by Mitzi Summers
Often in my teaching clinics, especially when the participants are realizing the complexities involved in learning a new exercise, or trying to develop the feel when their horse is improving, I might remark that I think that becoming a truly accomplished rider is the most difficult sport. Now I can just imagine how a good tennis player, boxer, or football fan may react to that statement, but I will explain my reasons and some of the skills necessary to become an educated, athletic and empathetic horseperson.
First of all, of course, is the realization that riding is the only “sport” involves another sentient being. The horse is a complex, highly intelligent animal. Humans should not measure intelligence by human standards. The fact that horses can physically and mentally make sense of our often confusing training certainly helps define this.
Horses recognize that we are predators, so one of the first things we need to develop in our riding partner is trust.
Even if someone is riding for other reasons than a love of horses it is a matter of our self-preservation that the animal that we ride is responding calmly to a request and not out of fear. The most dangerous horses that I have ridden were those whose mind was “gone” because of abusive or forced training.
The physical part of learning to be a truly good rider is daunting. An accomplished rider is able to give invisible aids. She has a highly developed sense of balance and inner core strength. I do not mean strength is needed in order to force control of the horse, but it is necessary to be centered, and be able to develop automatic reflexes and the use of the aids emanating from the seat of the rider first. This is obvious when one considers that in the Olympics, the only events involving both men and woman on the same level are the equestrian sports.
Feel, theory, and rigorous physical training of the body is necessary for success in riding. By success I do not mean the acquiring of ribbons — I mean carrying riding to its correct and natural pinnacle with the horse and rider as true partners. One of the first goals is to work with your body so that you are able to move each part independently of the other. Consider a child learning to ride. If he gives his pony a kick from his legs, his whole body moves — hands, head, and seat that send the pony conflicting signals.
Being correctly lunged on a good lunging horse is a very important factor in learning to ride correctly. The USDF recognizes this and it is an important part of the testing of their instructors. If exercises are done correctly, the rider has time to recognize and feel how the human body must integrate with the motions of the horse. They will gradually learn how to use each part of their body independently of the rest.
I heard a reputable horseman state that it requires 60 hours on the lunge line to have an independent seat. I am not saying that the average horse person needs to devote that much time, but some of my top students and myself have indeed spent those 60 hours and we are still working on perfecting our positions. It is a never-ending process, but that is what makes it such a wonderful sport. The result of being lunged is that you can walk, trot, and canter without reins or stirrups. You should be able to do many different exercises such as arm circles, “legs away”, rising and sitting trot without stirrups or reins and many others. Please note that I realize that for the average rider, or someone starting in riding again after several years, that you can become the type of rider you desire without accomplishing this. But I do suggest some other body work so that riding is easier for you and you are aware of how your body is reacting.
Now the rider has to make use of this skill by putting it all together and learning how to instinctively adapt his body to the movement of the horse. It needs to become a reflex. If the horse’s ribcage bulges into your leg and he is crooked, you automatically straighten him without conscious thought. This is what makes the hours and hours of instruction from a competent teacher worth the time and money. It is their job to teach you theory, correct attitude toward the horse, and feel, so that when you do something correctly you are told and you can start to recognize how that FELT when it was correct.
Half halts done well are very important, and also need to become a reflex. In one of my clinics when I came into the center after riding a horse for 15 minutes, the participants asked me how many half halts I had done. I had absolutely no idea because preparing my horse for changes in balance had become automatic. I could tell them when they needed to use them, but your goal is to help the horse with a half halt the instant it is needed. If you have to think about it, the moment is gone. Of course this takes hours and hours of riding and practice.
While all of this is being realized, it is also of paramount importance to observe and understand the horse. He sees differently than we do, reacts differently, has to adjust to the unnatural weight of a rider, and learn to respond to our often-confusing aids. We have to understand his priorities – safety, food, shelter and reproduction if you are dealing with a mare or stallion. Another important thing to remember is that each horse is an individual. They have different learning curves, and their response to stimuli varies, as do their emotions. This of course is the main difference in the sport of riding compared to other sports – the necessity of changing our paradigms to fit those of another creature.
The correction to a horse of an undesired behavior or the reward of something done right has to be almost instantaneous or the horse will not recognize the relationship between them. It also has to deal directly with the related behavior. This is why clicker training can be so effective when the timing is correct. The positive reinforcement comes automatically with the desired result.
Usually if a horse under saddle refuses to perform as asked it is because he does not understand, or is not able to physically or mentally ready. It is up to the rider to figure out a way to explain it to the horse in a way that can be understood, and to make certain that the horse is not in any pain.
Obviously, the art of riding involves many facets not realized in regular sports. It is a complex endeavor, not understood by most non-horse people. But the rewards are well worth it. The feeling of communication, trust and bonding of your four-legged riding partner make it all worthwhile.