The horse has had a decisive role in history of mankind. In many parts around the world, horse riding remains the most practical and reliable form of transport.
Horsemanship is an intricate form of physical exercise, where the gait can vary from a casual walk to competitive steeplechase.
There are many reasons to ride horses far from home:
- Costs: Caring for a horse requires much work, making the nominal price of horse riding lower in a low-income country.
- Nature: Many natural sceneries are best seen from horseback.
- Tradition: Travellers might want to take part in equestrian tradition in different parts of the world.
- Comfort: There are still places in the world that can only be reached on foot or horseback. Many prefer horseback.
Riding has some inherent risks as, when mounted, the rider's head may be up to 4 m (13 ft) from the ground, and the horse may travel at a speed of up to 65 km/h (40 mph). The injuries observed range from very minor injuries to fatalities. A good riding helmet makes up a minimum of safety, and is often required, but experience and training offer the best safety. The most common injury (about 75%) is falling from the horse. Being kicked, trampled, or bitten account for most of the others.
At some locations the stables may expect all customers (at least adult men) to know how to handle a horse. If there is a language barrier you may have difficulties explaining your level of expertise. Especially in that situation, it is good to be as well prepared as possible, to be able to ask for specific advice.
Choice of location
The overall look of a stable and the way horses are handled may give warning signs about maltreatment of horses or not taking safety seriously. If you are in the position to see the location beforehand, take a good look and discuss anything that looks bad.
Be aware of equine sexuality. A stallion may become difficult to manage if he smells a mare in season, or if he sees another stallion as a rival to be driven off. Competition between stallions — often bluff, but sometimes fighting — is normal behavior for horses in the wild, and any stallion has the instincts for it. Expert riders can fairly easily manage this, but non-experts should generally ride geldings (castrated male horses) or mares.
There are also big differences between individual horses and how the horses at a given location interact. The location providing you with horses and guides should judge your expertise and choose horses accordingly. Some horses are used to beginners and follow in the line without problems, while others suppose you know what you are doing and will give you a more interesting ride. The latter may be dangerous in the hands of a beginner.
Even a horse that is gentle while in the line may start fighting or racing if allowed to wander away to the wrong fellow, which means you should follow instructions carefully. Keep the distance, as most horses are uneasy about having somebody too near behind.
A bite from a horse is serious and a kick can be fatal, but the risk of these is small with a well-trained horse unless you startle or provoke it. Talk calmly and show the horse what you are going to do; avoid doing anything surprising. Also avoid going close behind a horse as this is both the direction in which they can kick most easily and out of their field of view, so most likely to startle them.
Having a horse accidentally step on your foot can also cause serious injury. The larger breeds can do more damage, but even a pony is heavy enough to hurt you quite badly.
There are vast regional differences with horse riding equipment (commonly referred to as horse tack).
Saddles are seats for the rider, fastened to the horse's back by means of a girth (English-style riding), known as a cinch in the Western US, a wide strap that goes around the horse at a point about four inches behind the forelegs (less for a pony). It should be tight enough to keep the saddle steady, but not too tight. Tighten it a few times before sitting up, very gently the first time. If you are a novice, somebody should check the tightness.
It is important that the saddle be comfortable for both the rider and the horse as an improperly fitting saddle may create pressure points on the horse's back muscle and cause the horse pain and can lead to the horse, rider, or both getting injured. Check there is no mud blobs or wounds where the saddle is to be put. Put it on a little too much to the front and glide it backwards to its right location (along the fur). Be careful that the saddlecloth (the blanket under the saddle) gets straight.
Stirrups are supports for the rider's feet that hang down on either side of the saddle. They provide greater stability for the rider but can have safety concerns due to the potential for a rider's feet to get stuck in them. If a rider is thrown from a horse but has a foot caught in the stirrup, they could be dragged if the horse runs away. To minimize this risk, a number of safety precautions can be taken. First, most riders wear riding boots with a heel and a smooth, quite narrow, sole. Next, some saddles, particularly English saddles, have safety bars that allow a stirrup leather to fall off the saddle if pulled backwards by a falling rider. Other precautions are done with stirrup design itself. Western saddles have wide stirrup treads that make it more difficult for the foot to become trapped. A number of saddle styles incorporate a tapedero, which is covering over the front of the stirrup that keeps the foot from sliding all the way through the stirrup. The English stirrup (or "iron") has several design variations which are either shaped to allow the rider's foot to slip out easily or are closed with a very heavy rubber band.
A halter (US) or headcollar (UK and Ireland) (occasionally headstall) consists of a noseband and headstall that buckles around the horse's head and allows the horse to be led or tied. The lead rope is separate, and it may be short (from six to ten feet, two to three meters) for everyday leading and tying, or much longer (up to 25 feet (7.6 m), eight meters) for tasks such as leading packhorses or picketing a horse out to graze.
When tying the horse, the rope should be short enough that the horse will not easily step over it (and get trapped). Either the knot or the fastening to the halter, preferably both, should be easy to open if the horse gets scared (it may damage itself trying to get free).
When leading the horse, you should keep the rope such that you can easily give some more leeway without losing your end of it, e.g. if the horse gets scared and jumps sideways. Do not wind it around your hand, as you could damage your hand or get dragged if the horse flees in earnest.
Bridles usually have a bit attached to reins and are used for riding and driving horses. English Bridles have a cavesson style noseband and are seen in English riding. Their reins are buckled to one another, and they have little adornment or flashy hardware.
Western Bridles used in Western riding usually have no noseband, are made of thin bridle leather. They may have long, separated "Split" reins or shorter closed reins, which sometimes include an attached Romal. Western bridles are often adorned with silver or other decorative features.
A hackamore is a headgear that uses a heavy noseband of some sort, rather than a bit, most often used to train young horses or to go easy on an older horse's mouth. Hackamores are more often seen in western riding. Some related styles of headgear that control a horse with a noseband rather than a bit are known as bitless bridles.
Reins consist of leather straps or rope attached to the outer ends of a bit and extend to the rider's or driver's hands. Reins are the means by which a horse rider or driver communicates directional commands to the horse's head. Pulling on the reins can be used to steer or stop the horse. The sides of a horse's mouth are sensitive, so pulling on the reins pulls the bit, which then pulls the horse's head from side to side, which is how the horse is controlled. Horses should never be tied by the reins: not only do they break easily, but, being attached to a bit in the horse's sensitive mouth, a great deal of pain can be inflicted if a bridled horse sets back against being tied.
Be aware that the reins are not like a steering wheel. Ideally you and the horse should communicate such that the horse feels your intentions and acts in accordance. Warn the horse a few seconds before any intended turn, change in speed – or place where the horse may do something silly. E.g. looking in the direction where you are going to turn may make your hips turn enough for the horse to feel it.
If you have to force the horse to do things, you are likely to end up in a losing fight. Probably you have been giving conflicting or confusing signals; try to avoid unnecessary motion, be very clear and repeat your signals instead of prolonging them.
A bit is a device placed in a horse's mouth, kept on a horse's head by means of a headstall. There are many types, each useful for specific types of riding and training.
The mouthpiece of the bit does not rest on the teeth of the horse, but rather rests on the gums or "bars" of the horse's mouth in an interdental space behind the front incisors and in front of the back molars. It is important that the style of bit is appropriate to the horse's needs and is fitted properly for it to function properly and be as comfortable as possible for the horse.
Each nation has its own culture of horsemanship, with local customs and taboos that need to be respected. In most parts of the world, both the horse and the handler carry a social status far above livestock and farmworkers in general.