Becoming A Good Rider
"The wind of Heaven is that which blows between the ears of a horse" ~ Arabian Proverb
I have been riding horses for nearly three years now, I started out on a pony and now ride a handsome, red, Quarter Horse gelding named Sully. Riding, as everyone knows, has never been considered a sport. It’s always been considered a hobby, a way for rich people to pass time. Riding is always something that’s been assumed to be easy to do, “All you have to do is sit there, the horse does everything” is something equestrians hear a lot of. Well, there’s a lot more to riding than “just sitting there” and riding is so much more than a “hobby” to those of us who take it seriously.
In order to be able to “just sit” on a horse the rider needs to know how to ride effectively. Sitting on a horse and kicking it hard all the while yelling “Yee-Haw”, while very effective in getting the horse to move, is not an effective and positive way to ride. The rider needs to respect the horse and the horse needs to respect the rider, a horse and rider is a partnership, like two dance partners. In dancing there is the person who takes the lead and the other who follows, that is the same in the world of riding. The rider is the leader and the horse is the follower, the faithful partner.
To ride effectively the rider, or in this case, me, needs to know how to utilize their body. If the rider wants to trot on a horse, the trot being a quick, bouncy gait, then the rider needs to be able to use their core muscles to stay seated in the saddle. The rider’s hips need to move with the motion of the horse’s body too, otherwise they’ll end up bouncing up and down in the saddle, which is not good for the horse’s back and not good for them either. It takes time to build up core muscles strong enough to sit the trot, and it takes time to be able to train your hips to with the horse instead of against it. Tension is another thing that must be trained out of the body, any kind of the slightest tension can completely throw the horse and rider off when doing something as simple as walking. Part of being an effective rider is knowing how to stay physically relaxed, how to utilize core muscles to keep planted in the saddle, and to have hips the rock with the horse and not against it. An old saying that helps to remember that is “Hips like a whore, shoulders like a queen, that is all”…..
Posture means everything when riding a horse. A straight back, open but relaxed shoulders, heels down in the stirrups, a bent elbow and correctly position hands, these all are necessary to be an effective rider. Any kind of slouching or unevenness in posture can throw the rider off balance and also throw the horse off balance. Remember, a rider is a like a backpack on a horse. When carrying a backpack any kind of unevenly distributed weight can throw the student’s balance off. If the student wants to be able to walk upright without toppling over or without having sore shoulders and back they need to know how to balance the weight of the backpack.
“Watch your attitude, it’s the first thing people notice about you”, it’s also the first thing the horse notices. From the moment that rider puts a halter on the horse and brings it into the barn, he will notice the attitude of the rider right away. A positive attitude will help the horse to remain relaxed and positive as well. A negative attitude causes tension and unnecessary strife that will have negative effect on the overall riding. Whenever I ride I have to remind myself not have any negative thoughts, instead of thinking, “Wow! That walk to trot transition sucked”, I need to think “Well, not the best but that’s okay, we’ll try it again on the next lap”, that way the horse does not pick up on my negativity and grow tense and agitated with me. The better the attitude, the better the ride will be.
Attitude, posture, balance and core strength, these are the essentials to become a good rider. Becoming a great rider takes lots of time and lots of patience. Probably the most important step in becoming an effective rider is being able to listen to the horse when it speaks. A horse will tell the rider if they’re riding well or if they’re riding sloppily. Sully tells me all the time when I’m too tense in the saddle and he tells me when I’m starting to become unbalanced. When his head comes up high, out of the low and relaxed position it should be in, that means I’m starting to grow tense. Wiggling my toes, doing some deep breathing and rolling my shoulders helps me to relax. When I relax he will blow out of his nose(a sign that a horse is happy) and drop his head down nice and low. When I’m becoming unbalanced in the saddle Sully will either slow down until I get my balance back, or he will stop completely depending on how unbalanced I am. How do I know when he’s telling me these things? I learn to listen to his body just as he knows to listen to my body and what I’m saying to him.
When asking Sully to walk I simply rock my hips, this cues him that it is time to go. Should he decide not to pay attention I would then squeeze with my legs or I’d give a simple bump with the heel of my boot. When I want him to walk faster I speed up the rocking of my hips and again, if he does not speed up I either squeeze with my legs or bump with my heels. To turn a simple look over the shoulder and twisting of the hips let’s him know which direction to turn and when, if he doesn’t turn that way I merely guide him with my reins(the reins are what is used to steer the horse, the saddle is what you sit in, and stirrups are where your get go) in that direction. To stop him I just sit deep in the saddle, inhale and then exhale and say “Whoa”, if he doesn’t stop I just guide his head around and keep him on a tight circle until he stops moving his feet. If the rider cannot hear their horse speak with his body, and the horse doesn’t hear the rider and their body, then riding effectively will be very difficult to do.
The art of riding could go on for pages more discussing in great detail and length riding, training and horse, but then you’d probably grow very bored with this paper. So I will end it at this: riding is a very physical and emotional SPORT. That 1,200 pound mammal is your partner and could easily kill you, but has instead chosen to be your loyal partner. It is emotional because it can be a very long process to become a good rider as that some horses are more difficult than others. Because other riders can be very discouraging and harsh in their criticisms and comments. Emotional because horse and rider have to build a bond on trust and respect. There is an old Indian legend that says if you blow into a horse’s nose you are speaking to their spirit. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say. But I can say whenever I have done it that horse and I worked together a lot better, and a strong connection was felt, plus it’s a great way to calm a horse down if nothing else. It is physical because the rider need to have strong legs, good posture and a strong core for the sake of the rider and the sake of the horse.
There is a lot more to riding than John Wayne kicking a horse in its sides, yelling “Yee-Haw!” and hoping to God you stay on the horse. Riding is so much more than “just sitting there” and it’s about time people realize that.