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9 Things You Need to Know if You Want to Ride Horses

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You might have liked horses all your life.

Or you might have had an awakening not too long ago that is urging you to explore horseback riding for the first time.

You can’t tear your eyes away from the sight of glowing coats and rippling muscles.

You get excited every time you drive by horses in a field.

Contrary to your friends, you even like the smell of a barn!

And now, you know you are ready to take the first steps on the long road of becoming an equestrian. You’ve booked riding lessons at a local barn and you are convinced that you are ready to tackle the learning curve that lays ahead. Before you begin, here are nine tips to smooth the way into your new adventures!

1. Be prepared to be a beginner – for a long time!

Once you step into that stirrup for the first time, forget all about instant gratification. Instead, get all pumped up for the accomplishment of doing something for the long term.

Don’t worry if your fingers fumble when putting on the bridle. Have no worry when the horse gives you a knowing look out of the corner of his eye: “This one is a beginner!” Just take the plunge into new feels, new learning curves and new coordination. It’s all about the joys (and challenges) of being on the path.

2. Every horse has something to teach you.

If you ride at a riding school, and have had the chance to ride many horses over the course of a few years, you will truly understand that there is something to be learned from every horse you ride.

If you part-board or lease a horse, you can have the opportunity to work with one horse over the long term. You might develop a deeper relationship and maybe even know each other so well that you can read each other’s minds. But always be appreciative of the chance to ride new horses because they will add to your depth of experience and repertoire of “language” you need to ride effectively.

3. Find an excellent mentor.

Your mentor might or might not be your instructor. However, this person will be critical to the success of your first years as a horse rider. She will be the one who can listen to your questions and concerns and give you the answers you need for your situation. She will guide you in your decisions and help you find the solutions that are necessary for your development – even if you are not aware of them at the time. Find someone you can trust.

4. Surround yourself with great professionals and horse friends.

It is true that you are the sum of the influences around you. So search for people you admire and look up to. Find the ones who you would like to emulate. Then, be around them and learn from them at every opportunity.

Get to know the professionals in your area – from nutrition, to health care, to training – it is essential for you to be surrounded by kind, compassionate people who always put the horse first when they make decisions.

5. Although the initial learning seems quick and easy, don’t despair once your learning curve seems to slow down.

At some point, your riding skills will plateau and try as you might, new learning becomes frustrating and difficult. Be ready for that time period and be willing to keep trudging through – until you reach your next series of leaps and bounds. However, the plateaus will always reappear, just before the next real learning curve; they are just a fact of life.

6. Be ready to be physical in a way you’ve never experienced before.

Riding is like no other sport because of the presence of the horse.

Rubbing your belly and chewing gum is an easy task compared to riding! In order to truly move with the horse, you have to learn to coordinate body parts you never knew you had, and then also stay on top of a moving 1,000 pound animal! But have no fear – it will all come together in the long run.

7. Watch, read, study, do.

It goes without saying that there is much learning to be done off the horse’s back. Read books to study what the movements should be like. Watch videos of professionals and even amateurs (especially now that videos are so easily accessible on the Internet). Go to clinics and watch how other riders develop under the eye of an experienced clinician. Then take your own lessons, go to clinics and shows or video yourself. Use every available means to solicit feedback.

Then study some more!

8. Be wary of the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” stage.

This happens to everyone at least once in their riding career. There eventually comes a time, once you have made your mistakes and learned from them, that you begin to feel pretty confident about your equine-related skills. The tack no longer defies you. You develop the balance and coordination needed to walk, trot and canter without feeling like you might fall off any second. You can even ride and talk at the same time!

When it all starts to come together like this, you might become a little more confident than were at the beginning. You start to take more riding risks. You might think about changing routines to suit yourself better – change the barn, or ditch your instructor!

Before you head off into the land of grass is greener everywhere else, heed these words! You will want to spread your wings and fly – that is a fact.  However, although there are certainly many ways to Rome, especially in the equine world, don’t “instructor hop”. Nothing is more confusing than trying to comprehend different people’s systems over and over again.

9. Listen to your horse.

Although it sounds a little far-fetched, it is indeed possible to “hear” your horse if you understand their routines, structures and communications. If life is good, your horse will show you his pleasure by becoming more rideable. He will be calm but at the same time responsive to you. He will improve his ground manners, develop consistency under saddle, and work with you toward a better partnership.

