The best thing a rider of any level can do if she wants to make progress with her riding is to become a serious student. It doesn’t have to cost much or any money, and it can fit into your schedule where ever you can find a little time. There are opportunities for learning all around us, and especially with all the information on the internet now, it is very easy to pick up tips and integrate new ideas and information into your ride, if you’re open to learning. The trick is to balance the open-mindedness with some critical thinking that keeps you from being gullible, and to keep your willingness to learn coming from constructive self-criticism and desire to improve, rather than being too hard on yourself or your horse. There is ALWAYS more to learn, and the more you learn, the more you will realize you don’t know! But to get the most out of this learning, a little structure will help you to integrate all the pieces for the best understanding and noticeable progress in your riding.
Fitness, Nutrition, Practice, and Beyond
The interesting thing to me is that most riders I know would consider themselves as “wanting to learn” and “wanting to get better” and yet most of them do very little, in the grand scheme of things, towards that. If you think about any other sport, competitors practice consistently, often almost daily. And in addition to practicing, they do other things to maintain their fitness, like eating well and spending time running or lifting weights. Most riders know they should do these things, but many don’t take that seriously, after all riding takes up enough time! And if they do these things, that is about the extent of what they do to become a better rider.
There’s an even easier way to start getting better right now, it’s the often-neglected and easy to forget not-in-the-saddle part of the education. It’s the theory and philosophy and history part of riding that leads to an understanding not just of what we do in the saddle and how we do it, but also why we do it and when we should or should not do it. It’s how one piece connects to another, how one exercise improves another, how the horse and the rider work.
Think about what you did in your last riding lesson. Could you explain, in detail, exactly how you did the things you were doing to someone who has a little less experience than yourself? Could you explain why you did those things, how you prepared your horse to do those things, and what you could have done differently to better prepare? And what about the psychology of training, do you understand how riders learn and how horses learn? Do you know your own learning style? These are questions most riders never consider because they don’t come up in the ordinary riding lesson.
The Art of Horsemanship
Let’s consider riding as an art form and not just a sport. Again, with any art we have the regular practice component (imagine learning to play the piano, how many days a week would you need to practice?), the repetition builds skill and muscle memory, and as those increase, it unlocks the doors to a higher level of coordination that allows for more advanced skill.
But this alone is not enough. If someone who knew nothing about playing a piano sat down and pressed random keys for an hour a day, every day, what sort of progress do you imagine they would make? And yet, how many riders do you know who do just this, and have been riding almost daily for years, and yet are still stuck at the same relatively low level? I know plenty of young, fit, healthy riders that stagnate, and for them it’s not the need to hit the gym or the need for more hours in the saddle that is holding them back. It’s not a lack of desire or motivation. It’s also not the other piece that so often gets blamed: the horse. When you put them on a different horse, they tend to do the exact same things they’ve been doing on their own horse.
Even if you give this rider a high level school master, without instruction they would get on and fumble around, knowing the horse should be able to do things their own horse cannot but without any idea where to start to get this work out of the horse. With instruction, the rider would probably be able to push a few buttons and get the horse to do a few new moves, but this still wouldn’t fill the knowledge gap thoroughly enough for them to translate what that horse did to another horse, or even to maintain that horse’s “buttons” if they alone rode that horse for a few months.
Are you convinced yet that riding alone isn’t enough to become much better, and that taking lots of lessons probably won’t be enough either?
The big missing piece is to become a serious student of horsemanship and riding. This means studying. If you were never big on school, or if the thought of sitting down with a book makes you want to take a nap, there are certainly other ways you can do it. However, there are many masters’ minds that you can get inside only via their books, and what a shame to miss out on the chance to learn from some of the greatest horsemen ever!
