It's a Riding Lesson- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

It starts innocently enough, just like every other thing that happens around horses. A rider might have a problem with their horse, or maybe a goal. It sounds innocent enough.

Then there’s the horse, maybe he’s confused or maybe he’s bored. No blame, no fault. He’s being honest and if you don’t like what he is saying, lessons are a good idea.

The rider might have grown up with horses and worked with lots of trainers or she might be just starting with horses, lessons, and this whole world.

Start here: she loves her horse. No, really, as if I need convincing, she tells me how great her horse is. I never disagree, it’s pretty easy for me to find something to like about an equine, but more than that, no one calls a trainer for help because they hate their horse. Then she probably tells me one more really wonderful thing about how they got together or some big success in the past. She’s getting closer to telling me more about the problem, which might feel almost be like a betrayal. “I love him, but he…” It can be a precarious place for a rider, being critical of the horse who inspires their passion. At the same time that they want me to like him, they want me to see what’s ‘wrong’ with him too.

*Visualize a field of land mines for all concerned.* In this infinite world of horses, there is one thing every single one of us has in common: massive, huge, and over-sized feelings about our horses. What could possibly go wrong?

Insert a trainer: I meet the rider and listen. I meet the horse and listen. They usually tell different versions of the same story. I try to establish a common language. This part is tricky, even if we all speak English, no one seems to define the words the same way. If you don’t believe me, ask two people to define contact. Or forward. Or leadership. See?

Here is where I got into my Building Inspector mode: I check the foundation for loose bricks and cracks. Is the horse sound, does the tack fit? How is the emotional foundation of the horse? Are there any symptoms of a sour stomach or ulcers? This is such a common challenge in riding horses and since the first signs are usually behavioral, a trainer might see them before a vet sometimes. This first step never varies: If the horse is not sound, his behavior is the only way he has to communicate that to you. It would be a huge mistake to train his symptoms away rather than listen and help.

If I am certain that the horse is sound and the tack is not abusive, I try to find a light-hearted and cheerful way to let the rider know the good news: it’s something they are doing. Sometimes the rider translates that to my fault. Harsh words, and a sense of humor is pretty important right about now. But what did you expect? Was I supposed to compliment you and your horse, tell you the problem was imaginary, and ask for my check?

It’s actually good news! If it’s something you are doing, it can change. Communication can improve, balance can become more solid, and confidence can grow. Some of us have herds of retired or lame horses, and we’d be thrilled to think we could change that by just riding better.

Here is the truth: Riding well is hard. Horses are not dirt bikes, if you want to improve your partnership with your horse, it is something you will work on forever. Dressage riders are eternal students of the horse, we never stop learning. There is no stigma about lessons, it is just a matter of course if you are serious about horses. So no guilt, no apologies

There is an old adage and we have all heard it so much it sounds trite. You are training your horse each time you ride. Well, it’s just flat out true.

I hear riders sometimes talk about their lessons as punishment, that their trainers yell and they are constantly corrected. Some of us have trainer horror stories, I certainly do. No trainer can be right for every client and first lessons are always a bit stressful, but shop around and find someone who makes sense to your ears. Let your horse have a vote, too. There are some trainers out there who really don’t like horses much. I know, it shocks me, too.

This is the biggest thing I know: Horses thrive on rhythm. All bad things, like spooking, bucking, or bolting are a loss of that natural calming movement. It’s no coincidence that the foundation of dressage training pyramid is rhythm, and a horse can’t have relaxed and forward gaits with a tense or upset rider, so my first priority is to put the rider at ease. And then get ready to say good boy, this is supposed to be fun.

Am I shamelessly promoting riding lessons to line my pockets with your hard-earned cash? No. Every week I am reminded that there is a very fine line between a well-loved family horse and a horse abandoned to rescue or his lonely pasture. The difference is only a few lessons.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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Comment by Anna Blake on April 26, 2014 at 11:30pm

Thank you, Jackie. I appreciate the vote of confidence!

Comment by Sandy Lynn Wallis on April 25, 2014 at 2:35pm

I thoroughly enjoyed your excellent article.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on April 25, 2014 at 12:09pm

In a lot of the older dressage books I've read many passages about how to overcome the horse's resistance--to the bit, legs, seat, etc..  They all said to get the vet out first, but that was many decades ago, before MRI's, sophisticated veterinary knowledge, and the modern knowledge about saddle fit and bit suitability.

Now, when I see resistances I immediately think that the horse is in pain or just not comfortable.  This new viewpoint has gotten me a lot further in training the horses and riding them with softness than the old "you, the rider, have to work the horse through the resistance &/or your horse's defiance."  Until the horse is comfortable any progress you think you are making is fake progress.

Anna, I am about to pay you a great compliment.  There are not many riding teachers who are into dressage that I would recommend to people.  However you have the right ideas, the knowledge how to apply them in a way that helps the horse, and I would feel safe sending you a rider and/or horse that needed help.  Keep up the good work! 

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