Someone recently posted a question on Facebook, asking what one thing people would tell a new beginning rider to do or learn. Much of the advice focused on more advanced topics, such as horse and rider biomechanics. All topics shared were good topics to learn/know about; but they showed that we have lost perspective on what it is to be a beginning rider.
I have heard for several years, from friends who are still making their livings from training riders and horses, that the pressure to move people along quickly is often overwhelming. Whether an adult rider who has decided to start riding, and has a busy life; or a proud parent who wants the best for their child – too many want to know how quickly they can get to the ‘fun stuff’. In the case of the adults, they also like to believe that they can very quickly grasp complex topics – but if the world you are entering is new to you, the most basic topics can be very complex.
I remember the struggle of a champion equitation rider just to groom her horse, when she came to our area for college, and no longer had grooms to tack and untack her horses for her. A National Champion rider – something most would aspire to be – but befuddled by a curry comb and body brush. The moral is to never underestimate the importance of learning the little details when it comes to your horse.
Another challenge for those learning to ride today is the rarity of barns that specialize in teaching riders ‘from the ground up’, as I and many of my contemporaries were privileged to learn. My first riding school included indoor lessons on basic information about horses and their care. The goal was solid basic riding skills and knowledge. Far more barns today specialize in competition riding, with more focus on ‘doing’ and much less on ‘knowing’ very much. They also prefer to have the rider do all of their riding in lessons. This leaves little room for exploration, bonding, and even making mistakes – which is a critical part of learning.
On the flip side, I encounter many people online who are clearly trying to do it all on their own – with a little help from social media. That is a frightening proposition, especially when I see so much conflicting advice given in answer to those requests. An advanced rider can sift through to find the gems – but a beginning rider trying to grasp it all may tie themselves and their horses up in knots.
So, I thought that I would offer my own bit of advice, geared specifically to the beginner rider just starting out. These are the things I would consider foundational to becoming an educated rider.
Things to do Without A Horse
Learn the ‘Parts of the Horse’
One of the first things that young riders used to have to learn was the parts of the horse (I hope they still do, but evidence suggests not always). I am not talking about knowing where the trapezius muscle is located, or how long the large intestine is. I am talking about knowing the fetlock from the pastern, and where the stifle is located. For some this may seem very basic – almost too basic. But a friend who is a well known Dressage judge (retired) and trainer was conducting a clinic, just a couple of years ago, in which only one of the twenty one participants could identify where the poll can be found on the horse. When the rules of your sport hold that the poll must be the highest point of the horse in almost all movements, it seems rather important to know where that is located! And when you call the vet because your horse has a swelling, it is very useful to be able to tell her whether it is on the knee or the hock.
So, for fun, here is the parts of the horse chart similar to one from my youth. How many parts can you identify? (Answers below the image, so don’t scroll too far down before trying to name some of the parts).
Study the Gaits
If there is any single thread that will follow through your riding education, it is the gaits of the horse. Understanding footfalls, rhythm, and sequence is necessary for developing your seat and ability to feel what is happening underneath you. As your training goes along, it’s critical to understand how your riding affects the quality of the gaits, even if only to preserve your horse’s health. If you choose to pursue higher training, and/or competition, you will need to know advanced variations on the basic gaits. But it all starts with learning the basics of the walk, trot, and canter.
Study a chart, like the one below, then try to pick out the sequence in a moving horse. Count the beats and watch the footfalls. Close your eyes and listen to the footfalls. Do they fall in a consistent rhythm? Is the tempo fast or slow? All of this will come into play when you start trying to feel those footfalls and that tempo.
Know your Equipment
Get to know the parts of your saddle, bridle, and any other equipment that you utilize in your riding. Learn the purpose of each part and how it affects your experience and that of your horse. Understand how it fits your horse. Learn how to take it completely apart, and put it back together again. All of this will help you care for it, identify any flaws it may develop, and make sure it is most comfortable for you and your horse.
