How to Guide to Getting Started in Horseback Riding

Learning to ride a horse is an amazing hobby, and one that can be enjoyed or even started at any age, and enjoyed for a lifetime.   It’s an amazing sport that helps to boost responsibility, hard work and self-confidence.  When you don’t know much about horses, becoming an equestrian can be quite an intimidating process, due to lack of understanding as to whats involved.  Making the wrong choices early on can lead to bad experiences so it’s really important to get as much information as you can, speak to the right professionals and do your research.  We’ve assembled this guide to help you learn about everything you need to know to start yourself or your child in horseback riding from farms, trainers, equipment, safety and more.

Getting Started in the Sport of Horseback Riding

Who can horseback ride? 

Almost anyone.  Horses are as different as people and there are many facilities that cater to riders of all ages and abilities, even special farms that work specifically with children and disabilities, including autism.  Anyone of any reasonable age and fitness can ride horses, with only a passion, love and respect for the amazing four-legged animals required.

At what age should my child or I start riding?    

The age you start at depends on you.  While there are some equestrians who’s children have been on horseback since before they were born up to the age of two, and there are people who start the sport as late as their 50’s or even 60’s.   Local farms sometimes have lead-line lessons for children to work closely with a handler to start learning how to care for their pint-sized pony and ride as young as 3-5 years old.  Typically, unless their parents are equestrians, many children start into the sport a little bit later, between the ages 7 and 13, when they’re old enough to express a serious interest in it and begin begging their parents for a pony.  But people can begin this sport at almost any age.   Keep in mind that it is a sport that revolves around 800-1200 lb animals, so things should be taken into account such as the maturity and behavior of the child, as well as the health and fitness level of the person looking to start riding.  There are dangers that come with the sport.  Riders can fall and get hurt at any time, but for the most part as long as you are working with a great trainer who has well suited lesson horses for beginner riders, it’s no more dangerous than learning to ride your bike in the beginning.  A great trainer will always find the horse best suited to the rider’s ability and go as slowly as the rider needs during lessons so that the experience is always an enjoyable, productive and positive.

What does horseback riding cost?

This is a loaded question.  For casual riders who just want to enjoy the sport on a weekly basis and are not looking to own their own horse, the cost is comparable to any other sport where you pay for your basic equipment (boots, riding pants, helmet, gloves) running you a few hundred dollars for inexpensive brands, and then pay for your lesson each week.   Lessons for people enjoying the sport on a purely recreational level can cost about $30 to 60 an hour depending on what farm you choose to ride at, who you train with and how long your lesson lasts.   Typically beginner riders just getting into the sport ride about once a week (maybe twice) and some farms even offer lesson packages to make them more affordable.   For more serious riders who show, own their own horses, and take the sport at a very competitive level, equipment can run much higher, while horse board/care and training can run between $500 – 1200 a month up to $1600-3000 a month for extremely upscale show barns and trainers.  We won’t even get into vet bills, tack and show costs.  Not trying to scare you, but full disclosure and warning… if you or your child fall in love with the sport, it can and will get expensive!

What do I need to get started in horse backriding?

Finding the right trainer and facility

Could not be more important!!  The first thing you need to get started in horseback riding is to find the right local horse riding instructor and facility.   You can use our website to help you locate local trainers and farms, start your search here:  Amateur Equestrian Equine Connect Local.  You can try a google search for local lessons, and you can talk to people you know in the area who have their own horses or ride for referrals to the right trainers and lesson barns.  The equestrian community is a pretty close knit community where many riders, trainers, and facilities are all familiar with one another, not only across your state, but even in the country.

When looking for the right trainer and facility, you’ve got to keep two things in mind…  cost and what you want out of the sport.  The two usually go hand in hand.  The best way to think of horses and horse farms is in terms of cars.  Certain barns can offer the basic training and costs of a standard American car, while other horse farms may have a bit more to offer at a higher level of a luxury vehicle.  Then there are Bentley and Rolls Royces of horse farms that offer the best of the best in amenities, services, training and care, at really high prices.  However all levels of equestrian lesson/training facilities will be able to get you started and enjoying the sport.   If you’re just starting out and your interests are purely recreational, you will be fine to start learning to ride at what we call a “lesson” barn.   Lesson barns cater to lower level, recreational riders who may or may not have their own horses and are just getting into the sport for the fun and love of it.  These barns will have a good assortment of lesson horses that are safe and well suited to teach beginner riders of all ages on.  They even compete on property and trailer to local shows for fun and experience.  The trainers at these farms tend of have more amateur vs. professional careers in equestrian sports, and charge considerably less for their services and training.  These barns are a great way to get into the sport and learn, seeing if you or your child will truly stick with it year after year.

