The Fundamentals of Good Riding

Three Olympians answer spectators' questions about the fundamentals of good riding, including communication with the horse, how long they ride each day and more. By Sandra Oliynyk for Practical Horseman magazine.

The three Olympic riders–show jumpers Anne Kursinski and Ian Millar and dressage rider Courtney King-Dye–walked, trotted and cantered around the Oncenter Complex’s main arena in Syracuse, N.Y. Each rode several transitions, bringing their horses seamlessly forward and back. They also schooled leg-yields, shoulders-in, haunches-in and other lateral movements.

From left: John Madden, Ian Millar, Anne Kursinski and Courtney King-Dye | ? Sandra Oliynyk

“We all use suppling, bending exercises to ultimately achieve straightness where the horse is pushing completely off of his hind end with power, whether it’s to go over a jump or do an extended trot or pirouette,” Courtney explained.

The trio was giving a seminar, “How It’s Done: Dressage and Jumping,” presented by Practical Horseman magazine at the 2009 Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament in October. The purpose was to show how basic riding is similar regardless of discipline. After their demonstration rides, they sat down and spoke more about their riding philosophies and answered some questions from the 375 spectators. The host for the evening was top trainer John Madden.

Safety Helmets
Before taking questions, Ian asked Courtney about the dressage community’s views on safety helmets, which many upper-level dressage riders do not wear.

Ian Millar: They say if you have between five and seven concussions you’ll have chronic concussion syndrome. Hard hats are a very big deal for us in the hunter-jumper world now. I wanted to know from Courtney what the dressage world’s feeling is about protective headgear.

Courtney King-Dye: I definitely think it will change over time. That’s only my personal opinion, but I know if there’s candid picture of me in a magazine, I’m bound to get many letters reprimanding me for my lack of safety helmet. You see everybody who’s biking wearing helmets, and here we are this far above the ground on very unreliable animals without them, so I do think it will change, and I think it’s an important change to make. And I think it only gives us another fashion opportunity.

Be Clear and Fair
Before taking questions, the four trainers spoke about communication with the horse.

Anne Kursinski: Your horse is your teammate. You need to respect him and be clear when you’re asking him to do something. You also need to be clear when he does something wrong and say, “No, that’s not right.” Then you have to be very consistent in the correction.

CKD: You can discipline a horse when it’s fair, but it has to be consistent. Say one time you squeeze your horse and he doesn’t respond and you don’t do anything or you just keep nagging with your leg. Then suddenly you whack him. That’s not fair. It has to be consistent. If your horse knows that every time you put your leg on quietly, he has to respond, then that’s training. But if you choose to only half the time make sure he responds to your leg, in my opinion, that’s abuse. You have to be clear so your horse has a chance to understand what you want.

IM: When you’re trying to teach a horse to do something, if he’s rewarded every time he makes a little effort, then he’s going to start to crave that reward. Once he starts craving that reward, he’ll try so hard to learn. The attitude you’re fostering at that point is that you’re not taking anything. The horse is giving it to you. And if a horse gives you the winning efforts, there’s an infinite number of them. But if you have to take the winning effort, there’s a finite number on that. Any good competition rider who has longevity knows very well how to get horses to give to them.

John Madden: I think education is the second most important thing in riding. The first is empathy. But it really struck me that as you rode, you were watching each other.

IM: Watching Courtney do the half-halt, I was thinking that when I do the half-halt, I hold too much. Courtney was saying to get it, then let go and let the horse carry himself.

AK: When I go to shows, I watch everybody to learn what to do and what not to do. Those who win are dedicated to the horse and attention to detail.

IM: I like to say, “There are more important things in this world when riding a horse but not when you’re riding a horse.”

John then invited spectators to ask questions.

Questions and Answers
Question: How much do you ride each day?

CKD: I ride from about 8 a.m. to about 3 p.m. So about seven hours.

AK: I ride four to six horses a day, so between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

IM: I ride five to six hours per day. Conditioning is so critically important. You should have your horse fit enough to jump a course four times, so two times will not be an issue. If a person says to me, “My horse didn’t do very well in a grand prix because he was tired,” boy, that’s embarrassing. But it’s got to be done carefully, because if you’re not training, you’re un-training.

Question: How do you tell the difference between when a horse says, “I won’t do it” versus when he says, “I can’t do it”?

IM: I’m still struggling with that. That is something that comes from judgment and judgment comes from experience–the experience being bad judgment. When you were 19 years old, you might have said, “We’re going to stay here all day,” when the truth was that horse couldn’t do it. But sometimes people who ride for a little while just give up and say the horse can’t do it. Well, the horse just learned a fantastic lesson. They must not learn that trick. Your bad judgment leads to experience which leads to good judgment.

JM: When I find myself asking, “Why doesn’t this horse cut me a break?” I ask myself, “Could he be asking the same about me?” If the answer is yes, I need to go back and set up the work or exercise so I can expect him to do what I want.

Question: How long is too long to work your horse?

IM: I was riding a scrappy mare once. A very good trainer rode the horse for me, and when he got off, he said, “A horse like this follows the 20-minute rule. You can ride a horse like this for 20 minutes, no longer. No matter what you’ve gained or haven’t gained, after 20 minutes you get off because that’s all she can take. If you stay at 20 minutes every day, after a certain period of time, you will begin gaining.”

CK: If it’s a hot horse, I might ride him at 9 a.m. for 15 minutes, at noon for 15 minutes, at 4 p.m. for 15 minutes–short doses of concentrated work. But with some horses, the last 10 minutes of one hour is the golden time. If you’re not getting anywhere, you have to be gracious enough to say that and get off. The next day, you need to remember the time when it begins to go wrong. You have to listen to what your horse needs. Always experiment. The only way to find out is to do too much one day, but be man enough to own that mistake. The next day you might work too little until you figure it out.

I think what all top riders have is extreme focus, and that focus includes memory. It’s not that just you get off your horse at the clock. You think about what the ride was, and the next time you get on, you think about what work you want to accomplish.

Question: What are some good exercises to help build strength behind?

CK: Transitions. Forward and big, then sit and collect. You can’t do it all in one set. You need to have several sets. If you go too long, your horse will become fatigued and he’ll stop.

AK: Lots of lateral work, though not drilling the work.

IM: Eventers do interval training: 10 minutes at the walk, five minutes at the trot, five minute walk. Then you switch to six minutes at the trot, four minutes at the walk and build from there.

AK: You also want to think about how your horse feels. If he feels good, do more. Of course, you want to do it by the watch, but you also want to do it by feeling. If your horse’s back becomes stiff and rigid, you did too much.

IM: If your horse is in physical distress, nothing will be accomplished.

To read more about the Syracuse clinic, see “A Conversation Among 3 Olympians” in the January 2010 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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