Learning Styles, and Why You Should Read About Riding
Remember earlier I mentioned learning styles? The typical riding lesson works really well for auditory learners (people who learn by listening), or for kinesthetic learners (people who learn by doing) if the instructor can talk the rider through the aids to use in a way that the rider can produce a result from the horse that she can feel. For other people, the typical riding lesson will be a more challenging way to learn, besides that fact that few riding lessons get into the how’s, why’s, theories, and histories behind what is being taught.
Reading is an excellent way to supplement your riding education. When you read a paragraph describing how to do something, and then study the picture illustrating the concept, the knowledge soaks into your brain in an entirely different way than if your instructor said the exact same thing while you were sitting on your horse. It’s no fault of your instructor’s, it’s just the way your brain works. So find well-written and well-illustrated books to help concepts become clear by covering them in a depth not possible in the short time spent learning while on the horse. You really can’t learn to ride a movement well if you really don’t understand what you’re trying to do in the first place, but once you understand what you’re trying to do, doing it is usually not as difficult!
When it comes to dressage books, what has worked best for me is to read up to the part where I’m at with a particular horse, making sure I haven’t missed anything and that everything makes sense. Often I’ll pick up some new ideas or new ways of thinking about things along the way that I’ll try out. Then I read the part that is about what we’re working on currently, and maybe the very next step so I see what we’re working towards. Then I’ll put the book away for a while until I’m ready for more. I’m usually in the middle of dozens of books at a time, and it really helps to read how a dozen different authors describe a movement. Some of them will say it in a way that just doesn’t work for me, but then a different one will say essentially the same thing but use words that just make sense in my head, or in a way I can remember when I’m on the horse. Some authors get really nitty-gritty into the aids, some into the horse’s response to those aids, and some into how the movement is used or exercises with the movement. Some don’t make sense on the first reading, but after practicing the movement suddenly the same chapter takes the movement to another level. By using a variety of sources, you can get the most perspectives on ways to approach a new movement from trainers who have experience with different types of horses. By only reading the relevant section, it’s easier to digest the information and put it into practice, rather than reading an entire book that you’ll have forgotten by the time you ride the movements years later.
If you really cannot be persuaded into reading a book (even for your horse’s sake!), there are other options. There are so many wonderful websites full of information now that it’s not too hard to pass endless hours browsing the web, searching out particular topics or just absorbing whatever information you come across. There are bulletin boards for an interesting perspective on how many different ways there are to solve every problem and how many different opinions there are on every item of tack and type of training. There are Facebook pages, forums, and online magazines. Often these online channels may make learning seem a little easier because it comes in smaller chunks than in a book, and with many illustrations! Just watch out that you are getting good quality information (especially on bulletin boards, there are plenty of great comments by people with loads of experience and a genuine desire to help, but there are also lots of people posting bad advice, from sheer ignorance as well as sometimes a genuine desire to stir up trouble). Sometimes the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming as well, and may make it difficult to figure out where to start. Try searching for particular and specific topics that are relevant to where you are at with your horse.
A Step Further: Videos and Mental Rehearsal
Another way to take in information is through videos. There are many instructional videos out there, but you can also learn a lot by just watching videos of people riding (sale videos, videos of tests from shows, etc). The more you watch horses, the way they move, the way the rider moves with them, and the subtle adjustments a good rider can make and how they influence the horse, the more your eye develops to see these subtleties. When you find a video that is beautiful riding that you want to emulate, take some time with it, watch it over and over, in slow motion or pausing it frame by frame to watch critical moments in detail. How does the rider prepare for the flawless transition? How does the rider sit that huge trot? Or how does she shift to move her horse sideways so effortlessly? What about in the flying changes? Or in the approach to the perfect jump? As you watch the horse and rider, try to feel in your body the shifts the rider is making, or try moving as if you were sitting on that horse. In your mind, imagine yourself as that rider, sitting on that horse, executing that movement. Mental rehearsal is a skill to be developed like any other, but it can become an amazing tool.
