How to Ride Like a Trainer: Taking Responsibility and Finding Empowerment

Every time you interact with your horse, you are training him. For better or worse, whether the interaction you had was good, bad, or maintained the status quo. You did something, your horse responded, and his response got either positive reinforcement or disciplinary action from you. And he just learned something. You just taught him something. Let that sink in a moment.

This is an awesome power we all have, but so often goes unnoticed by many riders because the state of awareness and focus it requires is not the same one we are usually in as we run around trying to keep up with our busy lives, a million things on our mind and a million distractions always competing for our attention. But when you really let that sink in – every moment with your horse YOU (yes you, not your trainer!) are training him – it’s both humbling and empowering. It’s easy to think about this in  basic terms. Let’s imagine you don’t have time to ride and you just stop by the barn to check on your horse. He nickers at you, and you laugh and give him a piece of carrot. He takes it gently and gives you his best begging face, and you give him another carrot. You just reinforced that (positive) behavior, and next time you stop by the barn with carrots he’s likely to repeat that behavior that earned him a carrot today. On the other hand, if when you first offered him the carrot, he pinned his ears and snatched it out of your hand, almost taking a few fingers with it, you would have a very different situation and (hopefully!!) responded differently than you did in the first scenario offering him a second carrot! So there you are, training your horse! Now if we apply the same concept to your riding, you can make yourself a much more effective rider and start to make your daily rides into training sessions that allow you and your horse to make progress in a way you might not have believed possible.




Having this awareness during all time spent with horses is the key difference between someone who can successfully train an enjoyable equine partner and the many who can’t. Notice I made the distinction between those who can train vs not, and I did not make the distinction between trainers and amateur riders, or between advanced riders and beginners, or any other such distinction. We all know there are plenty of “trainers” out there who can’t/don’t successfully train horses, and there are plenty of amateurs and juniors who are able to transform horses! So if you find yourself mentally placing yourself in the category of “those who can’t train” it’s probably because you’ve bought into some false beliefs, potentially including one of the following:

  • It takes many, many years of riding to ride well enough to be good enough to successfully train a horse
  • Trainers train horses, Amateurs (juniors, beginners, old ladies, newbies, etc) don’t/can’t
  • It takes having a nice horse, fancy saddle, expensive breeches, big name trainer, (etc, you get the idea) to successfully train a horse
  • It takes learning on a school master, or having your trainer train and then continually tune up your horse to successfully learn to ride well enough to be able to train a horse
  • It takes riding at a high level to successfully train a horse

Now I’m not saying that someone who is new to riding can go out and buy a young, green horse and successfully train it to a high level. Not at all! What I’m saying is that if you have a horse that you are spending time around and riding (safely hopefully!!)  you are already training him. A more novice rider will be able to safely ride and train an older horse that already has more training, and will train that horse to do more basic things (and many incorrect things if she isn’t careful, which is part of my reason for writing this), and a more advanced rider can train a younger or greener horse and probably eventually get that horse to do more advanced things (which is more along the lines of how we typically think of trainers and training). But riding is training, even if you are training your old school horse to go stand in the middle of the arena by your instructor every time you stop kicking!

So if you’ve never considered before that you are training your horse each time you ride, or if you don’t approach each ride as an opportunity to make yourself and your horse more like the partnership of your dreams, take a moment to think about what your beliefs are as to why you are unable to train your horse, and consider if they are indeed logical. Now I’m not suggesting that someone new to dressage should get on their horse today and expect to go from training level to Grand Prix in a moment, but I’m asking you to ask yourself: where are you at right now, and what is really stopping you from taking that next step towards your next (reasonable) training goal? I’m betting that for many people, it’s things that are fully in their own power to change! Things like:

  • I’m not 100% sure that I understand how to ride the movement I’d like to teach my horse
  • My horse doesn’t respond to my aids so I must be doing it wrong…
  • I’m not strong enough/coordinated enough/balanced enough to teach my horse to whatever that next piece is
  • I’m not confident enough to try

So how can you become a rider who can successfully train your own horse, or ride in a way that supports and furthers the training your trainer is doing, instead of undoing it each time you ride? First, you have to accept that you already are training your horse, although you may be training him to misbehave, ignore aids, or go incorrectly. For better or worse, what you allow or encourage him to do, you are training him to do. Take responsibility for that fact, there is no escaping it.