Things to do With A Horse
Become a Keen Observer
Riding is more than just a physical activity. If that is all you want, may I recommend a bicycle? As you go along your journey to becoming a rider, the horse will always be your best measure of how well you are doing. To take advantage of their ‘tutelage’ you must first understand their language. What does your horse look like when calm and content? What does he look like when he is approached by a horse he likes? What if it is a horse he doesn’t like? Observe postures, facial expressions (they have one of the most expressive faces in the animal kingdom!), use of the tail, and overall feeling of tension or relaxation. There are helpful resources out there, such as this brief video demonstration, based upon the Grimace scale for equine pain expressions. However, there is no substitution for direct observation of horses around the barn and in the stable.
Learn to Just ‘Be’ with Your Horse
In service of gaining those observation skills, spend as much time as you can spare just being with your horse. No riding, no grooming – no ask of any kind! Just stand next to her while she grazes. I like to rest my arm over the back (except for Noble – I get too tired reaching that high!). This posture mimics a common posture seen in feral horses, where one rests it’s head across the back of its friend who is grazing or snoozing themselves. It provides an opportunity for a very passive body contact between you two. I find it a very relaxing thing to do, and my horses seem to feel the same. (If your horse is too excited or nervous for this, work on just standing quietly side by side until you are able to relax together.)
Do Some Roadwork
Taking a stroll, side by side, is another way to experience the world together with few demands on either of you. This is where your observations can be polished. Does your horse seem relaxed? If not, is she just interested in the surroundings? Or is she getting nervous? Never push either of you too far out of your comfort zone. Stop short of either of you getting very nervous. Stretching yourself is good – but stretching things too far can make them break. Take your time to expand your territory, and you’ll increase the trust between you.
Once you can stroll together comfortably, start to take time in each week to ride out. Lessons and practice are important – but nothing will teach you how to really ride like just hopping on and riding down the trail. Stay safe – roads can be very dangerous places for horses and their riders. If you don’t have trails or farm roads easily accessible, then just stroll around the property. Take that time to just feel your horse. Don’t worry about position, just think about how the steps land and ripple up through your own body. This kind of riding is about awareness and mindfulness, not about position, goals and tasks.
Drop Your Stirrups
Fear not! In this I am not advocating for the painful drills of posting and jumping without your stirrups. It is not that those drills don’t have a purpose – but they can also lead to too much gripping in your position, so I do not recommend it for beginners. However, I have found that nothing helps ‘settle’ your seat into the saddle quite like sitting with your legs hanging.
Start just at a halt, dropping your stirrups, allowing gravity to work in your favor (have someone hold your horse if you have any concerns about safety). Allowing your knees to rotate away from the horse will help open your hips. Let your toes hang down, and just feel how your legs naturally wrap around the horse. When standing is comfortable, try it at walk. I frequently walk around like this for a while, when I first get in the saddle each ride. If I’m walking for a rest, in between exercises, I will often drop my stirrups and sit this way as we stroll. Aside from the benefit to me, it sends a clear signal to my horses that this is relaxation time.
When you do go to pick up your stirrups, start by only lifting and turning your toes, then slowly bend your knees just until you can hook the stirrup. This approach helps take advantage of the stretch, relaxation, and ‘wrap around’ feel that you just created. You may find that your stirrups now feel much shorter than they did before!
Get Some ‘Eyes on the Ground’
As I write this, my mother is reading a post where someone knows that she drops her left shoulder and twists in the saddle, and is asking for people on Facebook to help her cure it. When it comes to your position, there is absolutely no substitute for a ‘pair of eyes on the ground’! I am well aware that finding a good instructor, or being able to have them always watching you can be difficult (in fact, I would never recommend that they always watch you ride). But it is not difficult to teach your partner, child, parent, or non-horsey friend to recognize some simple position flaw, such as dropping your shoulder. A habit is just that because your brain is no longer focusing on doing it – bad habits are equally unconscious. The only way to break a bad habit is to have a way to be reminded when you slip into it.
We do ourselves and our horses a favor when we remember that learning to ride is a long journey. The measure of your success along this journey should not be what ‘fun stuff’ you can do on horseback, or what prizes you win. Rather it should be what kind of partner you are becoming for the horse. Take the time to give yourself a solid foundation. Honor not only what you know about horses and riding, but also all that you do not know. Many aged riding masters, past and present, have stated that a single lifetime is not enough to know all there is to know about the horse. Skipping the basics won’t change that fact – it only short changes your own education, and potentially blocks a quality relationship with your horse.
So my final advice to a beginning rider is: relax, focus, and enjoy the journey!