Studies have shown that mental rehearsal works about as well as actual practice. So now you have a tool that will allow you extra “hours in the saddle” without needing the trip to the barn, the extra horse to ride, or the upper level school master to learn from. There’s no denying that this is a serious and significant advantage that most people don’t use!
Testing Your Knowledge Through Teaching
Another excellent tool to help you understand material (and find holes in your understanding to fill in) is to teach someone else. This can be when someone in the barn asks you a question or if you actually started teaching lessons, but it can also be so much simpler. You could start on a bulletin board by answering someone else’s question. Try to give them the details, explaining why you are answering the way you are instead of just stating your opinion on the subject. Remember that this format also allows others to give you feedback on your answer once you post it, as well as allowing others to post their own answers. Try to see this is a way of testing your knowledge and then comparing your answer to others to see if you came up with a commonly suggested solution that is generally approved, or something totally different, or even something others disagree with or caution against.
Don’t worry too much about defending your answer, just learn from it and move on, and remember that there is no guarantee that who ever disagrees with you has ever even ridden a horse. The important part is not to always be right, but to make yourself really think thoroughly about various topics and how you would apply your experience to other (different) horses, and riders of different experience levels, or even to find yourself stumped as you attempt the thoroughly answer the question so you have to do a little research and understand the topic better yourself!
Another way to teach without teaching in the traditional sense is through a blog. I suggest to my riders that they start a personal blog as a way of keeping track of their progress and making notes about their rides. Often after a break through moment, it’s helpful to capture what happened in your own words, making notes for yourself to be able to recreate that feeling in the future. I’ve learned a lot from myself that way, going back and reading something I wrote a while ago and had forgotten about!
Just the process of putting what you worked on in today’s ride into words will make you become more aware of riding with a purpose and then analyzing afterwards if it went well or if there were things you could do differently. The more you get yourself answering “why’s” and “how’s” the more you will learn. It’s easy to say “Today I trotted for 10 minutes”, it takes it to a very different level when you instead say “Today I trotted for 10 minutes, switching between working trot and stretchy trot and trot lengthenings to improve my horse’s connection on the bit and build up strength in his hind end because he likes to get lazy/tired and fall on the forehand if I’m not careful to keep him working correctly. To do this effectively I had to be careful about my lower leg positioning, I noticed when I let my leg slip back, my upper body falls forward and my horse drops on the forehand, so when I would feel the connection start to fall apart, I would first check that my lower leg hadn’t slipped back out of position.”
Whoa. How many of you get off your horse and can honestly say that’s how your ride went? And that’s just talking about how I trotted for a few minutes! Imagine a longer ride where I did more! Teach yourself to think deeper about your ride, what you are doing and how you are doing it, and why, and you’ll take your rides to a WHOLE new level!
Full Circle, Back to the Beginning
Now you’ve thought deeply about what you want to work on with your horse or what you are learning in your lesson. You’ve read the theory behind how to ride the movement and you understand why you ride the movement or what you are trying to accomplish with it, you’ve looked at pictures of what it should look like when it’s performed correctly, and maybe you’ve even found some examples of common mistakes. Then you rode, staying mindful of what you were trying to do, how you went about attempting to do it, how well it worked out, and maybe even deliberately tried out a few variations of aids or approaches that you discovered in your research, noting what worked best for you and your horse. Then you talked about or wrote about your ride, making sure to note how and why you did the things you did and what worked well or didn’t work at all.
Now you take those findings as a place to begin your next bit of homework – whether it’s reading or searching online for ideas or videos, tips and exercises to improve your current work, or to discover what the next step will be. You’re a serious student of horsemanship and riding now, and even if you only have one horse you ride a few days a week, you’re learning at a much faster rate than the average rider, and you’re sure to see your progress start to happen more quickly with your new understanding of everything you’re doing.
If you’re ready to start reading and need a few ideas, check out my suggestions on 5 Books For Training Your Horse Yourself
If you’re blogging about your rides, feel free to share a link to your blog in the comments below! You can provide inspiration for others!