Why Riding is the Hardest Thing in the World to Do

If riding simply entailed proper movements to speed up, slow down, and steer the horse, it would be elementary. Like riding a bike.

But cyclists don’t often talk about how much they are still learning 30 years after they picked up the sport. Horse riders, even those doing it professionally, DO say they’re still learning.

It’s essential to be an open-minded “learnaholic” if you’re interested in advancing your horsemanship. The reason riding is the hardest thing in the world to do? Our education has so many angles and it comes in so many forms. To note a few:

Horse movement

One must have an understanding of how the horse moves in order to ride well. Before you start talking about long trots or collection or transitions, you need to know how your horse can move and how it then moves with a rider aboard. It’s about anatomy, conditioning, muscle strength, flexibility, etc. It often helps to just watch horses in a field or paddock, especially with other horses.

Horse behavior

The more you understand what’s going on in the horse’s head, the more you’ll be able to incorporate that knowledge into better riding. For instance, it’s essential to know about prey instinct, herd instinct, and the neurochemical craving for homeostasis.

Awareness

All around the world, humans are trying their best to be more “mindful.” But in horse work, the need for awareness is amplified and multi-form:

— Body awareness

It’s essential to know what you’re doing with your body and how it is impacting your horse’s movement and behavior. Some riders go for years without realizing that they are out of balance. Others blame their horses for missteps when it has everything to do with rider position.

Generally, horses have a harder time if their riders are out of shape and inflexible. Fitness and range of motion, therefore, become essential components of good riding.

— Mental awareness

Distracted? Stressed? Nervous? Apprehensive? Angry?

Those human emotions have very real consequences when we interact with horses. Not only do horses sense them, those feelings affect how we move and react to horses’ movements.

Good riders learn to shed those mental hang-ups when they interact with horses. Some seem to walk away from daily people problems. Others develop strategies to use mid-ride, like singing when galloping or leaving the cell phone at home, to ensure a focused, mentally-healthy ride.

There’s also another level of mental awareness. It has to do with being honest with yourself about your weaknesses and faults as a human being. Clinicians often note that life’s challenges and baggage will impede horsemanship improvement. Amy Skinner explains: “Problems in our day-to-day lives carry into our riding lives. We can’t fix our riding problems without fixing our lives.”

While we work hard to shed detrimental elements of our humanness, we must nonetheless retain the smarts gained from research and experience. It’s a challenging duality unique to humans: how to be smart, savvy, mindful, and adaptable all at the same time!

[Skinner noted that teaching horsemanship doubles her challenge: “It’s hard because you have to figure out your student psychologically and physically. What are they doing and how might I get them to move their bodies differently? Then you also need to see what the horse needs and help the rider feel that and follow directions,” she said. Read more about the challenges of teaching riding here. ]

Amy Skinner

This spring, renowned horseman Warwick Schiller had a “full-on epiphany.” He tried giving a horse more time to think, decide, and relax. The results astounded him:

A troubled horse laid down and napped for hours in the middle of a clinic. ‘”And I really think that horse had not had a relaxed moment in his captive life,” said Schiller of the horse, a mustang who had been rounded up, split from his herd, and sold to adopters.

With another horse, haltering was always a problem. Schiller would see his jaw tighten and turn his head away. Again, the Australian looked to make changes in the most basic elements of his horse work.

“What I’m after is so much more microscopic than I realized,” said Schiller. “When horses can’t calm down, it’s up to us to let them find it. Often it’s just slowing down and waiting.”

In October, you’ll have a great chance to learn more from Schiller and fellow world renowned presenters. Check out the Best Horse Practices Summit roster.

Warwick Schiller will be at the BHP Summit

Extra reading:

Juliana Zunde on testing your harmony.

Check out HorseHead: Brain Science to improve your horse work

Rider Fitness articles

Read more on Balance

Multi-tasking as good horsemanship

His Rearing was the Tip of the Iceberg

Editor’s Note: Amy Skinner is a frequent guest columnist for NickerNews and BestHorsePractices. She works with Jim Thomas at Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, NC, and runs Essence Horsemanship. Here, she writes Part One of an ongoing project with the beautiful horse, Bellus.

Skinner writes:

Bellus, a 10-year old Lusitano gelding, came to the Bar T Ranch for training in January with a rearing problem.  He was schooling 3rd level dressage (which involves advanced lateral movements, flying changes, and extended gaits – movements requiring balance, rhythm and self carriage) and his trainers were fed up with him.

“Everything else was fine,” they said, except when Bellus decided he was done he would stop and rear.  Bellus was brought to us so we could “fix up that one little problem,” then he could go back to schooling.  He was expected to start getting good scores in shows and then he could be sold.

Yet everything else was not fine. In the short time that Bellus was in training, the poor horse was exposed to quite a different world than he was used to:

— Bellus was used to going in a stall.  As a stallion late to being gelded and having been isolated in his earlier years, his social skills were underdeveloped and he was kept separately from other horses.

— He came off the trailer wearing shipping boots and a fleece-lined halter. He snorted at the cows over the fence and the cows snorted back at him.

— At the Bar T, he did not live in a stall, but in a private paddock next to five other horses.

