shows how light the horse can be handled. This is dangerous if you are not a professional riding in enclosed spaces. It also makes it difficult to communicate with your horse.

Ride Your Horse

Every time you ride your horse, be a rider. Even if you are just going out on the trails, be attentive to your surroundings as well as your horse. Horses are flight animals and will fly away from a branch snapped by a tree. Engaging your horse will help you be a better rider.

Clibborn says that there are many mistakes people make when trail riding. They don’t realize that their horse can actually be ridden down the trail. Once the deer jumps, it’s too late. You’ll be safe on your horse if you are prepared for any situation.

Mix it up

Do you feel uncomfortable about removing the rail from your horse’s path? Your horse can become very unbalanced if you work on the rail. Panella states that you can easily sour your horse to the rail by giving him a change of scenery and a different exercise regimen.

She says, “It’s an entire safety net for many people, and they really get caught into that.”

You must control the horse from both the arena and trail if you want to leave the fence. Panella recommends working in the open field or entering the arena center to practice transitions, patterns, and poles. Give your horse a job.

Start at a walk when using poles. Look past the pole to the center. The horse should feel his body lift and walk over the pole. This will help you balance your horse and teach him to use his body to pick himself up. PVC ground poles should not be used. They can break if stepped on by horses.

You and your horse will also benefit from a change of scenery. Ride over and through obstacles instead of riding along a rail. Let your horse explore different terrain.

Get an extra set of eyes

Even if your horses are being built by yourself, it’s still worth having an extra pair of eyes. Install a video camera to record your equitation. Look at your leg position. Draw a straight line from your ear to your hip, shoulder and heel. Is it your posture when you ask for a lead? What are the positions of your hands and your chair? Give yourself an honest evaluation.

Make a Checklist

Even if you’re just going for a casual ride, there are things that you can do to improve your communication skills. Your horse and you will work more efficiently together if you are able to communicate well. Panella believes that a checklist is the best way to communicate with your horse and it’s what she does best.

“In your checklist, ask yourself, ‘How am I riding?'” says Panella. Panella says, “Am I looking ahead?” Do I feel my foot under me? Are you breathing? Have fun and enjoy it.

Combine it

Panella says that all the little things you do add up to a good ride. Panella says that a good rider is more than just a nice rider. The correct position will help you become a better rider. That’s what you should strive for.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!