There are boarding facilities that range in price and quality that only cater to equestrians that have their own horses.  They do have trainers that offer lessons for current boarders but do not have additional lesson horses for use by students that do not own a horse.  While people have put the cart before the horse by purchasing their own before learning to ride, we definitely don’t recommend this route.  Until you learn what type of rider you are, what your abilities are and what you are looking to do, it will be difficult for you to find the right horse, or even one whose abilities you won’t outgrow quickly as you progress.  Also, horsemanship and care are taught during most lessons, which are vital skills to have before deciding to ever purchase your own.  Owning a horse is a big commitment so make sure you are passionate about the sport first.

Show barns, which tend to be more expensive and can be much higher in price and more luxurious than recreational lesson barns, are for extremely passionate equestrians that are looking to take their riding passion and training to a very professional and competitive level (or even for those who are capable of affording it).  They are usually run, owned or managed by top local and national professionals in the industry who continue to show and compete themselves and have potentially shown up to Olympic levels.  They usually cater to very specific disciplines of riding such as eventing, jumpers, hunters or dressage.  Many don’t have school horses for use or cater to beginner riders, as much as they do serious owners/riders looking to advance in high levels of competition.  Don’t be intimidated by these barns, as a person new to the sport… just keep in mind that they exist and understand the difference if ever your hobby becomes your life’s ambition or passion.

Additionally there are what is called “trail rides” which are available at recreational barns.  Trail rides are for people interested in a one time experience in riding horses, but not necessarily a continued education.  Trail rides are usually guided tours on horseback at a very easy level for riders with little to no experience to enjoy walking and possibly trotting around on a horse for a short time.  Horse back riding excursions are also available on may vacations where you get to ride on the beach or even in the mountains.

Make sure you take the time to speak to several barn owners and trainers about their training facilities and programs and become comfortable with the services they offer new riders and the prices at which they charge.   Above all the facility and the program should enforce safety and teach you or your child all the basics of horse riding, which include grooming, tacking and horse care.  This will help prepare you, if the day ever comes, that you wish to purchase a horse of your own.   Make sure that your trainer, whomever you choose, makes riding an enjoyable experience as well as a safe one, keeping your best interests or the interests of your child in mind.

It’s also extremely important to visit several facilities and watch their lessons and students in action.  As a new equestrian the biggest challenge you’ll face is not knowing what to expect, and not knowing what you are missing out on.  Facilities will vary greatly in services and amenities and training methods.  Some farms offer indoor arenas for year round riding.  Other farms offer group lessons or horse camps for children looking to learn even more about horses.  There are even farms that offer working student opportunities to riders to help out around the farm in order to earn more riding time or lessons – making the cost of riding more affordable.

What Style of Riding Should I Learn?

There are many different types of riding disciplines of riding all which have different advantages and disadvantages and joys of their own.  While any discipline is a great place to learn, your specific interests and goals in horseback riding may influence or determine which one is the best place for you to start.

The Difference Between Riding Disciplines

Western vs. English

The easiest way to think of this is to think of the difference between the ways cowboys ride, and the way British royalty rides.  Western riding, (or cowboy style) is a great discipline to start with.   The saddle and stirrups are bigger, which offers some beginners more stability, along with the big horn located on the front of the saddle that is an excellent place for new riders to hold on.  The saddles are designed for comfort and functionality on the ranch and for extended periods of riding.  The reins are typically only held with one hand while the other is free to hold on, if need be!  More advanced riding can lead to really fun speed events such as pole bending and barrel racing, endurance riding, along with more advanced competition such as western dressage and even cow cutting and team penning.

