One of the best ways to learn how your horse really moves underneath you is by feeling it - by riding bareback! Pat Parelli and GaWaNi Pony Boy are two of the many famous horse professionals that recognize the important benefits of bareback riding. And it is fun, too! It can help you develop better balance, self-control, timing, and muscles, in all parts of your body. And you will certainly develop an excellent feel for your horse. A bareback pad is not the best way to get the feel, but if your horse's back is really slippery or too bony at the withers, you may want to use one for the first time or two until you get the hang of it. If you use a bareback pad, use one WITHOUT stirrups. Stirrups on a bareback pad are quite useless and dangerous because the bareback pad has no tree for stability and can easily slide around the horse. and so will you! Also, for safety, always wear your helmet while mounted.
If you have never ridden bareback before, pick a day when your horse is relaxed and not full of himself to try it. If your horse is not trustworthy, get him properly trained first before trying this. If he is not safe to ride under saddle, he will not be safe without a saddle either. Use good judgment.
When your horse is standing still (get a friend to hold your horse), start out with some stretching exercises while you are mounted. See how far you can reach a hand toward your horse's ears without letting your legs move back. Do the other hand, then both hands. Then see how far back toward the tail you can reach without letting your legs move forward. Touch your right hand to your left knee, and to your left foot if you can; then touch your left hand to your right knee and right foot.
Are you ready to go somewhere? Ask your friend to lead you so you can get comfortable at the walk. Hold some mane at first if you don't feel secure. Listen to your horse's footfall and feel his rib cage swinging from side to side beneath you. Rest your hands on your thighs and feel your knees and lower legs moving with him. Watch his head bob and feel his shoulders bulge and flatten with each stride. Pay attention to your own shoulders, head and neck, and just relax. Look where you are going as much as possible and not at your horse so you can get the feel.
As your friend leads you, put your hands on your hips and feel how they move as the horse takes each step. Ride up and down a gentle slope and then, if your friend is still willing, try some steeper hills! Practice adjusting your seat when you start to slide backward or forward. Hold onto the mane or steady yourself on the withers if needed. Close your eyes and feel the rhythm while you listen to the clip-clop. Can you tell when each foot is striking the ground? Ask your friend to lead you in straight lines, circles, figure eights and serpentines while you close your eyes and feel the horse as he turns.
Practice dismounting by doing an emergency dismount. Do it at a standstill, to both sides, and then at a walk, too. When you have a pretty good feel of how your horse moves in all these ways, try riding on your own at the walk. When you feel ready to trot, let your friend lead you for a few tries. Go s-l-o-w-l-y at first so it is smoother until you get used to it. Try posting to the horse's rhythm (use those muscles!) Don't use your reins for support - use the withers or mane to steady yourself. Get the feel for using your legs and your balance and not your hands.
When you can stay balanced and confident, try trotting without being led. Practice this a little bit every day and in no time it will be easy. Then you can try the canter. All of this will make you a better rider in the saddle, whatever type you straddle. Soon you will be riding your horse in bareback from the pasture. Remember to bring along your helmet!