This is a question I am quite frequently asked. You may as well ask ‘How long is a piece of string?’
Where are you starting from and where do you want to get to?
Starting points range from – “I’ve never sat on a horse” to “I’ve been riding for 20 years but I don’t have control of what my horse is doing” to “I really want to improve my flying changes”, or other advanced moves.
End points range from – “I’d like to feel safe going for a hack”, through “I want to be able to go hunting”, to “I want to compete in an Intro or Grand Prix dressage test”.
There is a big difference between sitting on a horse following another – literally ‘being taken for a ride’ and being in control of the horse, in control of where he steps and the speed of his legs in each pace, whilst all the time remaining in balance and neither pulling on the reins or crashing down on the horse’s back. This is what we refer to as ‘riding’.
But there are more factors that determine how long it will take, it’s not a straight calibration of distance. What will affect your miles per hour?
Fitness – physical and mental – both affect your journey, as does the time you are able to commit to learning and practising, alongside the quality of the teaching you receive. Riding is like any skill, there are multiple components. Neuroscientists talk about 3 main elements of the brain – Chemical, Structural and Functional. Each of these is developed as you learn a new skill. The chemical changes are short term, they have to be repeated frequently to create the structural and functional changes required.
There is no doubt that the more regularly you are able to ride the faster your journey becomes. Practice makes progress, however there are limits and a first time adult rider may find an hour a day more than sufficient. Learning a new skill is physically and mentally tiring. Your body is trying to adapt and needs rest time to process, recover and rebuild. Every person is an individual and needs to be taught accordingly.
Younger children are often very adept at learning but frequently lack the physical strength required to achieve the same level of control as adults. Many adults are challenged by the process of learning a new physical skill, locked in unconscious physical and mental habits, holding patterns within their bodies of which they are totally unaware. The tone of your muscles is a key factor in riding. This is affected by your genetics, life experiences, general activities and your mental state. Have you ever had the experience of your body going to jelly when something scary happens, or being frozen with fear? Neither or theses states make it easy to learn or ride. Jelly bloops off the horse, whilst rigid can grip the horse too hard restricting movement or constantly giving the message to run. Horses also respond to our mental state, feeling the fear or the fun and responding accordingly.
There is also the horse in this equation. When I learnt to drive a car I started with one with low power, a basic Mini rather than a F1 Ferrari. The same is recommended with horses. It is best to start on a reasonably well balanced, willing but low power model, to learn the basics. Some horses are more tolerant of ‘errors or lack of clarity’ in communication than others. Did you say Whoa or Go, or both at the same time? As you progress you will want to be able to educate or direct the horse with more refinement. You should start to learn ‘feel’ to recognise what is or isn’t working so well in yourself or the horse, then start to adjust it accordingly. As you become more refined in your skills then you may progress to or be able to create a horse that has greater physical abilities or power.
So, to answer the original question – ‘How long will it take me to learn to ride?’ For an interested, physically and mentally fit adult with no previous riding experience, the ability to walk, halt, trot, canter and steer in basic balance, understanding and control, on a suitable horse, we generally find is achievable within 10 private biomechanics lessons, spread over 2-10 weeks, sometimes faster, sometimes slower. For the more experienced rider, just one lesson can have a great impact, but even or especially the top professional riders will continue to have lessons, as they are continually seeking to develop and refine their performance and that of their horses.
Wherever you are in your riding, there is always more to learn. Explore and enjoy.