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Then take the next step, and this is the empowering part! Decide what it is holding you back from doing better, whether that means gaining more control of the speed and steering in the trot or finally getting a flying change or half pass out of your horse. Is it strength? Or knowledge? You have the ability to improve both of those, starting right this very moment! Trainers (people who train horses, not just people who call themselves that) have these same moments of “Gee, I’m not strong enough to ride this movement on this horse” or “Gee, I can’t figure out why this horse is doing this instead of that” but the big difference is that when they have one of these realizations they immediately start to formulate a plan to fix it. Maybe they add in more no stirrups work, more sit ups, or more cardio training to their daily routine, or maybe they grab a book off the shelf or hop on the internet to study up on how to ride the movement and reasons it could be going wrong (which of course can be rider error, saddle fit, horse needs more strength, chiro, or massage, etc) or exercises to help show the horse how to do it right, and then they start problem solving.  There is no reason that “regular” riders can’t do this same thing, only I think for the most part it hasn’t occurred to them that they can and should! Figure out specifically what you need, then make a plan.

I see it all the time with things that many riders would consider basic, like steering at the walk or trot, or picking up a canter lead, or it can be more advanced concepts  like lateral work. It’s whatever the next step is that is just on the edge of the rider’s comfort, experience, and confidence. The rider decides that she’s missing a piece she needs before she can ride whatever it is, and gives up. She waits for a lesson, or waits for the trainer to get on, or waits for the future when she’ll be stronger, more experienced, smarter, whatever it is.  Usually she doesn’t even know she’s doing this. And in the meantime, she allows the horse to “not do” whatever it is she believes she and he can’t do, instead only working on the things they already know how to do to, and then only expecting the level of proficiency they had last week or last month. So they keep practicing the same things, but don’t expect those things to get better with practice, and don’t attempt new things, and then don’t make progress.  Spelled out that way, it makes so much sense why so many horses and riders get stuck at the lower levels! The rider is training the horse to do only what it did yesterday and nothing more, so that’s what the horse does. The best part is, once you recognize this, you can start to make small changes immediately, just by being more mindful of what you are asking of and expecting from yourself and your horse.  Once you own that power to change whatever you feel like you are lacking, you are in the driver’s seat. You can now work towards what you need to move forward in your riding, and you can start to approach your rides with an awareness that lets you make small improvements immediately, training your horse to do the things you already do better.

I love the moment when I’m working with a rider who is in a bit of a mental rut, or whose horse has convinced them that they can’t do something. Oftentimes they don’t even recognize it, telling me something like, “He always throws his head in the canter transition”, or “He always cuts off his corners going this direction”, as if having always done it that way forever excuses continuing to do it that way, and not realizing that continuing to do it that way is training the horse to do it that way. Starting with “he always” is a good sign one of these things has become a habit! Then all I have to say when I find one of these things is “Ok, let’s try to set it up a little better so he doesn’t do that as much this time” and suddenly the rider finds the confidence (strength and skill) to try, and sure enough, there ARE able to do it better. Asking the rider to “set it up” gives them the power to think about riding the movement differently, instead of just doing what they’ve always done and accepting what they’ve always gotten as a response. And by adding “…as much this time” I give them permission to improve the movement or behavior little by little, celebrating the small victory instead of being overwhelmed by the need to either have it perfect on the first try or call it a fail. Once the rider adopts this mindset, she is usually able to start applying that to other habits she and her horse have, and begin to make improvements (good training!) without as much help and often even completely on her own. The change wasn’t about increasing the rider’s skill or ability, it was just asking the rider to pay a little more attention to what she was getting versus what she wanted, and then thinking of a way to communicate to her horse what she actually wanted.

