Doing regular ‘check-ins’ to examine your program and the effectiveness of your horse management is important not only at the end of a season. We have to be disciplined in working towards being better riders and horseman every single day. You should never get to a point where you can take anything for granted – not your position, your horse, or the level you jump at. You have to manage yourself, your fitness, your horse’s fitness, and never get complacent.
That being said, the end of the season provides a good point of comparison to ensure each horse is as happy and healthy as it was at the start of show season. Does the horse need any chiropractic work, treatment for ulcers, injections, or massage? Is your horse too fit or too fat? Do you need to adjust the feeding program?
The off-season is also a good time to make sure your tack is in good condition: does anything need repairs? Is the elastic on your girth in good condition? How is the stitching on your stirrup leathers? Do you need to change bits over the the winter months?
At the end of the year I evaluate everything, work backwards, and program accordingly. Have realistic goals, know how to achieve them, and get prepared. You should know how many times a week you need to jump, whether the horse will need some time off in the field, how many classes it needs to jump before the biggest class. You want to make sure your horse will peak at the right time – you don’t want to walk into your biggest class with a tired horse, or one that is underprepared.
Bad Habit #1: Reins too short
I typically find that people who ride with too short of a rein are nervous and using the horse’s mouth for security or balance. This creates a ‘grippy’ rider, and usually results in a bit of a ‘backwards’ ride. Horses will always tell you how they feel through their ears and their body language. If a horse feels tight or tense through its body, or if it is bullying my hands with its mouth, it is probably unhappy.
With too short of a rein I am balancing in my hand, which subsequently means I am ahead of the motion with my body, and my leg becomes more ineffective as it also slips out of the ideal balance. When your leg falls behind you, your point of contact becomes high up on the ribcage in a ticklish and sensitive area, which means you’re going to get a bad reaction from leg aids.
If short reins are a result of a nervous rider, then take a bit of extra time to become confident on the horse. Gentle reminders to ‘let go’ will help to soften the hand, not be against the horse, and go with the motion. A stronger leg position to increase that sense of balance and security will also help; include riding without stirrups in your training.
Bad Habit #2: Reins too long
The cause of long reins is almost the polar opposite of short reins. With long reins, typically the body gets behind the motion and the result is almost a lazy position, as opposed to what should be a strong, effective, confident, dedicated position. Often, riders tend to avoid training issues by riding with long reins instead of addressing the problem.
Long reins create other issues in the position, as it puts the upper body behind the motion. Subsequently, you are against the balance and your leg position becomes weak and ineffective because it is now up against the shoulder. One of my strongest beliefs is that you endlessly have to try to be with your horse’s balance in everything you do, so that in turn you are practising proper position every time you sit on a horse.
Bad Habit #3: Heels creeping up
When you start at a riding school, the first thing the instructor will tell you is to put your heels down. The stronger your leg position, the safer you are, and from the very first time you sit on a horse your leg position becomes the most important part of riding.
It is my observation that once riders can negotiate a 1.40m course or win in the junior hunters, trainers sometimes get a bit casual in dealing with position. If you lack depth in your heels, it affects the foundation of your position in every way, and therefore your effectiveness as a rider. You will miss a turn in a jump-off, lose an equitation class, affect your horse’s balance, or miss a lead change – there are a hundred things that could go wrong.
The first thing I say in clinics and lessons is ‘put your heels down.’ Your conformation, the length of your torso, arms, and legs – it all affects balance. But to become the strongest and most effective rider that you can be, the weight needs to be in your heels and that has nothing to do with your conformation as a rider.
My favourite exercise is to stand up in the stirrups. Your weight will drive down into your heels, because that’s the only way to hold your balance. If you then make a conscious effort to push your heels down as you sink softly back into the saddle, it should automatically put your leg and heel in the correct position. Then you have to be able to make that happen around the ring and over the fences.
Bad Habit #4: Drifting on landing
Riding in a straight line after the jump has a much bigger impact than just ensuring you don’t cut a corner on course. The way you land from the jump determines your approach and preparation for the next fence, and in almost any circumstance you need the horse to be landing straight.
To correct a tendency to drift upon landing, land crooked, or cut the corner, I like to set up guide poles to encourage a straight approach and path upon landing, which will in turn lead to correct lead changes and deep turns. Make sure to set them fairly wide, as for safety you don’t want the horse to step on them. I use cones as a marker for students who don’t understand where the point of the turn should be, and the visual helps.
A crooked landing creates so many bad habits, including a tendency to cut the corner. In the end, cutting the turn is a direct result of not having a straight line upon landing. Setting up guide rails, especially with young horses, will encourage them to go straight from the beginning without having to be hard on their mouths – they look at the poles and understand they can’t be crooked. Again, it’s about being disciplined every time you sit on the horse; each action has a consequence and everything is connected.