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Basic Horse Riding Commands – Hand, Voice, and Body Cues

Last updated: December 28, 2022

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Teaching your horse basic commands is an easy and fun way to spend time with them. It’ll make riding sessions easier; you can better direct their movement, plus teaching these simple orders will help give both riders and mount a sense of accomplishment.

Basic riding commands are essential to the art of horseback riding. You need to know hand signals (reins), voice cues such as “whoa,”; body cues like shifting your weight in the saddle, leg movements, applying pressure, or moving your stirrups forward.

Horses are individuals, but they have common behavioral characteristics. Once you understand these traits, it’s not too difficult to teach your horse basic commands, but it takes significant time and perseverance.

Picture of a girl working on horse riding commands.

The Fundamental Horse Riding Commands

Before you start a training regime with your horse, ensure that they are healthy and allocate time so you can work consistently. Don’t forget: it’s not easy training any animal–you’ll have to put in the effort.

But don’t let setbacks discourage you from achieving success; just keep grinding out those routines day after day, and soon enough, things will come around like magic.

People who ride horses should always be aware of their safety when it comes to riding. The riding commands we teach in this article should be performed with safety in mind; there is always a risk of injury when working with horses.

If you choose to wear a helmet, it’s crucial to know how to measure for a riding helmet to ensure it fits correctly and protects your head in case of an accident. So ensure you wear a helmet that fits and is comfortable while riding your horse.

Once you’ve established your safety measures, it’s time we move to teach your horse commands. Bear in mind that horses will learn at their own pace, so realistic goals and patience should always prevail when teaching a new skill or command; below, we list some basic beginner’s tips:

Voice Commands

Directing a horse through voice commands can be challenging if not done right. These are very calm and composed creatures who dislike being shouted at. Speak your commands gently and clearly.

Some people tend to voice complicated commands, which can confuse horses and ruin the whole process. Even if your horse responds to its name being called, do not add the name along with an order. Horses don’t understand the meaning of words but respond to how the word sounds.

Teaching certain basic voice commands like “walk” and “whoa” should be your first attempt at this. Tell your horse to “walk” and make the physical gestures for it to start walking. We discuss physical gestures in depth later in this article.

Once the horse starts walking, maintain a steady pace and keep riding for a while. Order your horse to “stop” and pull back on the reins simultaneously. Repeat this process for as long as it takes your horse to understand the voice command. Use a similar procedure to teach all the other commands you want.

Do not waste time after voicing your command. Make sure you say the words at the right time so that your horse can connect the words with the action. The tone and pitch of your voice can significantly affect the understanding of your horse.

Commands like “canter,” “stay,” “trot,” “easy,” “back,” “walk,” “over,” etc., are quite common. Take the time and gradually teach these commands to your horse. Do not overlap teaching words because this could delay the horse’s speed in grasping your words and applying them.

Picture of a rider using hand commands.

Hand Commands

Reins are the primary way horse riders communicate with their mounts. Reins typically connect to a bit in the horse’s mouth and, through pressure and contact, communicate with a horse. There are also bitless bridles and hackamores that perform similarly.

Reins are the most basic way for horse riders to communicate with their mounts. Reins are held by the rider and are connected to a bit in the horse’s mouth at the opposite end. There are also hackamores that don’t have bits but work by applying pressure on a horse’s head when the reins are pulled.

A few horse-handling skills are necessary to be a successful equestrian, and one of the most important things you must learn is how to handle the reins. There are multiple ways to use reins, but we will stick to the standard procedures.

To make your horse turn left, give a slight nudge or cue on the reins with your left hand. Follow a similar procedure, only vice versa, if you want to turn right. All these depend on repetition and practice.

When you first start, it may be best for you to wear riding gloves to ensure you keep a good grip on the reins. The way you hold the reins also matters significantly. The horse can feel it when you grip too tightly and might even get bruised because of it.

Hold it gently but with authority, letting your horse feel that you know what you are doing. Make sure your palms are face down while holding the reins. Don’t forget that the reins pass through the horse’s delicate parts.

Jerking on the reins can unsettle the horse, which might be dangerous, especially when in the saddle. Keep your hand commands subtle and precise. Your horse does not need profound hand movements to understand basic commands.

A heavy-handed rider can cause long-term damage; you want your horse to learn to respond to subtle commands, not brute force.

Body Cues

Body cues are of different types. You can give cues to your horse with both your legs and body weight. Shifting your seated position marginally is, at times, enough for an experienced horse to understand the cue and act accordingly.

The idea is simple: Shift your weight slightly toward the direction you want your horse to go. Lean toward the right or left, and a trained horse will follow your stance. Shift forward, and it will start to accelerate.

A significant amount of practice is required to become capable of maintaining your composure and posture while on the back of a horse.

Using your legs is also greatly effective in maneuvering a horse. The most common cue is providing pressure on the horse’s sides with your legs. This is similar to shifting your body weight slightly towards the front, as both these actions make the horse move forward or accelerate if on the run.

Gently tapping the horse on the sides with your thighs or feet means the horse needs to start moving. This is like starting the ignition of a motor vehicle. Of course, the horse has to be completely trained on these cues before expecting any suitable results from these actions.

Additional actions like side pass, bending, haunch turn, forehand pivot, and so on are also general cues for horse riding. Ensure consistency in your leg movement. Even subconscious movements can trigger a horse to act, causing potential discomfort to the rider in the process.

Some horses are in tune with one rider. I rode my friend’s horse, a professional trainer, and found that he was acutely aware of even my smallest movements in the saddle; he picked up our pace anytime I adjusted myself or shifted position.

I found the horse unnerving to ride, but the trainer explained that he was doing exactly what he wanted him to do, and he only shifted his weight when he wanted the horse to get moving.

Get Professional Help

Teaching commands to a horse is not as seamless as it seems from afar. If you do not have the confidence or fail to teach them commands, get help from an expert.

Professional horse trainers know the ideal ways to handle a horse and can teach riders the correct methods of maintaining and controlling it. In most cases, this is beneficial for the animal as much as the owner, especially if the owner is an amateur in this field.


The characteristics of horses vary greatly between different types and breeds. Some may be highly responsive to suppressed cues, while others might act the opposite. Cues, however, are crucial for riding a horse.

Relaying your intentions to this beautiful beast is almost impossible without them. Adequate knowledge of the necessary cues for controlling your horse can go a long way toward establishing you as a professional rider.

Furthermore, incorrect cues can be confusing or, at times, painful for the horse. Avoid stressing it out by making yourself capable of handling it. Learning to ride a horse correctly isn’t difficult, but it does take persistence and patience.

Below is a YouTube video showing how to train horses with verbal cues.