— His clipped coat stood on end when the wind picked up or when it rained. Because of this ill-advised and prior grooming, I needed to blanket him when the weather was bad.

At first, Bellus struggled to adjust.

I rode him out on the trails, through water, with the cows, and I did very little dressage.  I wanted to avoid dressage because the gelding had been drilled half to death with the movements which were a) not done correctly and b) had no meaning or value in his life.

Dressage can help a horse with balance and relaxation. The way it was presented had made him backward and resentful. I thought it’d be better for him mentally to avoid schooling in the arena and learn a different type of balance. 

But the gelding had so little confidence on the trail that he shook with trepidation and could not will himself to go forward.

With the cows, he trembled and tried to whirl around or stop and rear when he saw them.  His response to everything he didn’t understand or thought he couldn’t do was to shut down. In doing this, he’d sull up. He’d slam on the front end hard, refuse to move, and then come up in the front end.

Bellus had no idea how to use his body properly as he had always been pushed into a false “collected” frame.  He had always been ridden on a tight rein, spurred, and whipped into the contact as he continually lost his forward momentum. Shutting down became the only option he could summon.

With me riding him on a loose rein, he tripped, stumbled, rushed, and jolted to a stop. He did not know how to handle not being held up by someone’s reins and driven into them.  He had no balance of his own, and without being confined by the reins, he fell forward on his front end heavily.  He felt unbalanced and often panicked.  He did not have any of the fundamental qualities that a well-started horse should have: confidence, try, balance, ability to go forward, and relaxation.  In my mind, without these qualities, Bellus had no business competing at 3rd level dressage.

After a month in training here, Bellus made marked improvements.  He would walk, trot, and canter in a forward manner on a loose rein.  He would ride out on the trails, and I had many beautiful long trots with him where he loosened and lowered his scrunched-up neck and lifted his back, extending his stride over the hilly fields.

In the minds of his owners/trainers, however, Bellus was still a long way from where they wanted him. I suspect his owners had been strung along by many trainers trying to do the right thing, and after years of spending on trainers who had only muddled him up worse, they were at the end of their rope.  They asked me to take him. I was glad to.

My first order of business was to improve his physical and mental well being. I pulled his shoes and to turn him out onto a field with my three-ear old filly.  He was pretty tender footed after having worn shoes for his entire riding life.  As for his living situation, I think Bellus must have thought he had died and gone to heaven.

Bellus returns to the arena with more relaxation

Welcome 5 Star Equine Products and Durango realtor Rebecca Balboni

This week, we’re thrilled to announce two new charter sponsors to the Best Horse Practices Summit.

Meet realtor Rebecca Balboni of the Wells Group and 5 Star Equine Products. Both new sponsors are excellent fits for our exciting conference to be held this October in Durango, Colorado.

Terry Moore, owner of 5 Star Equine products, is sending a fantastic range of pads to the Summit for attendees to feel, smell, and purchase.
We’re huge fans of 5 Star wool pads and mohair cinches, handmade in Arkansas. Research shows wool is superior to other materials when it comes to the gear that’s closest to your horses. Wool breathes. Wool molds to the horse’s contours. The 5 Star wool felt holds up to thousands of miles of wear and multiple washings. Read articles here.
The horses of Unbranded traveled 3,000 miles over five and half months without back or belly sores. What greater testimony is there than that?
Come to the Summit and check out 5 Star pads!

Realtor Balboni, of the Wells Group, loves Durango and would love to show it off while you’re here at the Summit. From the friendly people, the breathtaking landscape, to the 300 average days of sun and limitless opportunities for trail riding, Durango is a grand slam.

Visit her Wells Group page here.

When not in the office, she can be found riding one of her two horses. She’s pictured at right on Rosie, “the wonder horse.”  The photo was taken as a recent Durango area competition. Balboni is quite active in the local equestrian community. She serves on the board of the Four Corners Dressage and Combined Training Association and also works with the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Check out some listings:

Bayfield land for $139,000

  • A stunning waterfront equestrian escape. The property includes an indoor arena and two homes on Hermosa Creek. $1,995,000. (see photo below)
  • A turn-key ranch with 150′ x 300′ lighted outdoor arena, 20 stall barn, indoor arena, cutting pen, shop, and 3 bed 3 bath home on 35 acres in Dolores. $695,000.
  • A picturesque 35 acres of mixed pasture and timber acres in the Bayfield area. A creek running through the land which is ready for your dream home. $139,900. (see photo at right)

Email her rebecca@wellsgroupdurango.com or call (404) 376-6392.

Summit Special: Bring Three, Get in Free!

We’re excited to have Best Horse Practices Summit registrants coming from all around the globe. So far, we have attendees

The Summit will be at the Strater Hotal (pictured) and the LaPlata fairgrounds

hailing from Arizona, New Mexico, Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, Canada, and more!

Beginning in late May, we are offering 4 registrations for the price of 3. It’s an ideal opportunity to bring friends, team members, club members, colleagues, or even strangers with the same passion for horses and horse education. Save $325!

Already registered? No worries. If you contact us with three additional registrants, we’ll refund one delegated registrant (who can always share the savings with his/her fellow travelers).

Not sure if your friends can make it? No worries. Just check the box when you register.

Looking forward to seeing you in Durango!

Register here.

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