If, on the other hand, he becomes less receptive, more difficult to handle, and lose overall condition, you will know this is not the path you want to be on. Just listen and then make decisions according to the feedback.

Well, there you have it! Hopefully, these tips will help you as you progress from newbie to old-timer! 

Do you have any other suggestions for new riders? Write them in the comments below.

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Below are more articles on relevant subjects:

What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.

How Do You Know Your Horse Is Using His Back? In the long run, our primary motivation for self-improvement in riding is for the sake of the horse’s health. We want horses that live well, staying strong and vigorous long into their old age.

Frame, Round or Collection? Do you know the difference, and in a pinch, would you be able to identify it in a moving horse?

5 Steps to Effective Short Reins: Just as with any other movement and technique that is taught to horses, short reins can be very beneficial to the horse when applied correctly.

Why A Release Is Not A Let Go in Horseback Riding: Many people interpret the term ‘Release’ literally – but that’s not what really means.

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10 Tips for the Average Rider

Keep Riding

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Are you an average rider? You know the type – the one who has to work hard for one step forward and two steps back.

Are you the one who has to spend hours and hours finding your seat, or coordinating your hands and legs to finally not interfere with your horse?

Then join the club!

We are the ones who drool wistfully at those riders that seem to just get on the horse and blend into the movement without nary a thought. As Sally Swift wrote so eloquently in her book, Centered Riding,

Many of the great riders have the gift of natural balance and coordination so that they never have to question how to do anything with any part of their body. If they know what they want to do, their body will respond. Because of this innate coordination, they have not needed to know how one makes a leg move, or how one breathes, or how one balances. It just happens. Therefore it is usually difficult for them to explain to the rest of us less-coordinated mortals how to move some particular part of our bodies.

We are the ones who need lessons broken down into small, achievable steps that eventually develop into just one coordinated movement. We practice, practice and then practice some more, even while seeming to make only minimal progress.

If you resemble the above scenarios, don’t despair.  And enjoy the following tips to get through those average rider moments that we all experience from time to time.

1. Find a good teacher.

I use the word “teacher” because the skill development required at the basic levels requires someone that can impart knowledge as well as technique. A good instructor can break explain the physiology of movement. The best instructors can direct you to find feels for yourself. Detailed explanations and clarity of purpose can make the learning curve much easier and even quicker for us average riders.

2. Be patient.

Cut yourself some slack. Then cut your horse some slack. Always seek correct posture, aids, and movements but do it with a sense of humility and gratefulness. Never forget that your horse is working for you and choosing to humor your requests! If something goes wrong, problem solve and patiently redirect your horse’s behaviour.

3. Practice.

As much as we would like short-cuts, secret methods or fancy expensive gimmicks that will open the world of riding to us, there is no other way to truly become an effective, compassionate rider than to practice. And so we must.

4. Accept your limitations.

Some of us not-as-young riders discover that no matter how hard we try, some parts of our bodies simply never seem to respond the way we would hope! :-)

For example, ligaments and tendons become shortened over time and less resilient. Lower legs have more trouble staying still or releasing our lower backs to follow the horse becomes more of a challenge. We need to acknowledge that developing more flexible bodies will take longer and harder work. We might need to seek other avenues of physical development such as yoga or Pilates to find that release we are looking for.

5. Find your comfortable un-comfort.

Despite knowing our challenges, we need to constantly seek improvement. Beware of becoming the rider who never develops their skills year after year. Always  push yourself past your comfort zone and know that confusion and frustration are part of the learning process. Difficult rides are a good sign that you are going to make a breakthrough (sooner or later)!

6. Enjoy the moment.

Even if we struggle, and certainly through our grandest rides, we must enjoy the moments we get to share with our equine friends. For it is the moment that is what we are here for.

7. Persevere.

Sometimes, it might feel like you are never going to make that breakthrough that you’ve been looking for. The key at this juncture is to be so determined and stubborn that you will be willing to come back and try again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

8. Set goals.

Set long term goals, then develop realistically achievable short-term goals. Be flexible but have an intended path. Even if you don’t meet your goals, they will serve to direct your efforts and give you perspective.

9. Read, watch, imitate.

Look out for inspiration. Read the books of the masters as well as contemporary riders. In this day and age of the Internet, having access to excellent video footage of lessons, clinic rides, and show footage is at your fingertips.

