Winter Is Here So I Ditched My Saddle

Crazy? Probably a little. It's the winter darkness, I tell ya!
Winter has come to Pennsylvania and I am NOT a happy camper!

While I initially had hopes for a fairly mild December, below-freezing temps are already upon us most nights, and the footing at our farm has become just about unrideable in our jump field and the "Back 40" where we school flatwork. It's not too bad at the top of the hill, but the top of the hill is also covered in corn stubble, which is just about impossible to ride in unless you are very particular about staying in a perfectly straight line between the rows. Circles are not recommended.

The footing in all of our usual spots has begun rotating between being frozen, horrifically muddy and full of puddles, or mostly frozen with a thin layer of slick mud on top. Jumping is DEFINITELY out and the possibility of flatwork is questionable most days. The only sure thing for us this time of year is lots of long walks.

It's delightful.

But it's not yet in the teens with bone-chilling wind, and there is yet to be ice covering every exposed surface, so ride I must lest both Dino and I lose all of our fitness.

So, for the foreseeable future, it's going to be X-Treme Bareback Dressage for us.

X-Treme because it has to happen on varied terrain, up and down steep hills, pretty much wherever I can find a suitable patch of ground. Bareback because it's cold, ponies are warm and furry against one's bottom, and I may as well give myself a workout even if we can't ride very fast or do a lot of figures!

Monday afternoon marked the first proper X-Treme Bareback Dressage ride for us this season. Read: I used my regular snaffle bridle instead of a halter or western bridle and got on with the expectation of doing more than a ride that consisted of  90% walking, 10% trying not to fall off at a slow jog.

Armed with full seat britches and determination, Dino and I headed out to explore the quickly deteriorating conditions.

The footing around the farm was really not too bad for walk work. We moseyed around the yard, through some of the corn stubble, up and down the hill, and checked out my favorite spots just to be sure that they were totally unusable. (They were.)

I worked on creating a good connection as we walked around, feeling how my own core stability helped Dino find stability and straightness in his body. The more I held myself up and engaged my abs, the more Dino was able to use his topline. This is much easier to feel and assess bareback - It takes a lot more effort to really hold myself up instead of schlumping over, so I can feel a distinct difference between ALL SYSTEMS ENGAGED and... otherwise.

I also played around with the concept of keeping my thighs in a non-clamped position. In my lessons this year, my trainer has really helped me learn to take my thigh off my pony to allow him to go forward and quit unintentionally hitting the emergency brake.

D and his baby, Millie

Riding bareback, I finally, really understand why that's so!

It was really interesting and apparent to feel the way closed, clamping thighs inhibit Dino's movement. Gripping, clamping, squeezing thighs = hollow, tight-backed, slow pony. When I allowed my thighs to soften away from Dino, however, it felt like he suddenly grew new muscles where my legs had previously been pushing down on him.

The big muscles behind and to the side of his withers lifted up and filled the space under my upper legs, lifting them out and giving me a nice place to sit, and I could feel his entire back engaging underneath me.

So, THAT'S why I'm supposed to keep my thighs soft when I want him to go forward! Who knew?

I took this idea into the trot as well, and experimented with my leg position until I found what felt the most balanced and resulted in Dino moving the most round and freely. I got an excellent feel for it when we were going up the hills, because physics, and tried to get that 'uphill' feeling on flat ground as well. When I gave Dino the space he needed to lift his front end up and really use his back, it was also a lot easier for me to stay secure and centered on his back even though my legs were 'loose' and I never once felt like I was going to pop off or get unseated, even over undulating terrain and up and down hills.

We even worked on the canter, which always makes me anxious bareback because I'm afraid I'll pop off during the transition up or down. But I had ridden Dino's forward trot successfully and he was going so well that I HAD to make myself canter, too.

And it was great!

Dino stayed nice and round, I stayed centered with soft thighs, and we cantered around in front of his paddock for a few strides at a time before we ran out of room or I started gripping with my legs and accidentally engaged the e-brake.

So far, I'm loving all of the insights I'm gaining by riding bareback and I'm looking forward to getting even more confident without a saddle as the winter progresses. Perhaps I'll be able to do a full bareback canter lap around our (HUGE, HILLY) property by spring! MAYBE ALSO BRIDLELESS! Maybe that's the crazy talking, but working towards those insane things will only make me a better rider, even if I don't accomplish them.

I may not be able to do much 'real' riding, but I'm going to do my best to keep learning and improving through the winter in whatever way I can.

What are your winter plans?


  1. You may not think of it as 'real riding', but I'm sure you'll be blown away at how much stronger and balanced you are by the end of winter! I used to ride bareback at home all the time growing up and I think it contributed hugely to my balance. Plus, I think it really forces you to think about an independent hand, which is something I struggle with.

  2. This sounds like so much fun!! Also, I agree with Holly that this is totally "real" riding!

  3. ha i'm still too chicken shit to ride my horse bareback at all, let alone out in some wide open field on varied terrain (home boy trips wayyyy too often for that to sound at all enticing haha). so mad props, girl!!

    1. Well you do have a MUCH longer potential fall than I do! I don't think I'd be too keen on climbing aboard Charlie bareback at this point, either. My steed is very short, and very much dead broke, making this whole endeavor possible LOL. But mostly I'm just excited that I cantered without feeling like I was going to die!

  4. Sounds like the best use of your situation! So great for core strengthening and fun for both of you :)

  5. I jumped on Gina bareback last night, and it was so warm! But too pointy, so I'll be utilizing the squashy bareback pad in the future!

  6. Bareback riding is the best. My problem is that I know I will get stellar dressage rides bareback because I always sit nice and tall and use my seat/legs properly when I'm bareback. I don't know why, but I do. I need to be able to create this in the saddle, which means giving up the # of bareback rides I'd like to have in order to try to connect the dots of how/why I'm better bareback so that I can apply same concept in the saddle. I wish I could compete would be so much easier! Haha.

  7. My winter plans include staring out the window wishing I could ride. But then also happy to be inside snuggled with puppy because it is too damn cold outside


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