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What is Trick Riding?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Trick riding is a family of riding techniques which evolved in the American West. These techniques were originally developed to meet the needs of working cowboys, and they have since evolved into stunts designed more for performance than practicality. In the United States, the Wild West Arts Club works to preserve and celebrate the history of trick riding and other Western stunts, and it is offered at several riding schools in North America.

Most trick riding stunts involve performing tricky maneuvers on a moving horse. For example, riders may vault onto or off of a horse while it is in motion, or stand on the horse's back. Accomplished trick riders can play jump rope with a lasso on the back of a moving horse, trade mounts with other riders while in motion, and keep their seats while horses perform controlled rears and other showy moves.

For working cowboys, being able to be extremely comfortable around a horse is critical. Cowboys work in close partnership with their mounts, and they need to be able to jump from a moving horse, trust a horse to stop on a dime, and engage in other riding maneuvers which are not seen in recreational riding. Some trick riding stunts are used by many working cowboys even today, while others have become much showier, diverging from their real-world roots.

Trick riding performances can often be seen at big events in the American West. Riders typically perform during rodeos, often parading in elaborate team drills which involve multiple riders. They are also included in many parades in the American West, where they show off their horses and skills for the crowd.

In addition to being native to the American West, various forms of trick riding are used in circuses around the world. Bareback acrobats are especially common in European circuses, working with very highly-trained horses to put on spectacular performances. Some equestrian sports also lay the groundwork for tricks: buzkashi and polo, for example, both require extreme maneuverability on the part of riders and horses.

People who want to study trick riding usually start by getting a very thorough grounding in basic riding schools. In order to ride like this, someone needs to be bold, confident, and very in-control, and it is important to be comfortable with horses and a variety of situations. Once basic riding skills have been mastered, trick riding can be acquired through an advanced riding school or a mentor.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By LisaLou — On Oct 30, 2011

I have been around horses for as long as I can remember. While some of my friends spent most of their free time involved in sports, I was on the back of my horse.

My parents traveled with me many weekends as I performed in horse shows and events around the country.

At one point in time I even took some trick riding lessons because I thought it looked like something that I would enjoy and would be challenging.

I realized how important it was to have the right kind of horse for this. It works best if there is a close bond between you and your horse.

I didn't end up pursuing this for very long. I know my Mom was really glad when I quit - she was always worried something would happen.

I still love watching it done though, and take advantage of every chance I get to watch them. I never got past a few of the basics, and know how hard some of those tricks are to perfect.

By nanny3 — On Oct 29, 2011

We used to have a tradition around my home that every year we would go and see the world famous trick riders at Christmas time. This may seem odd, but they had a lovely and hugely popular Christmas show, complete with a live nativity only a half hour from my house.

Oh, it was amazing to see these men and women stand on these horses, jump on and off of them and even hang from them upside down. And these horses were not standing still, my friends! I would have been terrified, but these folks seemed fearless to the core!

Unfortunately, the company that hosted the show for as long as I can remember recently changed their whole motif. Now, they are something or other about Pirates. I can’t imagine we’ll be going to check that out this Christmas – but maybe some other time! Pirates are cool, too!

By John57 — On Oct 28, 2011

Every year over the 4th of July we attend a big rodeo in our state. They always have a high quality entertaining event during the middle of the rodeo.

More than once they have had trick riders come and perform. I am absolutely amazed what they can do on the back of a moving horse.

I have ridden horses a few times, but am always horse trail riding and closely following someone else. Sometimes I even have trouble just getting on and off the horse.

I found myself holding my breath as I watched some of the tricks this rider performed on her horse. When she balanced herself as the horse galloped around the arena I couldn't believe she didn't fall or lose her balance.

This was certainly one of the more popular events they have brought in. Everyone was on the edge of their seat and were watching very closely. This was even more entertaining than some of the rodeo events.

By popcorn — On Oct 27, 2011

@lonelygod - If you live in a place with a lot of rodeos around I am sure you'd be able to find someone willing to teach you some trick riding for a fee. I know where I am from there are some stunt schools that focus on those sorts of things because we have a pretty big tourism industry that focuses a lot on horse showmanship.

As far as a quality instructor goes, you really nee to find someone via word of mouth. Perhaps if you ask at the school that gave you your regular riding lessons they will know. They may even have someone on staff who can teach you.

By lonelygod — On Oct 27, 2011

A little while ago I went to a rodeo and saw a lot of trick riding being performed by the cowboys there. I must say that they made riding horses look incredibly easy, even though I know it isn't. I loved how they managed to jump off the horses while they were still moving.

Does anyone know if there are riding camps that will teach you some of the more basic tricks?

I have already taken horseback riding lessons but would like to be able to do some of the showier stuff like jumping dismounts. I don't mind paying a fair bit for a competent instructor if I can find one.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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