1. Groom and Tack Up Tactfully
You can start your ride with a horse who is relaxed and tuned in, or one who is already tense and defensive. In a study where horses and riders were observed during grooming, half of the horses showed pain or aggression. Half! This was independent of the rider’s skill level. However, if you make grooming a pleasant experience, it can be a social bonding time, as mutual grooming is between horses. You can lower your horse’s heart rate and help him feel more secure with you.
Remember that grooming is a significant invasion of a horse’s personal space. Tune into his reaction to everything. Notice which curry and brush he likes and how he likes them used, how high he can comfortably lift his feet, what parts of his body he is uneasy having handled, and so on. Is he more relaxed cross-tied, single tied, or in his stall?
I make grooming into social time, talking with my horses and taking their personal preferences and pet peeves into account. Bronzz loves to have his ears curried and his forehead brushed, but doesn’t want his tail fussed with. Shiloh likes her body brushed in long hard strokes with a stiff hairbrush. Brandy hates tugs on her mane when it is brushed, so I gently work in lots of detangler first. If a horse nods off while I’m grooming, I consider it a great compliment.
Tacking up deserves the same courtesy as grooming. Set the saddle on gently, like you’d want someone to set a pack on your back. Ease the girth up in at least three stages. Make sure the bridle is straight and adjusted comfortably.
With respectful attention to the horse’s feedback, these pre-ride rituals set the stage for cheerful cooperation and good performance.
2. Use a Mounting Block or Get a Leg Up
Mounting from the ground is an important skill, but we don’t need to prove we can do it every time. It places enormous torque on a horse’s spine no matter how smoothly a rider mounts. It also builds one-sided muscles as the horse braces against our weight. People develop one-sided muscles too, quite obvious to most of us when we try mounting from the right.
Reduce stress on your horse’s back by using a mounting block, stool, log, or whatever (fig. 19.1). Then hold mane and the pommel of your saddle. Hauling yourself up with both hands on the saddle puts maximum stress on your horse’s spine. If you’re young and agile, consider learning to mount and dismount from both sides so you can alternate.
If your horse doesn’t stand at a mounting block, make sure he is relaxed standing still other places first (see “Standing Still,” on p. 120). Use lots of rewards, with a primo treat after you mount and before you ask him to move.
Getting a leg up is also a good option. It can be tricky at first, but it is all in the timing and worth the practice.
3. Check Your Balance
Poorly balanced riders can cause horses ongoing pain. This was demonstrated clearly in a study comparing two riding schools. At one school, riders had short reins, high hands, and poor leg position, all symptoms of poor balance—and 100 percent of those horses had back pain! They also showed the high head, inverted neck, and hollow back characteristic of pain (the “goat-on-a-rock” posture—see fig. 7.1, p. 80). At the other school the instructor focused on rider posture and balance. Those riders had better leg position that stabilizes balance, and lower hands. The horses had lower heads, rounder necks, and a smaller percentage of back problems.
In Centered Riding, Sally Swift described balance as building blocks that must be stacked correctly to minimize muscle tension and strain as we ride. That means ears, shoulders, hips, and feet in alignment (see below). To maintain good balance, feet stay under hips even when the upper body adjusts forward and back for speed, hills, or jumping.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Greek cavalry officer Xenophon described this balance as the best way to stay on your horse in battle. It also helps keep you on through spooks, trips, bucks, flying leaps, and other unexpected maneuvers. This applies no matter what your riding style, or whether your horse is gaited. In fact, many riding horses in Xenophon’s time were gaited. Equipment, apparel, goals, saddles, stirrup length, and the way you hold the reins may vary, but gravity still works the same.
When your balance is challenged, don’t hesitate to grab mane. That is what I did when Bronzz leaped the creek (see fig. 15.1 B, p. 179). It isn’t bad form; it is considerate of your horse’s mouth. Some people prefer neck straps, but keep in mind that neck straps slip; manes don’t.
To check your own balance, get a photo of yourself on your horse from the side; does your body line up like Dani’s does? And a photo from the front. Are both sides symmetric with shoulders and stirrups level? Photos at different gaits are helpful because your leg position and balance may shift as you speed up.
4. Beware of the Heels-Down Trap
The point of putting your heels down is to anchor your lower leg under your body so it provides a solid base of support on which to balance. However, as Wendy Murdoch explains in 50 5-Minute Fixes to Improve Your Riding, “…most riders are taught to get their heels down incorrectly. Instead of learning to sink their weight into their heels, they typically end up bracing against the stirrups… When they brace the lower leg forward or jam their foot against the stirrup, a tremendous amount of tension is created…” (see below)
Think of your stirrups as footrests. The weight of your leg holds your foot in the stirrup. When your ankles are naturally stiff, like mine, your heels might be level with your toes. That is okay. It is more important to have your legs under you than your heels down. If you can’t stand in your stirrups without holding on, check whether you are pushing your heels down too hard or perhaps standing on your toes.
