What Does It Really Take To Improve Your Riding?

Riding is challenging.  That’s nothing new to those of us who ride, right? While we all universally agree on this concept, it has a different application for all of us and I think it applies to many facets of this sport we call “riding”.


I’ve had the opportunity over the last 3-4 weeks to teach several clinics and an Adult Camp.  I saw riders of varying skill levels with two common goals; to improve in their riding and improve their working relationship with their horse. Over and over it was illustrated how incredibly complicated “getting better” is.  We need a degree of athleticism, strength, presence of mind and a feel for the subtleties of change in both the horse and rider. We need to overcome instinct with training, we need to have trained focus and be good “practicers”.  We also need self-awareness and to be okay with criticism and failure and lastly, to have perseverance and to be without the need for instant gratification.  The list is endless!


A concept that I find can be frustrating for many riders is interpretation and understanding how much attention is needed for improvement.  Most riders know that the difficulty they experience is not the horse’s fault. After all, we are always taught, it’s always the rider, never the horse.  An example: if Phillip Dutton or Robert Dover were having difficulty with a horse, they would maybe say something like the following, “The horse isn’t doing what I’d like, so perhaps I haven’t explained it well enough.”  Another rider may say, “The horse isn’t doing what I’d like, he’s being bad.”  Yet another rider may say, “The horse isn’t doing what I’d like, I know he hates learning this”, (this being the intended activity). Less common is the rider thinking, “The horse isn’t doing what I’d like so I need to learn what I am doing incorrectly so I may influence him more effectively and properly.”  From there, the rider needs to be REALLY, and I mean REALLY willing do what it takes to improve that.


An example I encountered recently was teaching a rider who proclaimed her horse hated dressage.  She was comfortable with the ride in the warm up, claiming it to be satisfactory, but then it would become unacceptable in the ring.  As she introduced herself to me, she stated that she was the problem, but followed up with how he hated dressage.  I don’t think she considered the anthropomorphic projection she put forward when she decided he hated dressage.


As a trainer of both horses and humans participating in a sport that is so complex and challenging, and that anyone can choose to do, I see over and over again how confusing it is for many.  I’ll use the above example to illustrate the many areas that a rider can be confused or fail.  First of all, unless she is a brilliantly good rider, she needs to really own the mistakes she makes daily that affect her horse and her ride.  Her horse, being a horse, isn’t conceptual in his thought.  He is an animal of prey, so all he is worried about is food and safety.  He has NO idea what dressage is!  Dressage, when WELL RIDDEN, is usually a positive experience for a horse.  What her horse IS worried about is her restrictive arms, especially when she worries about staying inside the twelve inch high arena fence and riding her figures both precisely and timely.  Her horse may also may worry about how SHE changed when she entered the arena.  Change with tension tells a horse to be alert.  The last place he wants to be is trapped behind her tight arms and tense legs!  It’s not easy to escape danger while trapped, and if a horse can’t escape in the wild, they could be eaten.  That’s their nature.


So the rider begins to realize her tension, in addition to her interpretation, is the problem.  Now the process of fixing it is a long one, and as I mentioned last month, training is always happening.  So she has to retrain MANY individual pieces that make up the whole, (all while falling back to her old habits during the process), before her horse will not anticipate her bad habits and trust a new pattern.  This is the point at which riders begin to get impatient.  It takes more than days to change a habit, it takes even longer to change many habits.  Good intentions or inadvertent behavior or actions from a rider don’t make a bad habit okay.  The horse doesn’t care how hard she tries. He doesn’t care that she didn’t mean to do something. Did she or didn’t she fix it?  Getting better about something only begins to matter to the horse after one has improved significantly. Each individual horse will say when good enough is good enough to keep them happier and still willing and not frightened or tense.  The rider can’t decide that.


Getting to be better will in large part depend on how WELL she practices her riding, not how much, (although that is important too!)  She will need to practice individual pieces until those pieces become habit. Then those pieces and habits have to be maintained while other things are going on – transitions, changing direction, jumping, etc.  If she instead puts a little effort in and decides that should be good enough, she won’t improve and her performance in the chosen discipline will be riddled with anxiety.

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