1. Ride at least twice a week, if possible. "Students can make progress with once-a-week lessons, but it's much easier if they come out to the barn twice a week or more," says Richard Scarlett who operates a highly successful lesson-horse program at his Gwyn Meadows Farms, just north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He adds that a stint at a good day camp, where students ride every day for a week or two, can bring dramatic results. "These camps are most common for children, but they're beginning to be more popular for adults, too."
2. Make sure you feel comfortable and confident on the horse assigned to you. If you don't, ask to be given a different horse.
3. Ask your instructor to identify your weak areas so you'll know where to focus your concentration.
4. Also ask your instructor to detail all that your school horse is capable of, so you'll know what to expect of him. (You may be surprised to learn that he can lengthen nicely at the trot, say, or manage that tricky in-and-out smoothly, if you apply your aids correctly.) Getting your horse to perform up to his full potential will signal that you're ready to move up to a more challenging mount.
5. Before each lesson, give your horse plenty of time to warm up thoroughly, especially if he's older. "A horse might be a little stiff; but if you get him completely warmed up and suppled, he'll do a good job for you," advises Richard. "And don't fret if he's a little slow. Be patient. The slower horses are typically the most seasoned veterans, which means they have a lot to teach you."
6. Take advantage of your school horse's "push-button" capabilities to concentrate fully on your position, especially your lower leg. "If your lower leg is stabilized in the correct spot, with your weight in your heel, then your upper body will remain properly positioned (no leaning or crouching) and your hands will have the freedom to stay soft," says Richard. "Go ahead and experiment on your school horse and work with your instructor to get your leg position just right. Later, when you're on your own horse, you'll find that you're really able to zoom ahead."
7. Concentrate on using your legs more than your hands to communicate with your horse. "Too much hand--especially yanking or pulling--makes a lesson horse crazy," Richard notes. "If you try, you'll find that a lot of turning can be done primarily with your leg, rather than with your hand. While you're on a well-trained school horse, get in the habit of using your leg."
8. Check your progress regularly, if possible, by participating in on-site shows. "We have shows here at the farm every April and June where students can compete with their school horses," says Richard. (At many barns--his is one--only students who lease the barn's horses may take them to off-site events.) "Our shows give lesson-horse riders a good way to test developing skills, and to see where they need more work. Shows really help to tell you what you're doing right or wrong; it can be a lot tougher than you think to get a winning hunter round, for example."
9. If you're especially eager to advance, and you have the time, consider riding more than one lesson horse. "Some of my students ride three or four horses a day, and of course they progress much faster," says Richard. "Some of these are younger students; when they go off to college, they're perfectly prepared to take part in college riding programs that require them to go to a show and catch-ride an unfamiliar horse."
10. Another way to advance, once you've mastered the basics, is to volunteer to ride a greener horse. "Often we have newer horses that aren't yet ready for the school horse program," says Richard. "More advanced riders can work with these horses, seasoning them until they are ready to become regular lesson horses."
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This article originally appeared in Practical Horseman magazine, April 1999.