Jim Wofford: Mistakes Are Your Friend

Your riding improves through your own errors and those of horsemen who've gone before you.

The last sermon I heard was based on Luke 6:20-21: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Since everything is about riding for me, I immediately concluded that while God must love the poor because he made so many of them, he must also love bad riders, because he made so many of them as well. I am in the business of helping people train their horses, so, in a funny sort of way, bad riding represents job security for me. Still, I have to help people improve, or they will soon move on to another trainer.

Loreen Kay and American Outlaw II are taking advantage of having a coach. You make much faster progress when you have instant feedback on your performance. This makes your practice sessions much more productive. | Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Bad riding comes in many shapes and forms, from the mildly inefficient to the downright abusive. If I started to make a list of all the things bad riders do, my editor would give this column the hook and assign me a new topic. The simple answer is that the difference between good riding and bad riding is that you can’t see good riding. To define “bad riding,” I will apply the US Cavalry maxim: “Any system of equitation that disturbs the tranquility of the horse is flawed.”

From Mistakes to Improvement

While bad riding consists of making mistakes, the reaction of bad riders to their mistakes varies enormously. Some riders are aware of their mistakes and agonize over them, yet repeat them. Other riders sail blissfully along, totally unaware their actions are, to say the least, disturbing the tranquility of their horses.

One characteristic of good riders is an unusual ability to benefit from their mistakes: Having learned the lesson that a particular mistake has for them, they rarely repeat it.

I was lucky enough the other day to work with a good rider whose nice horse had not been going well. Her mistake? To simplify things, let’s just say she was kicking a horse who was already going forward. After I made a couple of critical comments and suggestions, she improved a great deal. She finally pulled up, smiling, and said, “That’s great! How did you know to tell me that?”

“It’s simple,” I replied. “I used to make the same mistake, but I learned how to fix it. Now you have, too.”

When we learn about riding and training, we are the beneficiaries of thousands of horsemen’s mistakes—mistakes they have been making since the age of Xenophon. For more than two millennia, horsemen have been writing about their mistakes and about the lessons they’ve learned along the way for correcting them. (For more on this, see my November 2010 column “Great Riders Have Told You Something.“)

The most direct way to become aware of your own riding problems is to get a good instructor to give you lessons. A good instructor can immediately start you on the road to improvement. Through these lessons, you will find solutions to the obvious problems you are having and also will become aware of the less obvious errors in your riding. Once you have identified the problems and decided on your corrections and homework, you are well on your way to fixing the problems and improving your riding. As legendary USET coach Bert de Nemethy used to tell me, “Jimmy, it is amazing how well your horse goes, when you ride well.”

Don’t Stop With Lessons

There are ways other than lessons to detect mistakes in your riding, and you should avail yourself of all of them. The development of small, hand-held video devices has been a fabulous help to riders. A short video of your riding can allow you to see what instructors and friends have been telling you about your riding. It is one thing to understand logically what you’ve been told you do or don’t do, but it can be transformative to see for yourself. There’s none so blind as he who will not see: It’s up to you to have someone videotape your riding and then study it. The key to future success lies in correcting the mistakes you identify during your video sessions.

I think it is much easier to learn from someone else’s mistakes, rather than making mistakes and then having to work out the answer by myself. One of the reasons I read so much riding and training theory is because each book contains a large collection of precepts and principles its author has developed. Reading the classic books on riding theory also ensures that you understand thoroughly what it is you are trying to achieve. If you do not have any underlying principles, your riding will forever be exercise, rather than training.

Learning to ride is a heuristic (trial-and-error) process, and you have to expect a bit of experimentation while you learn. However, your learning curve bends sharply upward when you are immediately given the correct answer, rather than going through the long process of trying various techniques that do not work and may possibly harm your horse mentally or physically. This is true in all three of the disciplines that eventers practice.

Dressage: Your dressage learning speeds up when someone shows you how to ride from your inside leg to your outside hand. This technique is the basis of dressage training, yet it is counterintuitive and difficult to learn on your own. Ride your horse to the bit rather than bring the bit back to him, and establish an inside-leg-to-outside-hand connection. Once you accomplish these things, you are truly doing dressage.

Jumping: The same reasoning applies to our show jumping. I see riders making mistakes over jumps every day, usually because they are moving out of rhythm with their horses. Think of your show jumping this way: There is no such thing as a perfect jump. One professional might say your last effort was perfect, while another professional standing next to your coach might say, “Yes, that was really good, but it wasn’t perfect because …”

Perfect does not exist; what we are actually looking for is “really good.” I define “really good” by a simple rule of thumb: If you approach, jump, land and depart all at the same speed, it is a really good jump. You can only do this is if you maintain your horse’s balance throughout the entire effort. Horses jump to the best of their abilities when they are balanced. Therefore, approach, jump, land and depart all at the same speed and your horse will jump really well.

Of course, certain mistakes need correction. Because there is no perfect jump, you need to accept that each jump will contain, to some degree, an element of adjustment at the point of takeoff. The mistake does not occur when, for example, your horse stands off from the fence; it occurs when you do not go with your horse. If your horse leaves long and you go out the back door, that is a mistake. If you follow his motion when he leaves the ground, you are merely going with your horse.

Alternatively, it is not a mistake if your horse steps a little close to the jump. The mistake occurs when you leave the saddle before he leaves the ground. Horses can step quite close to jumps and still extricate themselves. But if you have already jumped up your horse’s neck, it is hard for him to make the necessary adjustment. Make the same “mistake” as your horse, then your action is no longer a mistake; it is an adjustment.

I train my cross-country horses and riders by the same general rule as for show jumping: If you can approach, jump, land and depart all at the same speed, it is a really good jump. The speed changes (markedly, at the upper levels of eventing), but the general concept remains unchanged. Never mind perfect; concentrate on really good.

Focus on the Correction

Learn to accept your mistakes and view them as positive learning experiences rather than disasters. Every mistake has a possible correction that will improve your riding and your horse. Focus on the correction, not on the mistake.

Recently a student told me, “I’m no longer going to use sentences that start with “I’m not … .'” By this she meant she is going to focus on the correction she needs to make, rather than on the mistakes she has made in the past.

When you have watched as many riders as I have, you realize that if you start to make a list of all the things you might do wrong on the way to a jump, you will never get there. I want you to focus instead on the one or two key things you have learned from your past mistakes: Avoid telling yourself, “I am not going to … ” Remind yourself that when you get to the jump, “I’m going to … .”

Riders want to make things perfect, and this is a worthy goal because it leads to the improvement of our horses. However, the lessons we learn along the way are the important part of the process of trial-and-error correction. I want you to realize that if you take the correct attitude toward them, mistakes are not your enemy. Mistakes are your friend.

Reprinted from the October 2011 issue of Practical Horseman.  

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