Success in the Saddle: Learning is Your Friend

by Robert M. Liner

The most effective riders are the ones prepared for the unexpected. On the most pleasant of afternoons, a simple trail ride can suddenly turn into a fight for survival. Why this happens is a question that is impossible for any human to answer, but how and what makes it happen can be addressed.

Riding effectively is achieved by regular participation with your horse. It takes repetition and consistency to become an effective horseman, and your horse needs the same amount of exercise both mentally and physically to be a safer partner.

By carefully following a series of exercises on a weekly basis, the two of you will be achieving much success in the long run. Horses that react, and riders that are caught unexpectedly by surprise, are most often the result of random, unfocused riding. Also, no real clear understanding of what is expected of each other has been thoroughly established.

There needs to be a planned purpose to your riding program when you approach your horse whether in the arena or on the trail. The instruction from you to your horse can be given in simple easy to learn and processed steps.

First, you must analyze your horse’s instincts, actions and reactions. You’ll need to test him slowly with careful attention to giving him praise and rewards for his smallest efforts. This is how he’ll begin to build a desire to learn and even please you. Miss even the tiniest try, and you both may find yourself getting nowhere and frustrated.

Be a keen observer and an aware tactician, your body language and mental intent speak volumes here. Often, before you’ll see a big movement from a horse, you’ll see a twitch of muscle or skin ripple. Before they are about to try, they’ll usually lean in the direction they’re about to go. It can be super subtle and hardly noticeable at first, but it sure makes a difference when you witness it. A soft sounding voice and a stroke of your hand can mean a lot to the horse that is trying. There is a very fine line between response and respect. Neglect to see the former, and you’ll risk missing the latter.

You must be the horse’s example of what you desire him to be. He can’t know if your truck is clean, if your tack is put up properly or if your home is organized, but you reflect it and that, he does notice. A horse that hasn’t properly been taught to deal with strange noises or sudden movements may let you get by with many rides until the one day something overloads his nervous system, and he goes on survival mode. That’s why paying attention means the same at home as it does on the trail. Because of the false sense of security both of you have had, when panic strikes neither of you may have a clever plan or strategy for how to deal with it. Plan for success not random achievement.

One way to do this safely is by taking lessons on a very calm, forgiving, well-educated horse of good build and even temperament. Too many times students aspiring to learn how to ride are advanced beyond their physical and mental aptitude, and they cannot learn when the importance is placed on quick motion. The art of a good, steady, even walk is overlooked because it’s often considered boring or too beginner oriented, but it is essential for independent riding.

An equestrian or horseman wanting to become skilled must be able to explain what it takes to move a horse, where the movement comes from, when it would be appropriate and how to do it in a variety of ways. Getting lessons or instruction from an experienced teacher can help you and your horse gain confidence.

Much of this can be done in a reasonable amount of time once a rider shows a true determination to learn. But a word of caution, an instructor never needs to intimidate the student or the horse. Nagging or aggravating a horse making it wring its tail or resent the bit is considered pass( and is down right cruel, and no student can learn if they are taught in a condescending way. So, choose carefully, and be open to criticism that develops you, not tears you down. Remember, all instructors started just like you and me, by taking lessons. Sharp words and cutting remarks are like yanks on the reins or spurs punching the sides. It makes for a dull, lifeless lesson and unresponsive horse.

No horse is absolutely perfect. They all have whimsical and capricious natures. They can be easy going one day, and the next, turn stubborn and tough minded (often called moody). But proper and regular interaction can influence their consistency and courage. The rhythm of your participation with them needs to be honest, pure and steady. You will enhance their nature greatly by continuing to handle train and school them with this approach.

Enjoy the time you spend together. Be mindful of how sensitive the mouth is, and be gentle with your requests. You will have a horse you can be proud of and show whether in competition or on group rides. The next most important lesson a rider must learn is how to thoroughly comprehend what is meant by an independent seat, and how to learn to achieve it. All horses are pretty much the same as far as how they are designed, but there are different ways to develop an independent seat.

To stay in the seat, you need a good one.

What is a good seat and how is it independent?

A good seat and an independent seat are one and the same. Independent means you aren’t relying on the stirrups, horn or cantle to keep you mounted. By placing your weight slightly forward, your balance will be over your feet not the seat.

If you were to look at photographs of these four types of riders, you’ll see what I’m describing: The polo player; the English jumper; the endurance rider and the Mongolian horseman. By being in a ready position (think, shortstop, diver or boxer), they are less likely to be spun out or bucked off a startled or panicked horse.

Also, you are feeling for the horse’s mouth by the way you hold the reins. Hands and thumbs on top are slightly closed. By flexing the fingers, you get more sensitivity and response to the bit.

This also helps you balance your riding position on the horse’s back. Your center of gravity will be directly over the center of gravity of your horse’s back. By doing this, your horse is not bearing most of your weight or taking the shock of the load. This will help you be more one with the moves of your horse.

In order to feel safe, secure and have peace of mind, real riding requires athletic prowess and common sense, but let’s face it, not everybody possesses equal amounts of this, especially today’s riders and even their horses. It is a sad fact, but most people think they are capable riders before they actually are.

That also applies to riding instructors. This is why many horses and riders are freaked out, injured or killed each year when a simple pre-ride saddle check, warm-up or skills test could determine the level or challenge each could handle.

One of the biggest problems is people are too proud to ask for help, take instruction or admit they don’t know anything. Often they feel threatened to you offering advice, and they refuse to listen to tips that could save their life. And those that do seek feedback are really searching for praise and compliments. This often leads to a wide gap between those needing instruction and instructors wanting to give it.

In the meantime, we end up with a lot of go for it Man from Snowy River types pushing the limits of smart, safe, riding. This is what leads to the inevitable disaster, and yet, it could all be avoided with simple easy to follow riding lessons first. Sometimes this can last for months or years depending on the time invested in training.

For fun have a friend or spouse video your riding. This is a way to critique your posture, seat position and your horse’s abilities. Include some obstacles to cross or maybe even a low level jump (about one foot). Watching yourself ride can make you much more aware mentally of how you are holding your hands and sitting in the saddle.

Be open to learning and enthusiastic about feedback, and before long, you’ll be offering tips. Not everyone will be thrilled about your advice, but those that are will be safer in the saddle and on the trail, and maybe share experiences while on the trail of successful riding.

Until next time, ride the wise ride.

Copyright Robert M. Liner. All rights reserved.