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Missing Elements in Riding Instruction
WRITTEN BY: Cheryl Sutor   [October 3, 2001]

In my search for a place to begin teaching horses and riding lessons again after my pregnancy and 1 1/2 years off, I have visited many local farms and stables in search of a good environment for teaching and learning. I watched many lessons taught by many instructors in order to get a good feel of how each stable operates, the instructors goals for their students and the priorities of what should be learned.

I have much more experience training horses one-on-one than I do instructing people to ride, and I do not claim to be the best riding instructor. However, I do know that there are several very important elements that need more emphasis in today's riding instruction. Therefore, I have decided to write an article about those "missing elements" that I observed in almost every lesson that I saw.

At the worst extreme, one of the stables I visited had a class of "intermediate" riders, riding hunt-seat and preparing to jump by warming up over ground poles. The riders were lined up along the long-side of the arena taking turns. As the instructor called out to each rider for their turn, the rider would yank the horse's head up with the reins, then without releasing them, she'd give the horse a few sharp kicks to get him from a halt into a trot. From there, the rider would trot halfway around the arena, accidently bumping the horse in the mouth and in the saddle with each posting stride. When the rider was ready to come back to a halt, she'd put an immedate 5-10 pounds of pressure on the reins. The horse's head would lift in resistance and the resulting halt was ugly and uncoordinated. Six out of the seven other riders had repeated exactly what the first rider had done.

When I innocently asked one of the riders why she kicks the horse so hard, she told me, "He is a slow horse. He needs to be kicked hard to get him going". Hmmm. Can the horse be expected to respond to a lighter cue if he is not first been given the chance to learn it?

One of the sights I truly dislike watching is a group of school horses plodding around an arena with a dull, depressed appearance, lesson after lesson. This is especially depressing to watch when the instructor makes no effort to teach about equine behavior, communication and "feel". The horses are "dull" to each rider's aids because the instructor is not teaching these concepts. I don't believe that it's fair to take the equine from it's natural state and make a dull, depressed animal out of him. We need to try our best to educate our students of equine behavior, communication and basic training principles. We need to teach our students that they are not just a passenger in the saddle, but they are actually training the horse to either respond to them or ignore them every second they are interacting with him.

Ever since I have first started riding (around 1990), I have ridden with over 20 riding instructors in many disciplines and teaching styles. I can only recall 3 of them who really taught me to listen to horses, to feel what the horse is communicating to me, and to use the horse's own language to talk with them. Thank God for those 3 instructors! I can't even begin to imagine where I'd be today, if I had not known them.

Below, I'll outline a few missing elements, helpful teaching tips and such to help other riding instructors to enhance their teaching ability, and to enhance their student's riding ability and communication potential.

1. Soft hands. No horse deserves to be even lightly jerked in the mouth with each trot or canter stride. If a rider cannot keep his/her hands steady and in rhythm with the horse's natural "bob" at the walk and trot, then the rider should not be cantering. One piece of equipment I have found to be useful for teaching a rider to "bend and release at the elbow", is a spare stirrup leather, strapped around the base of the horse's neck. Put the rider on a lunge line and have her hold the neck strap with just enough pressure that it is not loose at the horse's breast. Encourage her to keep the same amount of pressure on the strap while walking and trotting. The posting trot is especially tricky for beginners. They tend to keep their elbow joints stiff, which causes them to raise and lower the reins with each posting stride. Don't rely on the neck strap for extensive training, because it can become a "crutch" that the rider should be dependent on. However, use it as a fun supplement to help the rider become more aware of the importance of this element in riding.

2. Responsive hands. Horses quickly learn to become responsive when a rider trains their hands to close slowly and open quickly. Spend many lessons with new riders to teach them this concept, and remind them of it in future lessons. First, have them halt their horse. Then ask them to give the horse all of the slack in the reins. Show them how to slowly bring the rein up, slowly close their right hand around the rein, and slowly apply gentle pressure to the right side of the horse's bit. The instant the horse moves his head a centimeter to the right, drop the rein. This is an exaggeration of what really happens when a rider has soft, responsive hands. However, to maintain a responsive horse, every correct movement the horse does (no matter how small), should be rewarded with the release of pressure of that cue. It takes a lot of practice to train the hands to be this giving and responsive, but the student's communication ability with the horse will have increased greatly once this is learned.

3. Soft cue first, firm cue after. Especially when riding a "stubborn" horse, it is very important to give the horse a soft "hint" before becoming firmer in your cues. This gives the horse the chance to respond to a lighter cue, a chance that has been stolen from many school horses. Teach your students to ask with a soft cue (a light squeeze of the calf or heel), wait 3 seconds for a response, and if there is no response apply a firmer cue such as light bumping of the calf or heel until the horse shows forward movement. The horse may not respond quickly on first few tries, but he will soon learn that it is more pleasant to avoid the bumping or kicking if he shows forward movement when the rider first asks with a light squeeze.

4. Balance, relaxed. Of the many lessons that I have observed over the past week, I would estimate that 90% of the riders depend on one specific body part for the majority of their balance. If the stirrups are used mainly for balance, what will happen when the student accidently loses a stirrup? If the hands are used mainly for balance, the student will lose their balance completely if the horse dodges, throws his head down, bucks, spooks or jumps. Each of a rider's body parts should work together to balance as a whole. Work your students on the lunge line with and without reins, with and without stirrups, and even without a saddle. Teach your student to become in-tune with his/her body balance, to relax and allow the natural weight of their body to balance them. Ask your student to close their eyes for a few seconds every few strides to feel the horse's movement and the shift of weight with each stride. Encourage your students to relax their stiff or flexed muscles. Learning to ride in the "correct" position comes much more naturally after a rider has learned to relax and flow with the horse's movement. In addition, once the rider becomes well balanced, light and soft, he/she can put more energy into actually communicating with the horse rather than trying not to fall off or bounce around.

5. Rise quickly, sit slowly. While posting the trot, I've seen too many riders that rise slowly and sit quickly, however, this is not comfortable for the horse. The "up" action of the posting trot should be done more quickly that the "sitting down" action of the posting trot. In the "down" action of the posting trot, by sitting down more slowly you are creating less shock against the horse's back. Teach your students to sit gently back down into the saddle on each posting stride to avoid uncomfortable bumping on the horse's back.

By using the five elements of good riding and training that I've outlined above, you're sure to inspire your students to become soft and responsive with their horses, in addition to helping keep your school horses soft and responsive with positive attitudes. A real Win-Win situation.

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This article was published on: October 3, 2001. Last updated on: October 3, 2001.