Top twelve ideas for novice riders to consider as they seek more effective and understanding time in the saddle
Today, it seems more people are learning to ride, or trying to compete, without the benefit of lessons. While it’s hard to understand the thinking behind this trend, stranger things have happened and it’s a reality many are struggling with. So, here are some ideas from Halcyon Acres and Horse Sense and Cents to consider as you hop aboard without the benefit of eyes on the ground to assess why your horse may be reacting badly to your requests. Below are the top twelve reasons novices struggle and how to try to resolve these challenges:
1. Tension goes through you to the horse. If you’re stiff, scared, gripping or pulling, when you’re horseback riding, your horse will react. Try to relax and feel the horse instead of holding on or making your body rigid. Sometimes, merely taking deep breaths, letting your seat relax in the saddle, releasing your thighs from the side of the horse, loosening your hold on the reins and bending your elbows while you let your wrists feel the horse’s mouth instead of stiffening against it can make all the difference between a resistant or tentative horse and a comfortable and confident one.
2. Less is more. If pulling and kicking isn’t working, try softly closing your fingers on the reins and gently using your lower leg on the horse’s side while horseback riding. You might be amazed at how quickly he responds to quieter cues and how much he’s been ignoring your annoying shouts.
3. Work to put your body over your horse’s center of balance. If you’re horseback riding leaning forward, crooked and off to one side or behind the motion of the horse, it makes it a lot tougher for him to handle your weight and do what you want. Such positions also make you more likely to land on the ground if your horse spooks, bucks, stops or takes off. As a general rule, there should be a straight line through your shoulders, hips and heels. Of course, stirrup length is a big factor in what’s comfortable for both of you, as is the terrain (uphill, you should be out of the saddle and more forward, downhill work is best done with your weight slightly behind the horse’s center).
4. Strive to discover what your horse finds fun. No matter what your ultimate goal is with your horse, take time to figure out what he enjoys most with training activities. Even if your horseback riding goal is the dressage arena, you can still do a lot of preparatory work on the trials if he’s ring sour. Maybe he loves jumping – why not end a flat lesson with a couple of obstacles he can hop over as a reward?
5. Company can help or hurt. If you have a horse that’s barn sour when you try to work with him alone, spend more time solo to overcome this issue. Conversely, young horses are sometimes best introduced to new sights and experiences with a seasoned buddy to help make these training lessons less stressful. Know your horse and strive to ensure the time you spend with him offers good preparation for future job requests.
6. Get help to ensure your tack fits and is appropriate for your horse. A bit too small, too severe, too big or adjusted inappropriately can hurt your horse and put you in danger. Saddles with the wrong size tree (or even worse, a broken one), a bad fit for your horse or inappropriately sized for you can hurt your horse and affect his ability to do what you ask. The wrong tack can also cause injuries that take a long time to heal. If you don’t know how to assess the appropriateness of the tack you’re using on your horse, find someone who does.
7. Know what your hands are doing. Stiff hands or severe hands will make your horse tense and unresponsive. If you find your horse is throwing his head, not responding to your steering or stopping aids or getting reactive about your being on his back during horseback riding sessions, watch your hands and see if they’re creating the problem.
8. Keep him safe. It’s important to gain trust from your horse and the best way to do this is to keep him out of harm’s way while giving him the confidence to tackle new challenges with a rider aboard that is clear and confident. If you’re afraid, it’s likely your horse will be too. Don’t ask for too much, too soon (for either of you). It’s better to go for little wins that keep you both comfortable and secure.
9. Keep rides and lessons short enough to make your horse eager for more. Drilling rarely works if you’re trying to develop an enthusiastic and willing horse. Marathon runners don’t train 26 miles a day, and likewise, horses rarely appreciate a regimen that’s too tough on a daily basis. Mix it up with various riding activities. If you’re striving to teach your horse something new, let one new lesson suffice for the day and a lavish him with praise (and quitting time) when he figures out what you’re asking. Training in this fashion should make your horse eager to please you on the occasional hard ride.
10. Groundwork is critical. If you’re having problems under saddle, get off and work through them with training in-hand, in the stall, on long lines or (careful not to overdo it here) in the roundpen. Lessons learned off the horse’s back often transfer once you put your foot in the stirrup.
11. Know your horse. There’s no one-size-fits-all training formula that works with every equine. Just because someone who apparently knows more than you (sometimes your gut can be your best guide) says it’s so, doesn’t mean it will work with your steed. Spend the time to figure out what works best for his learning style and you’ll create a bond that creates rewards beyond your expectations.
12. Get help if you get stuck. If you’re facing a roadblock that’s getting worse, stop before the problem gets insurmountable. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know what to do (in fact, this is a sign of character) and calling on others who may be able to provide more seasoned input on solutions can mean the difference between creating a situation with your horse that’s painful for both of you and progressing to a state that has the team excited and engaged to proceed. Just make sure the person you select is a good fit for what you want to achieve and enough knowledge to get you there.
Owning a horse should be fun. If riding isn’t for both you and your equine, either you’re doing something wrong or have selected the wrong partner. It takes a lot of courage to admit you need help. Mustering the nerve to ask for help, though, can improve the quality of life for both you and your horse. When you consider the cost in time and money of caring for your equine friend, a little bit help can be a small price to pay for happiness.
Have an issue with a horse you’re not sure how to address? Lack the funds, proximity or talent of local help to work through it? Reply in your comments below with your query and we’ll try to offer ideas to help you.