It took me a while to kick the “heels-down” habit, and allow my legs and feet to relax into my stirrups. The payoff is that my leg position is better and my whole body is more relaxed. I can even enjoy winter rides. Instead of getting cold and numb, my happily relaxed feet get warmer as I ride.
5. Don’t Let Your Saddle Sabotage You
Poorly designed or fitted saddles can wreak havoc with a rider’s balance. There is no saddle that fits every horse. A saddle that is too narrow for the horse it is on (a common problem) is high in front. This slides the rider’s seat toward the cantle, leaving her feet in front of her. Many Western and Australian saddles are designed to do this.
If you struggle to keep your feet under you, or a photo shows your feet in front of your body, check your saddle. Your balance might improve dramatically with a properly balanced saddle. If your saddle fits your horse but isn’t balanced for you, you might be able to adjust it with a seat saver made of wedge-shaped foam with the thicker end at the cantle, as I have done with Bronzz’s saddle.
A saddle with a very deep seat can tip your pelvis and wedge you into a position where it is difficult to move with your horse.
6. Beware of Tension
When our horses move, we need to follow their motion at each gait. The more smoothly we can do this, the more comfortable we are to carry. It also helps horses lift their back and engage their hindquarters, which keeps them healthier. This applies equally to gaited horses who, like any other horses, move best when their back is comfortable.
Any stiffness or bracing can cause both discomfort and confusion. Braced legs give an ongoing speed-up cue. Stiff arms or shoulders prevent our hands from gently following the motion of the horse’s head, causing bumps on the reins. Stiff hips and back prevent our seat from following the horse’s back motion. Riders often find themselves sore after a ride.
Unnecessary tension has many causes: faulty balance; old habits formed when the rider was less secure on a horse; current anxiety about riding; stress in other areas of life; or attempting to hold a position the rider believes is “correct.” Too much focus on “correct” equitation can get in our way. Some very effective riders actually look a bit “sloppy” because they are so relaxed.
Riders are often unaware of being stiff or braced. One way to test this is to ask someone to put her hand under your stirrup and lift your leg. Do your hip and knee joints flex, or do you tip to the far side of your horse? If someone wiggles your arm does it yield easily or is it stiff?
7. Take Advantage of Posting and Two-Point Position
The bounce of a trot is a challenge. That is why posting was invented. High tech studies using pressure pads show that posting is less stressful on a horse’s back than sitting, no matter how skilled the rider. Two-point or jumping position is least stressful on a horse’s back.
Western disciplines and higher levels of dressage expect riders to sit the trot, but this assumes the horse’s back is strong and the rider is good at sitting trot. Unfortunately, many people attempt to sit before they and their horse are ready. When in doubt, post. It does not make you a less skilled rider; it makes you a more considerate one.
As you post remember that the horse’s head remains level in the trot, but now your body is going up and down. Elbows must open and close in order to keep hands steady in relation to the horse’s mouth. Try holding a bit of mane with your pinky to make sure your hands are steady.
Sitting a canter is also a challenge, especially if a horse has a large back motion. Learning to canter first in two-point position can help a rider get the feel of this motion while stabilizing hands on the horse’s neck.
8. Use Invisible Cues
When I ride, my goal is to make all my cues so subtle that an observer cannot see what I am doing. This is not only more comfortable for my horse; it helps me focus on being quiet, relaxed, and balanced. The more precise I am, the more precisely my horse responds.
Using invisible cues is a challenge I present to students of all levels. Children are especially intrigued by the idea of making it look like the horse is reading their mind. They are gleeful when I have to ask, “Did you tell your pony to do that?”
If you’re thinking, “But my horse won’t respond to subtle cues,” remember that he can feel a fly land on any part of his body. Try this experiment: always give a whisper-soft cue first, and give your horse time to respond. If he doesn’t, you can increase the pressure. You will be amazed how quickly he starts responding to the first hint of a cue.
9. Maintain Consistent Expectations
We cannot allow a horse to do something one time and scold him for it another. For example, we cannot let him decide to stop trotting even if we were ready to stop anyway; we must ask for at least a couple more steps of trot, and then give the cue to walk. If we train ourselves to be consistent, our horse will be consistent.
There are some things, though, that we might want to allow at some times and not others. To avoid confusion, I establish a cue that gives permission, as I’ve done with Shiloh about eating grass.
10. Stay Tuned-In to Your Horse’s Mental State
When I ask students about their mount’s mood or feelings, novices are invariably on target with a perceptive answer. More advanced students sometimes seem to view such empathy as childlike or unprofessional, and tend to reply more in terms of how obedient the horse is being. I know some very skilled riders who have been seriously injured because either they did not tune in to their horse’s emotional state, or did not take it seriously.
When you make a habit of tuning in to your horse, you’ll notice little problems, so you can address them before they become big problems. You also “catch” your horse doing good things, so you can praise and reinforce them.
