Making the most of your first horseback ride

The West wasn’t won from the back seat of an RV, and as the weather gets warmer and outfitters open for business, what better way to see our chunk of the country than by horseback? It’s a quintessential Montana experience, and there’s no time like the present to mount up and go for a ride.

Before your ride, remember the following tips and don't forget that horses are living, breathing creatures. Each horse has its own personality, behaviors, and quirks. Keep in mind that you’re sitting on top of an 800-pound animal that is kind enough to take you on a scenic tour, and if you have mutual respect for each other, you will both have a good time.

Gearing Up
Wear long pants, ideally jeans or Carhartts, to save your legs from chafing against the saddle. Cowboy boots, or other shoes with smooth soles, help prevent your feet from getting caught in the stirrups. Gloves and hat are optional, but remember, this is Montana—bring a coat, even if the sun’s shining when you head out.

Helmets typically aren’t required for dude rides, but if you come off your mount, head protection greatly reduces your chance of injury. As for the kids? Be safe and buckle a helmet on those little noggins.

On the Ground
Horses are prey animals, and don’t react well to excited riders leaping out from behind them. Stay away from their hind end and move slowly. If you must walk around the back of a horse, give it a relaxed, reassuring pat as you go by to let it know you’re there.

Horses are extremely sensitive animals, and can read your body language better than your spouse. Be confident and relaxed—don’t act jumpy or nervous.

In the Saddle
Correct body position is the first step to a successful ride. Sit upright and stay balanced—this is the most secure and comfortable position, and will tell the horse you know what you’re doing—even if you don’t. Trail horses quickly learn that an unbalanced rider is an inexperienced rider, one they can take advantage of—by ignoring your commands and constantly grazing in that delicious meadow.

The reins are your connection to your horse’s mouth, and will help keep your horse on the trail. Hold both reins in one hand, with a bit of slack between your hands and the bit. This way, if your horse decides to go for a bite of grass, you’ll be able to tug his head back in the right direction immediately.

About that bite of grass… despite what your mount may lead you to believe, He. Is. Not. Hungry. Horses are natural foragers, which means that they want to eat all day, every day. That pretty clearing you’re riding through? Your horse sees a gigantic salad bowl. Your ride will be much more enjoyable if you keep your horse’s head out of the buffet from the start. He’ll get plenty of food back at the corral.

Keep the balls of your feet in the stirrups, heels down and toes up. This will ensure that your feet stay secure throughout the ride. Always wear close-toed shoes, and try to have at least a half-inch heel to ensure your foot doesn’t slide through.

Follow these tips and enjoy the ride. Whether you’re going out on your own, or you’re taking a guided horseback tour, there’s no better way to spend an afternoon. Local outfitters have myriad options to choose from, with experienced guides and beautiful scenery