We’ve all been there, dejectedly sitting in the bleachers after yet another disastrous round as the star du jour rides by, using invisible aids while sitting motionless in the saddle.
“Why is this so HARD?” you ask yourself. The bad news is that riding well is hard to learn. The good news is that every good rider, at one time or another, has been right there with you in the bleachers. The important thing to know is that you can be a better rider—you just have to decide to get better.
First of all, riding well is hard to learn because it is not all about you—your horse is part of it, and probably the main part. If you want to learn how to ride well, you need to understand horses—how they think, how they react to certain situations and how they move underneath you. I say, “learn,” but it’s not like memorizing the multiplication tables from 1 through 12. When it comes to horses, your learning curve will trend upward for as long as you live—that’s the fun part. And while we are busy having fun, I thought I would pass along some of the things I learned the hard way so that you don’t have to repeat my mistakes.
Think Like a Horse
One of the hardest things to learn, especially for redheaded boys (like I was), is that horses don’t wake up in the morning and decide to ruin your day. Horse logic is not always the same as rider logic. As a prey animal, horses are always alert for danger and easily—squirrel!!—distracted. Once you look at the world from their point of view, you can understand why they react the way they do and teach them that you are there to keep them safe.
Their reaction to liverpools and ditches is understandable if you think about it—again, from their point of view. To you, it is a simple ditch, 24 inches wide and 12 inches deep, but to them it is the China Syndrome. Thousands of years ago, one of their potential ancestors was not careful about where he stepped and took himself out of the gene pool. Horses are spooky for a reason: Saber-toothed tigers ate the non-spooky ones a long time ago. Horses are quick to react. You and I may know something is not a threat, but your horse says, “Why take a chance? That plastic bag snagged in the bushes could be about to pounce.”
Once you understand this and learn to think like a horse, it changes your actions when your horse reacts violently to things. If you punish your horse for spooking at a sun spot in an indoor arena, you confirm in his mind that sun spots are something to be afraid of. If you allow him time to look at it in a nonconfrontational way, he will decide that he was wasting his time spooking at it and be willing to accept sun spots as part of his environment.
Staying With the Motion
Being quadrupeds, horses have certain gaits and produce certain sensations when we are (however precariously) trying to remain attached to them. Most of the horses we ride have four gaits with four distinct rhythms: the walk with four beats, the trot with two beats, the canter with three beats and the gallop, a fast canter, with four beats. My point in this is that your horse takes different actions with his body to produce each of his gaits and his actions will change how you perceive his motions and how your body needs to react in order to look as if you’re sitting motionlessly.
Here is one of my favorite examples of this: When your horse trots, his shoulders remain level but his hips move up and down and he swings one hind leg under his body while the other hind leg pushes back to propel his body forward. Ever wonder why sitting the trot smoothly is more difficult to learn than sitting the walk or the canter? This is why: At the walk and the canter, your seat moves back and forth in rhythm with your horse, but at the sitting trot your hips must move alternately up and down in order to follow your horse’s motion correctly. If you understand your horse and his movement better, then the actions you must take with your body to stay with his motion become more understandable.
Your Leg, THEN Your Hand
Improved understanding will lead to better riding. Once you can follow your horse’s movement correctly, you can apply your aids with much more precision. BUT, once again, before you start to apply aids, you need to understand what you are trying to achieve with those aids.
Basically, you use your aids to put your horse’s forces at your disposal—to enable you to move faster than you can run on your own, to jump higher than you can jump and to eventually feel that, in general, the law of gravity no longer applies to you. Like anything else worthwhile, this does not happen easily, nor should it. Beverly Sills, the legendary opera diva, said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As you continue to progress along your learning curve, you will discover that much of riding is counterintuitive. By now, you probably understand that for your horse to strengthen and improve his dressage work, he needs to lower his head slightly, relax the muscles of his back and become stronger and more energetic with his hind legs. However, you are doomed to failure until you also understand this simple rule: You don’t pull your horse’s head down. You push it down.
Once you understand this rule, you have been handed the keys to the kingdom of the horse. The first time you feel your horse step from your inside leg to your outside rein is a supremely important moment in your development as a horseman. Your first experience of this response will usually be at the trot on a circle. Make the circle about 10 meters in diameter. Now increase the size of the circle by closing your inside leg and pushing your horse toward your outside hand. Instead of speeding up, your horse accepts your leg, responds by stepping farther under his body with his inside leg and seeks a connection with your outside hand. In simplistic terms, you now have your horse balanced between the accelerator and the brake. From this point on, you know how to ride from your leg to your hand rather than the other way around. At first intermittently, then consistently and finally, generously, your horse will put his strength at your disposal.
Let Your Horse Do the Jumping
Learning to ride well over obstacles is equally as hard as learning to ride well on the flat. Just as with dressage, I have one very simple rule for you. To illustrate it, during my lessons and clinics and after a few warm-up jumps, I ask riders, especially young teenagers or older riders who are so terrified that they have regressed, the following question: “How many jumps have you jumped today?” The responses will vary widely in numbers and accuracy. Once students have expressed their opinion, I will say, “No, you haven’t jumped any.” You see, that’s my rule—“Your horse does the jumping!” You are just along for the ride. Most horses like to jump, especially if they are unencumbered by the rider’s hands. If a horse truly does not like to jump, there are other jobs he can do, and it is up to us to steer him down the correct career path.
Once we have a horse who likes to jump, we need to stay attached to his motion and ride him in a rhythm. My reasoning is this: It is difficult to ride well—and for him to jump well—if we are continually either left behind the jumping motion or topple forward on landing. Time spent in perfecting your position is never wasted. I have written numerous books and articles on the correct jumping position and you can find a list of some at the end of this article, but my short version is to adjust your stirrups so that you have approximately a 90-degree angle behind your knee when seated. Over small obstacles, your jumping position is the same as the top of your posting trot. Your stirrup leather should form a vertical line and there should be a straight line between your elbow and your horse’s mouth. Remember to follow your horse’s mouth with your elbows, not by closing your hip angle.
Once your position is secure and independent, then ride your horse in a rhythm before, over and after the jump. To help keep the rhythm in the approach, count out loud until your horse leaves the ground. You can tell yourself you had a good jump when you have approached, jumped, landed and departed in the same rhythm. Your rhythm is important because when we hear the rhythm, we hear the balance. When your horse is balanced, he jumps to the best of his ability.
Simple, just not easy. But if it were easy, everyone would do it—and you want to be the one in the saddle someday, riding past while younger, less experienced riders look at how easily you and your horse perform. This time someone new is in the bleachers, saying, “Why is this so HARD? She makes it look so easy!”
To read Jim’s column’s about the lower leg and jumping position, go to www.practical horsemanmag.com and search “Wofford leg jumping position.” Jim’s books that cover these topics include Modern Gymnastics and Cross-Country with Jim Wofford, which can be found for purchase at www.equinenetworkstore.com, and Training the Three-Day Event Horse and Rider and 101 Eventing Tips.
This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.