A great ride is a moment in time when everything comes together. It is a moment when you find all the pieces of a giant jigsaw and they all fit together in harmony. That is not to say everything is perfect, but that you can see and feel progress along the path you have chosen to take.
So what are those pieces of the jigsaw?
At the highest level you might consider them to be the rider, the horse and their relationship.
But each of these parts can be broken down into several components –
Environment – calm or hectic
|Calm or hectic, settled or not|
|Mental Health||Calm, nervous or stressed, eager or reluctant||Calm, nervous or stressed, eager or reluctant|
|Physical Health||Comfort or pain (back, teeth), weight, fitness, diet||Comfort or pain, weight, fitness, diet|
|Training||Understanding of basic whoa, go, yield, developing into the school movements appropriate to their level of training||Understanding of horse training, rider bio-mechanics and school movements (when/what/why)|
|General Management||Routine (even if that’s an irregular routine)||Routine (even if that’s an irregular routine)|
Riding lessons tend to focus on the ‘training’ element, for horse and/or rider.
As a rider bio-mechanics specialist, this is where I tend to focus my attention, on the rider. The horses give clear feedback as to whether the rider is adapting in the relevant way, or not. Whilst both the rider and I may have a specific lesson goal in mind, we may need to take a step back to address some underlying issues before proceeding. Many other trainers will focus on the horse and his way of going, making minimal suggestions to the rider as to how they can change what they do, in terms of their body. But if you always do what you’ve always done, then you will always get what you’ve always got. The rider has to initiate the change.
Usually the first question to ask is ‘so what do we have today?’. Even before you mount, you should be noticing, how is your horse responding to you today? This may be as you catch and groom him or tack him up, as you bring him out of the stable, into the arena. Is he as he always is, or different in some way? Is this a positive or a negative? If he is always grumpy or reluctant, then I’d be looking for a reason, and ways in which I can address this. This may be much more important than the riding element. Maybe he just needs you to slow down and take more time getting to know him, being with him, or maybe he needs a change in his diet or routine, or some professional help from a vet, farrier, saddler, dentist, bodyworker or similar.
I recently took ownership of a mare who had come from a home where there had been a family crisis. She had been there for 7 years, had a one to one relationship with the previous owner, who was now severely stressed and grief stricken. She had had a series of equine companions, but none long term. She had also had laminitis and been on a very restricted diet. She’d had very little by way of training. What she needed most was time. Time to settle into her new environment. Time to get to know me and my staff. Time to learn how to learn. Time to get checked out by our support team of professionals. Time to build trust, with the humans and equines around her. I look at this time as an investment in our future relationship.
My original question was what makes a great ride, so let’s assume that the horse is happy and you decide to mount and start work. How does your horse feel compared to normal? What do you notice?
The sort of things to pay attention to are:
- Is the horse tense or relaxed?
- Are they listening to you, or watching what’s going around us?
- Which of you is controlling speed of their legs?
- Their responsiveness to go, stop and turn requests
- What is the shape of their back?
- For me, am I able to keep both my seat-bones and my underneath connected to their back, whilst I stay light in the saddle?
- Am I pushing in my feet, or are they light?
If I am teaching a lesson then there will be a similar check list for my rider.
Then I check in on the last thing I was working on with this horse/rider/combination, assuming it wasn’t in the list above and/or the pieces I need to have in place to proceed to the next step. There is always a judgment call to be made of ‘is it good enough?’. Good enough for what I want to do next. If the answer is no, then probably I have to revisit my last lesson, maybe approach it in a slightly different way. If yes, then I can introduce the next topic or refinement.
If I ignore the ‘not good enough’ element, then I am probably setting myself, my horse, my rider up to fail. That’s not helpful for any of the parties, all come away disappointed.
If I introduce the ‘new’ element at the right time, then we are set-up to progress. Whether the progression is the understanding of a new concept, the obtaining of a new feel, the ability to do the new X for 1 or 2 steps or a full circle, or 50% of the ride.
Sometimes the new element may not be dependent on the previous one, but may be an element that needs to be combined with the previous element to obtain the desired result. As a simple example, walk halt transitions; the first thing you want is that the horse understands and responds to your requests for halt. The quality of the go may be faster or slower than you ultimately want, or the halt may be a shorter duration than you ultimately want, but for now you’re going to focus on the STOP. Once the stop is ‘good enough’, then focus for a while on the go, or the halt, depending on what the horse or rider needs most. As you improve each element start putting them together as Stop, Stand, Go for your walk halt transitions. It is likely each element will continually have scope for improvement; is the Go from a light enough aid, how many steps does it take for the horse to come up through its back, how long can this be maintained, is the rein contact there but light and consistent, does the back stay lifted into the halt? As you improve one element you may temporarily lose a little from another, then revisit and rebuild.
For me, if there is progress then I have had a good ride, and I’d hope you would have too.
If you’re out hacking, then continue playing with items on your checklist for you, and on your checklist for that horse. You won’t be riding 20m circles, but you still want to be ‘straight’ or more and more close to, you’ll want to be light, yet still on both seat-bones. you’ll want your horse ‘stuffed’ in places he usually loses stuffing (look out for more on this in a future blog). You may not be able to hold any element for the whole ride, but if you can get ‘it’ more and more often, then that is progress.
Occasionally there may be a day when you feel progress has been lacking, maybe you’ve been tired, or the horse seems below par. On those days look for what it is you’ve lost. Where/what do you need to focus on? Is there something you can work on before you ride again? Maybe you both need to do something different for a while, before returning to the current lesson. Having a next steps plan can also be progress of sorts. There may also be days where you don’t find a ‘fix’ but you do discover, observe, or understand better a ‘fault’ or pattern, it can be a real ‘Ah ha’ moment. Take time to explore it, whatever it is, better understanding will lead to better results.
So what are the components of a great ride?
- Noticing – what do you have NOW?
- Responding to the NOW in an appropriate way
- Being willing to change plans according to NOW
- Noticing Progress