English riding, is done with a much smaller saddle balanced and designed specifically for the sub-discipline of English riding.   There’s a lot less to hold onto and a few more concepts to learn that require fitness and balance, such as posting in your saddle.  If you have an interest in learning to jump your horse or ride dressage, English may be your path.  After learning the basics of English riding on the flat, (without jumping) you may advance your skills further in the sport to jumping or dressage.  Horse jumping has may divisions such as hunters and jumpers both performed in a stadium or ring, and even fox hunting and eventing which are done in open fields and areas across the countryside.    Dressage is almost always performed in a small ring, and is one of the highest and most difficult disciplines to fully master, for both horse and rider, as it is essentially ballet on horseback.

Both disciplines are great, it’s really a matter of preference where you want to start.  You can always switch at any time from one to the other.  It’s slightly easier for a beginner to go from English to Western, than the other way around, simply because of the saddle.  English and Western riding can be as casual and recreational, or as serious and competitive as you want or make them to be, with little limitations to how much you can learn with the right trainer.  Don’t be afraid to watch both on both a recreational and competitive level and even trying both before committing to a discipline.  Some barns are strictly English or Western, but many barns will offer both.

girl learning to calf rope western

What equipment do I (or my child need) to learn to ride horses?

Riding Helmet:  Your helmet is the #1 most important piece of equipment needed when learning to ride a horse.  Riding is a sport that requires balance and you are also working with an animal that has a mind of his own, and is not 100% predictable.  Helmets are important to keeping you safe at all times, not only while riding horses, but working around them as well.   At times for very young children riding ponies in lead line lessons, a bike helmet may be acceptable, but if you are more serious about learning to ride beyond a guided pony ride, you must get an approved riding helmet.

Boots with a Heel:  While you don’t have to run out and get a pair of tall and expensive riding boots, you do need to have a sturdy leather-type boot with a heel on it to ride in.  No more than a one inch heel (no designer cowboy boots!) – a good work boot is even acceptable.   Paddock boots are great option for beginners learning to ride.  They are easy to break in, and more affordable than tall boots.  The reason that you must ride in a boot with a heel is for safety.  The boot needs to be sturdy so that if a horse was to accidentally step on your foot your toes will be fine, and the boot needs to have a heel on it to help keep your feet in their proper position in the stirrups and prevent them from ever sliding too far into the stirrup and getting caught up.

Riding Pants:   Tight fitting pants, preferably with the seams on the outside are needed for riding.  You don’t want to wear anything baggy that will get caught up on the saddle or cause rubbing or chaffing.  Depending on the age or level of riding, a pair of tight fitting jeans can even be acceptable, but you’ve got to be careful with wearing something like “yoga” or sports compression pants that are made for running.  These can contain smooth materials that will actually promote sliding in the saddle.  The best thing you can do is purchase a pair of breeches to ride in.  Breeches are the tight fitting and elastic pants worn by equestrians that contain a suede patch either the knees or complete bottom and inner thigh that promotes gripping into the saddle, depending on your discipline.  They can cost anywhere between $30 on sale up to $200-300 or more for a really high end pair.   There is no need to break the bank when first starting out… there are many affordable brands that make good quality breeches.   Breeches should be fitted, and not be baggy in any areas.   If you are riding with breeches in low boots, make sure they go all the way down and cover your ankle so no bare skin is exposed or rubbing on the horse or stirrup leathers.

Gloves:   Riding gloves are an important piece of equipment that come in many styles and materials.  While some equestrians prefer not to wear them, most do, as they prevent blisters and rubbing on your fingers from the reins and a much better grip on them.  Riding gloves range from $10 to $50 depending on their quality and what they are made out of.

Whatever path you choose to equestrianism, just remember that the most important thing you can do is interview several trainers and visit their facilities to watch their lessons and make sure you find the one that you feel most comfortable with.  A great trainer will give you the support and guidance you will need to truly get the most out of the sport, year after year.  Just remember that horseback riding should always be fun, safe and enjoyable to both horse and rider.  If at any time you don’t feel comfortable or safe, talk to your trainer immediately.  Not all riders, trainers and horses will click, so above all, safety and fun are your biggest priorities when beginning one of the most amazing sports you’ll ever learn.  Good luck to you and happy riding!


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