Note: I’m not a professional rider. Rather an amateur rider doing my own riding and training. Read my disclaimer. I’m sharing some stories and lessons I've learned here with you.
In my last post, I discussed how having a warm-up plan has been so beneficial for my horses. I shared my basic warm-up plan so that you could adopt or create one for your horse. If I didn’t convince you of the value of it, I bet my horse’s opinion was pretty motivating! Here's the link, if you missed that post:
Today, I'll tell you about the best piece of riding advice I've ever received. But first, I’m sharing the things I focus on during the warm up to help me improve as a rider and become a better partner to my horse. To learn to ride better, I play “games” to improve my skills. The cool thing about these games is that my horse is the judge. If I’m doing them well, my horse provides instant feedback to let me know I’m winning.
PLAY GAMES TO BECOME A BETTER RIDER
Do the Dance – For this game I focus on influencing my horse with just my body position – like a dance partner. To do this I turn at the waist so that my inside shoulder comes back toward my horse’s tail on circles, in every corner, and during changes of bend when I cross the centerline on serpentines. So, while I’m riding the figures of the warm up, I’m using my body position in this way to influence my horse. I make sure that I stay centered in the saddle - no leaning or collapsing in the rib cage when I turn at the waist. I have found that my horse just loves the subtleness of being ridden this way. It helps the two of us become one.
Elastic Contact Game – I play this game to develop a steady and elastic contact with my horse’s mouth. Why? To create an inviting contact that my horse can trust and seek. To play the game, I start with my hands over the withers. At the walk and canter, I move my hands forward and back in a rowing motion so they follow the motion of my horse’s neck while keeping a steady light feel of his mouth (like a fish on a line). At the posting trot, I push my hands down toward the withers each time I rise up in my post, - so my elbows work like a hinge. This motion actually keeps your hands still from your horse’s perspective. Since your elbows need to be elastic at every gate and in all transitions, I work on this skill every ride starting in the warm up, so eventually it becomes my habit. I want to make my contact so inviting that it encourages my horse to buy in and take a nice steady contact too.
Buzz Words As Fun Reminders – I don’t do very well with position corrections like “get your shoulders back”. Instead, I use visualization and buzz words (thanks Jane Savoie) to remind myself about position faults I’m trying to improve . For example, if I’m working on bringing my shoulders back more, I imagine an eagle spreading it’s wings – so my buzz word to bring my shoulders back is “eagle”. Each time I ride down the long side of the ring, I will think eagle and use that visualization to improve my position. I have a buzz word for each position change I’m working on. Here’s another example. I’m working on looking straight ahead of my horse (not down) so that my chin in parallel with the arena floor. So my buzz word to look up is “parallel” as I visualize my chin parallel to the arena floor. Often, I will combine my buzz words for quick position corrections by thinking “parallel - eagle”
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS?
It’s hard to quantify all the benefits that I’ve gained as a rider just by playing these simple games during the warm up. But here’s what I’ve observed:
• My horse notices and appreciates when I’m playing the games well
• It’s improved the quality of the contact I have with my horse’s mouth
• My position has improved
• I’m forming good riding habits that later become automatic
• I’ve become a more aware and subtle rider that strives to use the smallest cues possible with my horse
• It’s helped to build the partnership between my horse & myself
Action Step: How could playing these games or others impact your riding and the partnership you have with your horse? You can even try them out on the ground first to develop some muscle memory. Your horse can give you some great feedback if you’re listening. I would love to hear about your experiences so please comment and share.
WHY FOCUS ON THE QUALITY OF YOUR RIDING?
So back to my story which will give you some insight as to why I focus on improving my riding skills starting in the warm up. My horse at the time was known for being pretty difficult to ride. If you rode him technically perfect, he would go well. But the slightest flaw on my part would be exposed in a dramatic way to the world. So, on this particular day I was at a clinic I rode in once a month. I was having a hard time in my lesson because my horse had a bit of an attitude. I’m known for being a patient rider, but I felt like my horse was giving me nothing to work with.
At one point, the clinician had us halt along the rail. He recognized what was going on and came over to me and said “When I’m riding a horse that is being difficult, I just focus on riding very correctly myself.” So, that’s what I did. I just tuned out the rest. The clinician helped me focus on correct riding by doing the following:
• Turning at the waist in every corner and on circles and serpentines (sound familiar?)
• Keeping a steady and elastic contact with my hands
• Stretching up tall
• Posting in the rhythm I wanted my horse to trot
• Visualizing I was riding a horse that was relaxed and rhythmic
Can you guess what happened? My horse started going better and better as we worked around the arena. I think mentally going to another place and refusing to get into a confrontation with my horse made all the difference. I learned that sometimes no reaction is the best reaction. Focusing your mind on being the best partner possible can get you further that anything else you could do.