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Trick Riding Not For The Faint Of Heart

“Trick riding is my favourite. I like going fast and hanging upside down.”


Safety is a relative thing, it seems.

Standing astride a pair of galloping horses, as in Roman riding, is less risky than trick riding, according to “equine extremist” Sally Bishop.

“Trick riding is more dangerous, because you are strapped in. If your horse stumbles or falls, bad things can happen. Whereas Roman riding, you’re standing free, so if you fall, you fall clear,” said Bishop, who first performed at eight years of age, and lately has performed on TV and film as a stunt rider.

“Trick riding is my favourite. I like going fast and hanging upside down.”

The Calgarian and her brother Tom brought their formidable third-generation horsemanship skills to the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair last week, giving a presentation on their art form to the public at the Keystone Centre’s Learning Stage. Her father, Tom senior, himself a former trick rider, delivered the running commentary for the show with a humorous deadpan style.

Not content with Roman riding on two horses, which has been around, well, since the Romans, the Bishops added an extra pair of horses in front to create a tandem four-up, which means that they stand astride one pair while controlling both teams with two sets of driving lines.


Tom said that there are three different kinds of trick riding. The one most commonly seen at circuses is called rosin-back, named after the sticky pine pitch that is used to help the rider maintain a grip on the saddle as he or she performs acrobatic stunts.

The other is western or cowboy style, which makes use of a trick-riding saddle with its special extended horn and numerous straps to support the rider’s unusual positions.

The third, known as Russian trick riding, is a combination of the previous two styles, he said.

“Trick riding is actually easier at a run than at a walk or trot,” he said, with the trot the roughest of gaits. “However, you can’t just go from a walk to a run unless you accomplish the suppression of your fears and learn the proper holds and balance.”

To get started in the art, a helper is needed to guide the horse via a lunge line, preferably in a round pen, so that the animal becomes accustomed to the rider moving around on its back.


An extra person provides added safety for novices, who should never practise trick riding alone in case they get hung up in the saddle.

“You should always have someone around to help you get out of a difficult situation,” said Tom.

“You have to have full confidence in your horse, because if your horse goes down, you’re done. I’m not kidding, I’ve seen people killed trick riding or crippled for life. It’s very important to get proper instruction.”

Familiarizing the horse with weight transfer, from one stirrup to the other, is a good start, before working up to standing in the saddle. Because the cinch strap has to be kept very tight, a trick-riding horse must have good withers so that the saddle seats properly.

A good horse for trick riding is difficult to define, said Sally, but generally they must be solid and stocky to support the rider’s weight, especially when leaning out of the saddle.

“First and foremost, you want a quiet horse. But it’s a hard mixture to get, because you need a quiet horse that really likes to run,” she said.

Beginners would do well to start off with a very calm horse, then upgrade to one with “more fire” once they become more adept.


Training Spot, who is 17 and serves as her standby trick-riding mount, to be comfortable doing all the tricks took about two years, mainly because he has “attitude” issues, which are both good and bad.

“He does his job and he does it well. He’s very edgy, but that’s kind of what makes him a good trick riding horse,” said Sally. “He goes out there and he runs really hard and gets excited, but he definitely needs to be managed.”

On the other hand, another paint horse, which she rides Roman style over jumps in her act, learned the ropes in just a few months.

“Some horses just aren’t going to work. Period. They just aren’t cut out for it.”

Women’s trick riding traditionally involves grace, beauty and style, said Tom, while men generally tend to do more vaulting and acrobatics. Over 100 known tricks have been officially catalogued, he added.

Being strong, physically fit and disciplined is important when trick riding, but the benefits of the sport go deeper than that by helping a person develop patience and tolerance, said Tom.

“Training horses is good for man and beast. If you lose your temper, you’ve lost, you’re defeated. You might as well put the horse away,” he said. [email protected]

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