In nineteen and a half years of education, I have been blessed to learn from many accomplished educators. I have read more textbooks than I can count, but the best lessons have been discovered in the barn from a teacher with four legs and a flowing tail. I offer you the opportunity to get a cheat-code on your riding and learn from my mistakes.
1. Be patient
The dictionary defines frustration as the prevention of progress, success, or fulfillment. Have you ever been so frustrated that you dismounted and gave up? I have. I have let my frustration get the best of me. I have contemplated quitting horses all together to take up a sport where my “equipment” doesn’t argue with me. Once I realized my “equipment” was my teammate, I learned to create a bond through time, patience, and practice.
Please don’t get me wrong. I have also argued with teammates, but a teammate, unlike equipment, has individual thoughts, goals, and challenges. When teammates argue, they are expressing this individuality. Realizing my horse is my teammate helped me recognize that in order for us to work together, I needed to take time to communicate with my partner in order to understand the challenges my other half was facing. This new level of understanding unlocked a stronger, deeper bond between myself and my horse.
Patience is of upmost importance, especially when working with young horses. Here, Tess works with young Atticus on backing for the first time. Photo courtesy of Tess Fortune
So trust me, I see you, with your green OTTB, trying to teach them how to change leads, while dreaming of the Olympics. I understand what you are going through, and I’m here to tell you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Understand that learning is a process, and processes take steps, and steps take time. Give yourself and your partner time.
2. Be sympathetic
Horseback riding is hard. I remember learning how to post. Posting is not a natural movement, and I cannot remember the last time I have had to post around the grocery store. At one point, every rider stumbled through this process of learning how to contort their body into a beautiful equitation position. I have sympathy for my trainers who, over the years, have probably lost count of the number of times they have squawked “Heels down! Shoulders back! Look up!!!”
Photo courtesy of Tess Fortune
This learning curve is not exclusive to riders. I was once told, “when a horse is born, their mother does not say to them, ‘when they leg you that means go forward.'” This has proven true. Horses are not born knowing how to collect their gaits and jump combinations. Keeping this in mind, I urge you to be sympathetic to your equine counter-part. Remember what it was like for you to learn how to use every part of your body, and understand they are also learning. Just as you once learned “one-two-one-two,” your partner is learning how to use his body for a flawless canter depart.
So, how do you communicate with a non-verbal partner? Easy. Pause and observe. Obviously, your horse isn’t able to say, “Hey, mom! I’m nervous about that roll-top.” As a partner, it is your duty to learn your horse’s language so you are able to communicate confidence in him, as required for your accomplishments as a team.
Communication is key, or you might wind up like this. Photo courtesy of Tess Fortune
It is not easy learning your horse’s language. In my twenty-five years of riding, I have found that every horse has its own language. Let’s start with an easy example. When you tighten the girth, and your horse pins his ears, he very clearly is demonstrating to you that he does not like what you are doing, we learn this at the very beginning. But do you know why? Is he just snarky? Is his tack ill-fitting? Is his gut uncomfortable? Learning the answer for each horse is a process of trial and error. If you fail the first five times at guessing why your steed is crabby, don’t give up. This just means you are five guesses closer to the right answer. I promise you, once you can pick up on your horse’s non-verbal cues, you will be shocked by how easily and effectively you can communicate without speaking a word. Sometimes I think I communicate with my horse better than my human counter-part!
4. Believe in yourself
During my teenage years, I suffered from a severe case of “last jump-itis.” The story would go like this: I am cantering around an important course, usually a second round classic trip, and 99% of the trip would be beautiful and rhythmic. I am cantering to my last fence, and my heart begins to race. I panic, and I POP A CHIP. Like clockwork, I knew this was my fate, and I felt like nothing could defeat it.
My generously supportive and patient parents kept sending me to horse shows with some wonderful horses, and eventually, I realized that none of these courses are my final ultimatum. There will be more chances, more courses, more horse shows. Each horse show is just practice for the next, after all. After a little bit of luck, I had a few monumental successes and was feeling much more confident in my abilities as a rider.
At that point, I began to enter the ring, and instead of telling myself, “here you go again, just to chip,” I told myself, “I’ve got this. Let’s go jump some nice jumps.” My new-found confidence transferred over to my partner. This confidence opened the door to many more champion ribbons, coolers, and trophies, which further fueled the success. They say practice makes perfect, which is true, but nobody goes in the ring insecure and accidentally stumbles upon success. You belong here, and you can win this.
MVP 10th in the 20k Junior/Amateur Derby at Country Heir 2018. Photo courtesy of Tess Fortune
So no matter where you are with your riding or what you are struggling with, keep these four lessons in mind!