11. Have a Mental Problem-Solving Checklist
This checklist starts with what you might be doing wrong, not the horse. For example, if a horse fails to slow down when you pull the reins, ask: Am I squeezing my legs? Am I leaning forward? Am I pushing on my feet (“putting on the brakes”), which tightens leg muscles? Am I pulling too hard on the reins and creating resistance?
When a horse cuts in on turns, ask: Am I leaning my body into the turn? Am I leaning on my inside stirrup? Am I anticipating the turn and turning my body or pulling the rein too much or too soon? Am I turning my head and looking around the turn before I want the horse to turn?
It helps to be aware of your own riding issues. For instance, I struggle with a tendency to sit more heavily on my right seat bone than my left. This is the first thing I adjust if my horse drifts to the right or takes the left lead when I meant to ask for the right. (Weight on the right seat bone encourages the horse to strike off with the right hind, putting him on the left lead.)
Trust the old saying, “It’s never the horse, it’s always the rider.”
12. Learn How to Prevent and Cope with Emergencies
When your horse is frightened, the most reassuring thing you can do is show him that you have a plan. In my experience, it doesn’t matter how scared you might be, as long as your cues are clear and decisive, conveying that you are taking responsibility.
Although horse-related emergencies are so varied it is impossible to plan for every eventuality, prior thought and preparation can help you think and act quickly. This is a good reason to learn how to respond to problems like bucking, tripping, spooking, bolting, rearing, or attempts to kick another horse. Think about these and other situations you might possibly face. Plan the best response based on your horse, your skill level, and your circumstances. Rehearse it mentally. Practice the motions while riding, slowly and gently so you don’t distress your horse.
If you see a bad situation brewing in time to dismount safely, this is often the best plan. Most horses seem to feel safer with their person on the ground. Consider the horse’s level of training and self-control, your skill and confidence, and whether you might actually be safer or better able to control the horse while mounted.
Once a horse is out of control, attempting to dismount is rarely a good idea. The “emergency dismount” (vaulting off a horse) enjoyed a brief wave of popularity until it was observed that it caused injuries both in practice and in real emergencies. Realistically, it is nearly impossible to make a controlled dismount when a horse is out of control. From a leadership standpoint, bailing out and letting go of a horse tells him that when he is most frightened and in need of your guidance, you will abandon him.
Good leadership includes knowing when to let someone else take charge. When a horse is already dealing with a situation in an appropriate way, it may be best to sit quietly and stay out of his way. This is often the case with treacherous footing or balance challenges where your interference could make a bad situation worse. Afterward, praise and congratulate the horse on a job well done, so he knows that appropriate initiative is appreciated.
13. Choose Riding Instructors Who Understand Horses’ Needs
Horses suffer when the focus is only on what the horse is doing. This has been the scenario in many clinics I have audited in recent years. Riders want clinicians to help them fix their “horse” problems, and are insulted by any suggestion that this might require adjusting their riding. The result is lots of pressure and repetition. The horse’s emotional, and sometimes physical, well-being are overlooked.
Good instructors understand a horse’s needs. They help you improve your riding, your communication, and your ability to interpret your horse’s responses, so you can help your horse be the best possible partner.
You cannot evaluate an instructor’s competence by fame, championships, or how fancy his or her horse is. What matters is being respectfully tuned in to the horses and able to help you work toward your own goals.
If you can stay on our horse and get him to do what you want, it is tempting to think that your riding is just fine. I hope this chapter has persuaded you that your horse’s comfort and welfare is sufficient reason to pay attention to your riding. While a horse may be unimpressed with technical skill, he appreciates your attempts to be considerate, and it shows in his performance and behavior.
THINGS TO TRY
- Imagine yourself in your horse’s place. Mentally step through your whole ride from first greeting, through grooming, tacking, mounting, riding, and post-ride activities. Is there anything your horse might like you to change?
- Hold a bit in your hands with your eyes closed. Have someone else slowly pull a rein until you can feel it. Look and see how little pressure it took. Now challenge yourself to a game of, “How little can I do?” and still get a response from your mount. Horses who are accustomed to tuning out extraneous motions may need time to recognize that your subtle motions are actually intentional.
- Have someone video you riding at each gait you do. Watch for three things: Do changes in rein tension show bumps on the bit or bridle? Do you bounce on the saddle? Does your balance stay centered? I give myself a lesson every time I see a video of myself riding.
- Challenge yourself to a ride where you correct only yourself, not your horse (except as safety requires). I have found this so successful that when my mount doesn’t do as I thought I asked, my default reaction now is to assess what I just did and adjust myself. It is amazing how often that “fixes” my horse’s mistake.
- Choose one topic from this chapter; evaluate your own skills relative to that topic, and what you could do to benefit your horse and yourself.
- Consider lessons in Centered Riding®, or any kind of bodywork, such as yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method®, or martial arts. All are wonderful for developing body awareness, flexibility, and symmetry.