Muscle Memory Matters in Horse Riding


Malcolm Gladwell put forth a theory in 2008, in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success that sounds to be entirely relevant to us horse riders. In it, he proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in any task to become exceptionally good at something.  That breaks down to approximately 3 hours per day over a course of ten years. He goes on to explain that it’s not just about having talent – less talented people can progress beyond their more talented counterparts through repeated, directed practice.

Another key component to his theory is that one must be in the right place, at the right time, in order to achieve one’s highest potential for success. In the horse sense, I have always thought of this as being influenced by the right people at the right time – preferably very early in your riding career so that the correct muscle memory can be created early on (we know how hard it is to undo bad habits – especially physical ones!).

Although not everyone agrees with Gladwell’s theory, and the criticism is that he makes broad generalizations based on a relatively small amount of data, I suspect there is something to be said about regular practice. It does not take a genius to recognize that repeating a skill tends to develop the skill.

This could be especially relevant to riding horses, as there are so many small muscle contractions that act within split-seconds in order for us to keep ourselves in the saddle and moving in tandem with the horse. Anyone who has ridden for even a short time can attest to the development of ‘muscle memory’, or blueprinting. Things just become easier with practice. Once upon a time you thought you’d never be able to perform a movement, but with regular determined repetition, one day you discover that it just happens. Somehow, you do not even have to think about the movement and your body just performs.

Yes, I imagine that if I could squeeze in three hours of riding a day, I would get to my goal of being efficient and effective in the saddle much quicker. This certainly holds true for riding, as well as anything in life, including success at our daily jobs.

On the horse side of the equation, I have one particularly expressive horse who has distinctly TOLD me that this theory stands true for horses as well. He is the one that thrives on daily anything (insert riding, grooming, tail brushing, lunging – you name it) and if it happens that he gets a day or two off, he emphatically denies that he has ever been ridden. He tells me his slow and fast twitch muscle fibers have absolutely no memory of ever having twitched that way before…!


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Comment by E. Allan Buck on September 24, 2011 at 3:23pm

If one 'feels' the ride and does not think the ride, the muscles will remember the correct supple, soft and flexible form in which they are used.

Communication is of the same, one must feel the form of communication and not think it.

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