Teach Better Horseback Riding Lessons with Mounted Games

Although formal mounted games competitions can be enjoyable and valuable, you don’t need much structure to make games work for your lesson students.

Some people work hard so they can play hard. We like to play hard to help our students do good work.

Games on horseback can be a powerful teaching tool in lessons, camps and competition — and students who are learning and having fun will keep coming back for more

It was inevitable that our lesson program would rely heavily on fun and games.

We started our horsey adventure with Heaven’s Fire, a half-Arab mare who was one of the first national-level mounted games ponies in the Southeast — and who expected all of her riders to play at top speed.

There was a several year learning curve, but once Nikki figured it out they played all over the region, including four trips to USPC Championships and annual excursions to the Kentucky Horse Park to play with MGAA.

Heaven was eventually joined by our rescue horse, Zahtar, a former Western pleasure horse who had NO idea that galloping was a thing! He became an excellent mounted games pony, even if he never did make peace with balloons.

We also logged many years volunteering with the South Region Games Rally in Pony Club and coaching several students who joined a Senior Games team.

pony Heaven's Fire races around cone as rider places flag during mounted games competition

The extensive travel time to the nearest competition discouraged most of our students from pursuing mounted games seriously — but they still got plenty of play time in regular lessons and in-house events.

Why? Because playful games are the brain’s favorite way to learn!

Here are just a few of the horsemanship skills your students will practice when they play mounted games:

mounted games student leans off pony to pick up a ball atop a traffic cone

There are many ways your students can play mounted games informally in lessons and camps...

… as individuals. In private lessons, we like games with a clear, non-competitive goal, such as the Tower Game.

… in an obstacle course, linking several games skills that can be built up progressively. We’ve included a mounted games course in every set of our Obstacle Course Maps.

pair of mounted games students hand off a silk flower during a lesson

… in pairs, working together to complete a game or racing head to head.

Less competitive students often enjoy collaborating on games, like the Rescue Race.

Other students may be powerfully motivated by the opportunity to come out on top of a friendly rivalry.

If you do not have the space or equipment to let students play the same game simultaneously, run it as an individual timed event like a Western gymkhana pattern.

… in teams, practicing hand-offs and team strategy while racing head to head. Traditionally, four riders complete each relay race, but teams are made of five riders each to allow each horse and rider the opportunity to sit out of a game they find particularly challenging.

Some games require an even number of riders to play; if you end up with three riders per team, you can work around this by designating one rider to go first and last.

What if you have three riders, but they want to race head to head? Designate one student the Champion of each game. The other two riders run a preliminary heat to see who gets to face off against the Champion in the final.

This works beautifully when you play three games, allowing each student the opportunity to be a Champion — and in our experience, playing in this format after a twenty-minute warm-up perfectly fills an hour-long lesson!

Outside of regular lessons, mounted games provide an opportunity for you to generate extra revenue — and strengthen the bonds of your barn family

Consider holding in-house pairs competitions, with three lanes running head to head and divisions offered for riders of all levels.

For years, we held annual Spring Fling and Trick or Treat Games competitions, with divisions for Leadline/Walk/Trot (5 games), Walk/Trot/Canter (7 games), and Masters (9 games).

Fit, suitable school horses could play in multiple divisions, with the slower games functioning as a warm up for the intense action of the Masters games.

We played a mixture of IMGA races and games of our own invention. 

two young students in Halloween costumes lead their ponies in the mounted games sack race

Riding-safe costumes were allowed at both events and a curated playlist of stadium music added excitement to both the races and the warm-up periods. Students loved the opportunity to dress up and engage in friendly competition with their riding buddies.

With parents and non-riding students volunteering as lane judges, the only real cost was ribbons and candy, making the event an easy moneymaker even with entry fees kept low.

It did take us a couple of years to assemble enough equipment to run three full lanes – and it takes an energetic ground crew to set and reset all that equipment between each game!

Alternatively, you might run a games-themed obstacle course as a timed individual event. We included this as part of our fall schooling show for years, and students eagerly signed up for the opportunity to try to outrace their instructor.

Although formal mounted games competitions can be enjoyable and valuable, you don’t need much structure to make games work for your lesson students

Every exercise can be turned into a game with a bit of imagination!

Want your students to practice organized transitions with soft aids? Challenge them to a Transition Tournament. Teaching serpentines? Use ground poles to create a “winding trail” with narrow “river crossings,” or have them ride carefully through the Rattlesnake Road.

Want to sneak in some no-stirrup practice? Have students practice a barrel pattern in multiple rounds, including one ridden in sitting trot without stirrups.

If you teach very young riders, games are essential but don’t be afraid to get playful with your older students, too. We’ve found that our adult students particularly enjoy games on horseback, and are often surprisingly competitive.

young student in fairy costume places bottle on mounted games barrel with ground buddy supervision

Just make sure the horses are also having a good time

We test all of our school horses thoroughly on games skills, including maneuvering with one hand and keeping their cool while racing next to another horse in the arena. We introduce them to every piece of equipment before letting a student pick it up, and establish strict rules disqualifying students who kick, smack or yank on the reins.

If a horse seems anxious or frustrated by the games, we don’t force him to play.

Read more about essential school horse skills in this Boss Mares post.

painted jack o'lantern watches riders warm up for Halloween mounted games competition

Are you an LLPro member? You can download lesson plans for Halloween-themed mounted games, including equipment specifications: download our Trick or Treat Games.

And learn how to put on your own in-house Halloween games competition with our Trick or Treat Tournament Guide.

If you’d like detailed instructions for more of our favorite games, be sure to sign up for our e-newsletter… we have a secret project in the works we’ll be announcing later in 2024!

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We’ve been blessed with many talented photographers over the years: students who voluntarily stood in sweltering/ freezing arenas, capturing lifelong memories of lessons, camps and shows. We’re grateful to all of them!

One former student, Delaney Witbrod, is now a professional photographer with a gift for animal portraits – see more of her fine work here. We’re also grateful for photos of Western riding donated by LLPro instructors – particularly Bit of Pleasure Horse School and Joyful Hearts Photography!

You’ll find illustrations throughout our online courses and printed materials graciously donated by our friend Rhonda Hagy. Evan Surrusco contributes additional illustrations and handles most of our photo processing. Contact us for information about their work.

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