Those who can do. Those who can’t, have no business teaching…


…when it comes to horse riding, at least!

If you want to make a horse rider angry, ask them why they are still needing lessons after having ridden for five or ten (input any number of years you like here). The second thing to piss a horse rider off would be to tell him or her that sitting on a horse is not hard work; that it does not constitute exercise.

1200lb horse as partnerSitting on a horse and managing not to fall off, that’s easy. Riding, really riding; not so much. It takes years and years of hard work, pain, tears, sacrifice, self reflection, self-doubt and then some more hard work. And then you haven’t even got on the horse yet! Then, just as you think you know what you are doing, you realise you are only just beginning to understand what you are supposed to still learn to do!

You have to use muscles that most people don’t even realise exist, with the same precision a ballet dancer or a gymnast has to execute muscle control. You have to learn to be strong, but not forceful, relaxed, yet toned, but never tense. You have to be aware and in control of your own emotions, yet you can never get emotional about what you are trying to achieve (not while you are in the arena). But you can’t hide from your emotions either, as your horse will pick up on your incongruency and act out on your behalf! Riding a horse involves body, mind and sometimes more than a little soul.

Riding is not about giving commands and having them executed. It’s a subtle conversation that continually requires your attention and awareness. A rider uses his or her body to communicate with the horse, but it doesn’t take much to unbalance the the whole operation. A horse is so sensitive that it can feel a fly on its skin and its responses are instant. The horse is talking, whether or not you are listening. The horse is listening, even when you didn’t intend on telling him anything. The horse is responding to cues you don’t even know you’re giving.

Learning to “listen” to the horse’s response to your request is what is known as “feel”. Over many years one develops some feel of what a horse feels like when it is giving the correct response to your request, as well as how it feels to request in the right way.

The problem is, sometimes your body can lie to you. Sometimes, when you’ve fallen into a bad habit and your balance and your body is just slightly out of kilter, things may feel right, when they are in fact not. The difficulty lies in knowing whether you or your horse (or both of you) is the problem. Because horse and rider continually influence each other, it makes it all the harder to know who is the one needing to be corrected. (Although it’s usually the rider!)

The differences may be so subtle that moving a leg or a foot or an internal core muscle, that no-one can see, needs to be adjusted by mere millimeters. This is when a good trainer comes in really handy. They can read the cues from your horse, know what the horse was trying to tell you and “translate” it into something more tangible for you as the rider to understand. Then you still need to find a way to correct it. It is just not a simple process, and if you can’t ride, you can’t teach someone else to either. Even people who are excellent riders themselves can’t always translate what they are doing as it just comes naturally to them.

Having a riding lesson is closely akin to a therapy session. In order to ride well and keep improving, you have to continually increase your levels of self-knowledge. You have to reflect on both body and mind. Apart from the physical hard work of riding, you can’t actually be emotional when you ride. It seems the harder you try, the less you achieve. The second you get anxious about what you are doing (or trying to do), your horse picks it up, goes into flight mode and gets tense. This causes more tension in the rider and starts a vicious never-ending circle! UNless you have enough self-knowledge to realise this immediately and stop to take a breath, or you have someone else in the arena, on the ground to give you an objective opinion.

There is nothing that will set your riding back as fast as a bad trainer, that makes either you or your horse tense in a lesson. And there is nothing that will make you tense quicker than to be told only what you are doing wrong and not how to fix them. And how can someone tell you how to fix something if they’ve never had to do it themselves?

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