Putting in the work to be a better rider…

I’ve been thinking lately about hard work, and getting the basics right before skipping ahead. My daughter has been on and off horses her whole life, but only in the past few months has she decided she really wants to learn how to ride. It’s been interesting to watch her progress. She’s 13 and has the natural balance that kids possess. She is also on a safe horse that allows her to become more confident and take risks without the fear of getting hurt.

I remember when I bought Baron and started learning to ride at age 29. I was athletic and in good shape, but I had missed out on those fearless teenage years of riding that so many of my friends had. I wanted to be a better rider, and I wanted it to happen quickly. It was hard to be a beginner around other adults who had ridden all their lives. I was always looking for some sort of magic trick or shortcut that would allow me to skip ahead and get better faster. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

I took critiques from better riders and the one comment that stuck with me was that until I had a secure lower leg position, nothing else could be correct. So I worked on my legs non-stop. Every time I rode, I consciously put my leg where it belonged (underneath me, not out in front or too far behind), until it felt natural and I had the muscle memory and strength to keep it in the right place. That one bit of advice put me on the right path, but I had to put in the hours in the saddle. Knowing what to do and having the muscle strength to do it are two different things.

When I’m teaching my daughter how to ride, I tell her where her body should be and then I put her on a horse every chance I get. The only way to learn how to ride is to ride. There are no exercises, tricks, hacks or shortcuts. If she wants to get better at riding, she has to ride. That seems so obvious, but I think anyone immersed in the horse world knows that the average beginner rider wants the shortcut. Everyone wants to progress quickly. Nobody wants to hear that they need to spend hours just walking and trotting.

The perfect example is jumping. Everybody wants to learn how to jump, and I did too when I was a beginner. After riding as long as I have (which isn’t that long compared to most of my friends), I don’t think anyone should learn how to jump until they are solid at the canter. Oftentimes a horse will trot up to a jump and then canter away afterward. You have to be able to ride the canter with ease or you’ll be thrown off balance. Nobody wants to hear that, though. Everybody wants to be told that they’re ready to start jumping as soon as they can post a trot. Just because you can trot up to a jump and stay on does not mean that you’re truly ready for it. If any little thing goes wrong, you’ll be dumped. I know this from experience!

At the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, the rider apprentices spend a year on the lunge line going around in a circle with no reins so they can develop an independent seat. A YEAR. They don’t get to touch reins for a year. By the time they get the reins, they can walk, trot and canter with no hands with ease. In other words, they don’t get the reins until they don’t need them anymore. They are not hanging on the horse’s mouth to balance. I’m not saying everyone should spend a year on the lunge because it isn’t practical for most of us. But we should spend a year, or however long it takes, learning how to ride the first 3 gaits in balance.

My daughter and I ride on the beach. At first we walked only. Now we walk out and we trot almost the whole way back. We take short breaks and then start trotting again. In each trot set, my kid gets several minutes of uninterrupted trot time so that she can get into a rhythm of posting. It’s hard in the arena because the horse will stop or slow by the gate or speed up to catch his friends, and the rider has to steer around the corners. On the beach we go in straight lines, no steering necessary. The horses know the way and they trot calmly, get into a rhythm and stay there. It makes it easy on the rider.

At first, Elle rode with both hands on the reins. Now she’s practicing trotting with one hand on a loose rein, like a western rider. Eventually, she’ll be able to post with no hands at all- arms outstretched like an airplane. Once she’s able to do that, we’ll move on to cantering.

Everyone wants to start cantering before their trot work is totally solid, but if you get the trot work right, then you’ll have the muscle to canter in balance. It’s systematic. Do the first thing well before you move on to the second thing.

Riding with her has been good for me too. I ride with no hands at the trot, and I’m working on canter transitions and cantering on a loose rein. The horse she rides is content to trot while mine canters, so we can each work on our own thing.

I keep telling her that if she puts the work in, day after day, hour after hour, she will improve. There is no shortcut, no secret knowledge, no hack. Becoming a better rider means prioritizing riding, taking advantage of every opportunity to sit on a horse, and putting the work in. It’s not glamorous. It’s a grind.

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