So often, you hear instructors harping on things like “heels down,” “look up,” “sit back,” “hands still” and a whole range of corrections that focus on how the rider looks. Sadly, most students don’t understand that there’s a much bigger picture to effective riding and these type of directions tend to move a rider further away from a relaxed, balanced and conscious presence on and with the horse.
Give (and get) some real value from riding lessons
When should a rider learn that stiffness is an impediment to good communication with a horse? That balance is critical to everything you ask of a horse (both yours and theirs)? What about the importance of learning to work the hands, seat, legs and weight independently?
From day one.
Sure, it’s easy to get bored standing in the center of an arena watching the same beginner mistakes (or those of more seasoned riders) and fall into a dull and distant routine of focusing on equitation issues that won’t help the rider learn solid techniques. You could do this with your eyes closed (and probably are tempted to do so on some days). It’s also frustrating for novice’s to try to digest big concepts while their still trying to master a correct canter transition. No proper gait changes will occur, though, without this knowledge.
Can green riders use their seat?
Sure. Even the youngest (or oldest) novice riders can learn how wonderful it is to connect with a horse through the seat. Clearly not as an FEI dressage competitor would, but certainly at a basic level. Of course, this requires some one-on-one attention, but this can be done even in large group lessons. Instead of doing the easy rote drill on rider position issues, consider talking about concepts and showing the rider (you’ll need to use your hands for this to touch the rider) how their seat works with (or against) the horse. Teach riders early to open their thighs and knees and let the horse help make riding a whole lot less work. Help them understand how the seat is the key to balance and show them how (this could certainly relate to your “shoulder’s back” bark and be illustrated very easily with a “whoa” to a good lesson horse).
If you’re a rider who hasn’t learned how to enjoy a deep and effective seat on a horse, think of opening your hips, relaxing and letting your leg be loose (the only area your leg should be in contact with the horse is the inside of your thigh and the back of your calf). It doesn’t matter if you drop your stirrups and let your toes point to the ground. In fact, this can make it easier to feel. It might be best to try this first at a walk. It’s important that your shoulders are over your hips (otherwise you won’t be able to sink deep into the saddle) and your head isn’t dropped forward. Breathe deep and let yourself go a bit limp. Feel how connected you are with the horse’s motion now? That’s where the rest of good riding comes from. Don’t choke up on the reins when you do this as you will stiffen, pitch forward and bother the horse.
Good teachers create intuitive riders
Horsemanship covers a huge array of equine issues, but most get their first exposure to horses riding. Wouldn’t it be great if those putting a shingle out as beginner instructors committed to a process that focused on the harder big picture understanding from the onset vs. the easy rider form issues? Of course, some may need to educate themselves in such matters, but presumably, most calling themselves professionals have mastered basic riding precepts. Sometimes, it requires a bit of creativity to figure out how to best express this to students (like horses, they’re all different and no pat answer will work for all), but it can be done.
And for the novice riders – stretch yourselves. Learn to make your seat, balance and learning to keep hands, legs and seat operating independently your goal and you will experience a joy riding you never imagined. If your current instructor can’t help you here, find another. You’ll never truly be connected to a horse until you figure out how to connect with them. It’s not that hard, but it’s different from what most teach. And that’s sad for both our future riders and horses.