How to Ride a Horse on Screen

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Photo Source: “Shōgun” Credit: Katie Yu/FX


Saddling up for your scenes is hardly a new talent to have in your acting toolbox. From silent film star Tom Mix to the cast of the critically acclaimed series "Shōgun" (not to mention Mr. Darcys from Laurence Olivier to Matthew Macfadyen), actors have been galloping across the  screen since the early days of Hollywood. 

To help actors learn the ropes, we spoke with Hilary Watts Harris, a riding instructor at Los Angeles’ Jigsaw Farms—on the former ranch of Western film legend Will Rogers. Here, she shares some tips that will make you look like you were born in the saddle. 

Trust the pros.

First and foremost, it’s vital to pay attention to the experts on the crew. “The wranglers are your golden ticket to successfully working with horses on set. Listen to them,” Harris says.

Take lessons in advance.

“The production will probably make sure you have some lessons before you show up on set. But if they don’t, it’s worth springing for a few yourself,” she advises. 

Know what you’re talking about.

“A basic knowledge of terminology and gear is useful. The bridle goes around the horse’s head and holds the bit in its mouth; the reins are connected to the bit. 

“If you are wearing a hard hat and fitted leggings with knee-high boots and are perched on a smaller saddle with shorter metal stirrups (the things you put your feet in), you are riding English—hello, Mr. Darcy. If you’re wearing cowboy boots and the saddle is larger with a rounded knob on the front and longer stirrups, you’re riding Western—hello, John Wayne. 

For the former, you have constant contact with the horse through the reins and you urge the animal forward by squeezing your legs; for the latter, contact happens as needed and you gently kick the horse to move it forward. 

Be in the moment.

“Riding is a practice, just like acting. You have to be present. It’s important to know what mood you’re in, as your horse will sense it,” Harris says. “If you come in with stress or fear, you might agitate your horse; so use deep breathing, affirmations—whatever techniques work to calm you. The wranglers will have chosen horses that are reliable; but horses are animals with distinct personalities and moods, so also be present to what’s going on with them.” 

Mount up.

“Pretty much everything you have to do with a horse is done from the left side—leading, saddling and unsaddling, and mounting and dismounting,” she explains. “To mount your horse, hold your reins in your left hand, put your foot in the left stirrup, hold onto the saddle on both sides, and spring up, swinging your right leg over the horse and finding the stirrup on the other side. Or you can use a mounting block, which will require far less springing.

“To dismount, either kick both feet out of your stirrups and swing your right leg over the horse’s back; or, if the stirrups are long enough, as in Western riding, you can keep your left foot in the stirrup until your right foot is on the ground.”

Know how to handle the reins.

“One of the biggest tells [as to whether someone knows] how to ride is how they hold their reins. As I say to the kids I teach, ‘Hold your hands like you’re holding ice cream cones,’ ” she explains.

“For English riding, you’ll be holding one rein in each hand and steering by gently pulling the rein in the direction you want to go. In Western riding, you’ll hold both reins in your left hand and steering by neck-reining, which means that you move your hand in the direction you want to go. Your hands should form a straight line from the natural bend of your elbow.

“When you are walking, keep your hands in front of the saddle. To stop, pull your reins toward your belly. Don’t jerk the reins, pull too hard, or try to keep your balance with them. Remember that they are directly connected to the sensitive mouth of a magnificent creature.”

Balance is everything.

“[Having] good posture on a horse will make you look like a pro,” Harris says. “Keep your shoulders rolled back and your belly pulled in toward your center. Sink into your heels, and create a straight line from your knee to your toes. This lets you balance, with your knees acting as shock absorbers. 

“Keep your gaze forward. If you have to trot (the next pace up from a walk), you can try posting, which is the up-and-down movement you see people do on horses. Allow your body to move with the rhythms of the horse. If you do feel tipsy-topsy, don’t be shy about holding onto the mane or saddle horn, if you have one.”

Katherine Wessling
Katherine Wessling is an actor, writer, and storyteller. Her acting gigs have run the gamut from playing a photon in an improv-based devised theater piece to playing Regan in “King Lear.” She has appeared on various stages throughout New York, and in indie and feature films such as “About a Donkey” and “Game Time.”
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