Watch many riders, define what you like in a good ride and study. Then, go and try it yourself. Imitation is the first step to learning a skill set. Watch and try. Get feedback from your instructor. Once you have developed a skill, you can easily make the skill “yours” by adding something new or specific to your horse’s needs.

10. Keep practicing.

Develop a routine. Follow a system. But keep at it. There is no other way.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Visit our store for a variety of Horse Listening T-Shirts!

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If you enjoyed the above post, you might also like to check these out:

When “Good Enough” Just Isn’t Good Enough In Horseback Riding: We come up with all sorts of excuses to explain why we don’t want to or can’t get past the problem.

Too Good to be True? Finding Your Horse’s “Happy Place”: Did you know that through riding, you can help your horse achieve a happy, content outlook on life? Sounds ridiculously far-fetched? Too good to be true?

How Do You Develop “Feel” in Horseback Riding?  Developing ‘feel’ in horseback riding doesn’t have to be an impossible dream! If you can ride with feel, you will be able to respond immediately to your horse’s needs.

What you Ought to Know About Instant Gratification in Horse Riding: There is no such thing!

Quit To Persevere: Quitting isn’t always a bad thing in horse riding – sometimes, it may just be the ticket!

Horseback Riding the Yoga Way-Practice

When you are riding, do you “practice” your ride?

Just a moment in time

Do you give your horse and yourself a break when things go wrong?

Do you approach “mistakes” with a forgiving attitude, thinking that this is just one practice in a million, and there will be chances to improve over time?

I have to admit to myself – not all the time.

Sometimes, I get wrapped up in making it happen “right now”. Sometimes, when things don’t fall together at the right time, I feel discouraged.

I feel like I’ve failed my horse. Other times, I feel like the horse has let me down.

Practice Your Ride

As I walked into the yoga studio the other day, I was greeted by my yoga teacher with:

“What a wonderful day to practice.”  

The word “practice” resonated in my mind for a moment. Naturally, I made a horse-riding connection.

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“Practice” refers to repetitiveness, habitual performance and regular training. There is a sense of repeating to seek improvement. But the key underlying sense of the term is that if things don’t go right, you can try, try again.

When you practice something, you know it doesn’t count.

Practicing brings a positive sense to a situation. When you practice, it means you are trying to improve yourself. The world is on your side, you know you have a second and third chance.

Mistakes are forgiven. There is room for improvement. You have more time. You have more tries.

You can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you’ll be given another chance. You know that if things don’t go as well as planned this time, you will eventually get to the point where you want to be, because you have all the time in the world to improve yourself.

Find a balance between achieving and letting go.

Of course we don’t want to do badly when we ride. It is obvious that we want to seek harmony, stay in balance and be there for our horses. It is through practicing that we can discover the areas we need to improve upon and how to use our aids clearly.

But things do not always go as planned!

When this happens to you, it is time to sit back and reflect – it’s OK for things to not go perfectly. There is always the next try, the next day, the next week.

Give yourself some slack. Be kind and appreciative to your horse even if you DIDN’T get what you wanted right away.

Be prepared to try, try again. Maybe there is something you can change. Is there a different sequence of aids you can use? Were your aids too tight/loose/quick/slow? Is your horse in the right frame of mind? Maybe achieving only 50% of your goal is just fine for today.

Discover the things not to do and as a byproduct, the things to do. Keep trouble-shooting but avoid building tension and getting stressed.

And if all else fails, quit while you’re ahead.

Feel the freedom that practice can give you. It is not essential to be perfect, because so long as you keep practicing, the achievement will come on its own. Let it go and enjoy your ride!

There’s always tomorrow.

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I looked into my yoga instructor’s eyes, enjoying the deeper understanding (and riding connections) I had just made with just that simple word “practice”. I felt a sense of relief in knowing that I wasn’t going to be expected to be perfect in my yoga practice that day. I also gave myself the permission to enjoy that same feeling in my future horseback rides!

Do you regularly “practice” during your rides? Is there a time in your riding where the concept of practicing could fit in? Do you or can you let go of the tension that comes along with perfectionism and relax more into the rhythm of trying differently the next time? Share your observations in the comments below.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

New! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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Read more here: 

Softly Determined – A Poem: I found this one on the Internet long ago, with no indication of the author. However, it has stayed with me, blending intensity with passion, being so eloquent and yet knowledgeable about the “path”.

Ask 25 Horse People One Question…: … and get 25 different answers! What to do with all the opinions out there.