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It’s a shift in awareness and mental approach, a way of paying attention to how you’re aiding your horse and how he is responding, and then making necessary adjustments, rather than about basic or advanced skills. It’s doing what you’re already doing, but with more focus on what’s happening and areas where small improvements can be made. It can be applied at any level, but I find it’s often the lower level riders who need this most because it just hasn’t occurred to them yet. This is especially important for riders who don’t have access to a good trainer for frequent help, and the more you are doing on your own between lessons or training rides, the more it’s going to help you (and your trainer!) if you can ride with awareness and in a way the slowly sculpts your horse closer to your goals. And again, you’re doing it at the level you are already riding at, not attempting to train things that are levels above your ability as a rider. It’s something you are already doing every time you ride, but when you’re doing it without awareness you are likely training your horse to do things in the way he finds easiest, versus the way you would really like him to.

The other thing I think those who successfully train horses do differently than other riders is break big things down into small pieces.  Everything can be broken down into small pieces, and to do something big you just need to do all the pieces. So if you work on each piece until you can do them separately and then start putting them together, it’s like a puzzle, once you get all the pieces into place the big picture appears! To give a very brief example, lets say you wanted to learn to ride and/or teach your horse shoulder-in at the walk. You are already strong enough and coordinated enough to ride at a walk, and so is your horse. So the pieces you’d want to establish before jumping right to attempting a shoulder-in would include:

  • Does your horse walk forward on appropriate contact, softly reaching into and accepting the bit?
  • Does your horse bend into the outside rein?
  • Can you get your horse to walk straight with gentle inside flexion?
  • Does your horse move off your inside leg?
  • Can you use your outside rein and seat to move your horse’s shoulders?

If you can do all those individual things, then “figuring out” a shoulder-in, or training a horse to do a shoulder-in is just a matter of combining those pieces and doing a little more of this and a little less of that until you get the angle and bend that you wanted (and if you aren’t sure about the angle and bend that you want, you should grab that book off the shelf and give the chapter on shoulder-in a quick read, it will really only take a few minutes!).  If there are any of those pieces you can’t do, then break that piece down into parts.  For example, “Does your horse move off your inside leg” really means working on leg-yield, or turn on the forehand, which if you really want to break it down, can even be done either from a halt or in hand. Similarly “Can you use your outside rein and hip to move your horse’s shoulders?” can be broken down to a turn on the haunches, again starting at the halt and just getting a pivot step.

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Approaching training this way makes sure there are no holes in the foundation, and lets you build up slowly and create many small successes along the way, which is more enjoyable for you and  your horse! It also gets you into that thinking space, where you are tuned into your horse and always aware of what you want him to be doing (baby steps!) compared to what he is doing, noticing what he does right and continuously formulating plans to work on the things you and he (as a partnership) currently can’t do. Each day you are working to make the things you can do even better than before, while working towards developing new skills, both for yourself and your horse.  There is a thought and intention behind every part of your ride, instead of a mindless going around the arena. You are constantly pushing yourself to improve your knowledge, skill, finesse, and strength so that you can communicate clearly with your horse, and you are listening to his feedback regarding how he understood or interpreted your aids. You are noticing when he ignores your aids or does something you don’t want him to do, and you immediately take steps to improve or correct his response. And of course, you are also quick to reward a job well done, which happens many times throughout a ride if your awareness and intention is looking for ways to set him up for baby steps of improvement!

Of course eyes on the ground and/or a trainer on your horse will always help the process along, but when you are unable to get as much of that as might be ideal, you can still make progress by starting to give yourself the power to train your own horse (because remember, you are already, for better or worse…) and then empower yourself by seeking out whatever it is you feel you are lacking, and find a way to break down your goals into baby steps or improve the work you are already doing.  Just approaching your ride today in this frame of mind might make all the difference!

One thought on “How to Ride Like a Trainer: Taking Responsibility and Finding Empowerment

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