Do You Make This Timing Mistake When Riding Your Horse? Have you ever given your horse an aid and got nothing in return? There could be one other variable that you might not have considered…

Speaking “Horse” (a.k.a. “Pushing the Envelope”): Horses send messages out as much as humans do. Once you know how to listen to your horse, a whole world of communication can open up for you.

Listening Corner – The Rider

Theme: “The Rider”

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From Training Strategies For Dressage Riders by Charles deKunffy (1994), p. 95-96

“Because it is based on communication between two living organisms, riding must include not only the rider’s ‘talking’ but even more his ‘listening’. A rider’s awareness of his horse’s mental and physical state, indeed, should determine what and how much he asks of his mount. Therefore, the truly talented riders are recognized as having ‘feel,’ which depends on the talent for being a living antenna that picks up all communications the horse sends….

A rider should always be fully aware of the horse’s well-being and his horse’s communications. He must also react to them with knowledge and insight. Knowledge comes by practicing riding, coaching, reading, watching, and discussing. More important, however, is the insight and wisdom gained by empathy toward the horse…. The rider ought to train himself to think the way his horse does.”

In case you’re wondering, Horse Listening did not model its name or idea from Charles’ quote – nothing could be farther from the truth (see our original first post to discover the inspiration for “listening” to horses)! Finding this section from a book of over 200 pages was just another one of those “coincidences” that occur from time to time when everything seems to fall together. In any case, as important as the topic of the post (being an empathic rider) is the fact the the concept of “listening” to horses had already been elaborated upon in 1984, almost 30 years prior to the conception of the Horse Listening blog. So… here we are, reinventing the wheel, although I daresay that it is an important concept to revisit.

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From:  Balance in Movement: How to Achieve the Perfect Seat by Suzanne Von Dietze (2003), p. 174

“There is really no such thing as the perfect rider or, for that matter, the perfect horse. If we want to make progress, it is of great importance to recognize where some difficulties arise and why. Some problems are not immediately recognizable, but they are a serious nuisance whenever more subtle influence is required. Thus, riders can learn to master the three basic gaits even in the chair seat, but they will never be able to develop quick and sensitive reactions for further influencing the horse because they are always behind the movement….

Riding is a game of balance between the horse and rider. Two living beings should, ideally, find such a degree of common balance that it appears to an observer that they have grown together as one unit. The majestic rider sitting quietly on a horse represents the ideal aesthetic picture of riding. Any layman would be able to recognize a good rider by his calmness. As soon as the rider’s influence becomes too obvious, a sense of agitation is created which is visually distracting. The sensitive balance of a horse and rider is endangered.”

It is well known that good riding can be easily distinguished by its effortless appearance – in fact, the good ride can be identified by its lack of “excitement” – in the sense that the horse appears to be calm, at ease and confident in what it is being asked to do. A good rider is the one who maintains poise and has the tendency to give the horse the benefit of the doubt. Developing a strong and balanced seat is a prerequisite to being able to influence the horse in a way that enables the horse to perform at its highest potential.

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From: The Complete Training of Horse and Rider In the Principles of Classical Horsemanship, by Alois Podhajsky (1967), p. 211

“The best way to obtain the correct seat, especially for a dressage rider, is longeing without stirrups. During this work, the rider need not pay attention to guiding his horse but can concentrate on controlling his own movements in the various paces. This is the quickest way to achieve the necessary independent seat, if the legs and reins are to be employed as aids and not as a means to regain lost balance. Absolute self-control is the basic requirement for every rider. He must not only be able to control his body but also his temperament. Only then will he be able to make the other creature submit to his will and develop his natural abilities. “

A discussion about riding simply cannot be complete without the mention of lunging to develop the seat and balance. Although it is true that in our time and place – with horses becoming more of a recreational pursuit than a form of expression and art – there is an emphasis on “instant gratification” and achieving (perceived) results sooner than later. Riders new to horses want to get on and “ride”, get to a show and win ribbons, and resolve riding problems quickly and with little preparation or background.

However, in this short quote, Podhajsky tackled the two most critical components to becoming an effective rider – first, balance and body control, and second, the social/emotional awareness necessary to bring out the best from the horse.

Although the world around the horse has changed over the years, the horse itself remains essentially the same, and therefore the requirements of riding are essentially unchanged. A rider must be prepared to work hard to acquire the necessary skill, and most importantly, be willing to wait for results.