First, I am NOT a natural rider.
I have heard about or read about natural riders since I started riding in Chile some 54 years ago. I was told by my parents that they had been told that there were these people who could just get up on a horse and ride perfectly from the very first time. Perfect seat, perfect hands, perfect timing, perfect from the very start. My father was considered the best rider of the family because he had a naturally perfect seat. I was considered the worst rider in my family because I was the only one of my family who fell off riding, 5 times in the 4 years we rode in Chile and Uruguay. The impression I got back then was that if you were not perfect from the very first time you were on a horse there was no hope for you, all you could ever hope for was being able to trail ride on a beginners horse. There was no point in even trying to get much better, and believing this, my parents thought that paying for riding lessons was a waste of money, either you were perfect from the very start or you were doomed to a lifetime of mediocrity on horseback. Like I was.
Then when we returned to the USA I found a wondrous thing in the school library, books on riding horses!!!! Reading these books I ran into the novel idea that a person could LEARN to ride a horse and become a good rider. Since we lived in suburban Virginia there was not much trail riding set up like it was in South America. To ride up there you either had to own your own horse or take riding lessons. After YEARS of begging my family finally gave me enough money for 10 lessons at a decent stable, but my mother yanked me out because all the beginning riders were not immediately perfect riders, including me (she fixated on heels down, since none of the beginning riders had their heels WAY down immediately the lessons were obviously no good.)
As I read more I started running into comments by the authors of these riding books about natural born riders. To my astonishment, many riders at the top of the game in the hunter/show jumping/dressage fields did not consider themselves natural born riders! I read in books by cavalrymen about other cavalrymen they had known who were natural riders, and the impressions I got was that these writters, often winners in international competition, were jealous of these natural born riders who could get a horse to anything at all with no problems and hardly any work.
The first thorough discussion I read about natural riders was in Vladimir Littauer's "Common Sense Horsemanship." He was writing about his first riding experiences and how, after three years of riding a single-foot horse on the steppes he was introduced to riding lessons, and how his teacher said Littauer was a "natural" in riding the old fashioned cavalry seat (based on collection.) He writes "It was said in the old Russian army that a cavalry officer is born with his spurs on, a phrase which jokingly expressed an emotional belief that once you belonged to this caste you were a perfect horseman." After the Russian Revolution Littauer ended up in the USA and after several years he started teaching riding. There he taught American civilians and said about this experience "Probably the greatest difficulty that the riding teacher faced in my active days was that general reluctance to study and work which created the term--"natural rider." When using this expression people didn't mean to imply that they were speaking of a person with special abilities to which only knowledge needed to be added to make him a great horseman. Not at all. This term indicates a person who, without ever taking lessons, or reading a book, but merely through years in the saddle and with the help of providence, has become a "superb rider."
In an earlier book of Littauer's, "Riding Forward", he has this description. "Occasionally one sees a rider who apparently knows very little, sits badly and does not control his horse in accordance with the scientific principles of Equitation, yet still manages to get from his mount much more than another rider who does everything properly. This is a case of outstanding natural ability. Everytime I see it, I think it is a pity that the world has lost another wonderful rider. A man with such a talent would unquestionably be outstanding if his tact were augmented by knowledge."
Yes, there are people who are born riders, and those born riders who get good training become very, very, very good riders. They have naturally athletic bodies, with perfect balance, "hair trigger" reflexes, the strength to have good "spring" in their joints and grip with their legs, the ability to see distances and judge speed, and that indescribably FEEL of the horse that enables the rider to synchronize his movements and aids with the horse's movements to get the best possible performance from the horse. These natural riders make riding look ridiculously easy because for them riding IS easy.
All of my life I have been jealous of "natural riders" of either type. I remember looking at these natural riders and feeling utter despair since it was so obvious that I was "naturally" unable to ride as well as they could. Often these natural riders get started riding early. My instructor, Debra Barham Campbell is one, she started riding at age four on a Shetland pony she had bought and started fox-hunting immediately (her father was a land owner who bred horses, later Debbie was the main rider of his Apaloosa stallion.) Wanting to be a better rider Debbie got into the Pony Club and got lessons from an old cavalryman, trained ponies, and she has always been considered a good rider. I agree, she is a wonderful rider, every time I get to see her train a horse I just stand in awe. She is also very good at teaching riding. Oh I wish I could be as good as Debbie! HER LITTLE FINGER knows more about riding and training than I do with all my riding, training, reading, studying and thinking. Debbie is a natural born rider for sure.
Decades ago I got tired of feeling despair about not being a "natural rider". I decided that I would learn how to be a good rider. Since I could not get the lessons I wanted I did it mostly by reading books and letting my horse tell me if I was doing something right, and my horse was not one to do something until I did my aids EXACTLY right. My progress was slow, but I kept riding, got more horses, mostly weanlings, trained my horses and tried, tried, tried to get it all RIGHT. Then, when I could afford it, I got more equitation books, tried things, got told by my horse that I got it wrong, thought about it, re-read my earlier books, thought some more, and finally I started to get things RIGHT. Riding and training became easy. Then a drunk driver plowed into the front of my car and I entered a years long exacerbation of my undiagnosed Multiple Sclerosis.
When I got back into riding after 5 years I was very weak, uncoordinated, with no balance or proprioceptive sense. Even though I was a physical wreck I was able to improve the horses I rode, quickly and noticeably. Over the years I have gotten stronger and my position is much better thanks to Debbie. Two years ago I got a lesson at North Fork School of Equitation with Karen Fenwick, who had given me a few lessons when I was a beginner 30 years earlier. After the lesson during her analysis of my riding, the first thing she told me was that I was a very good rider, but--. That was the proudest moment of my life. I have been working on the buts ever since.
So all you riders out there, do not despair if you are not a natural born rider. Find a good teacher, read good riding books, learn ALL the theories, experiment, think, think, think about your riding and LISTEN TO YOUR HORSE, if your horse says your riding sucks your horse is right no matter what anyone else says. When you have difficulties, if one way does not work even though you've worked on it for weeks, find another way of doing it. Either you do not understand what needs to be done OR you are following advice from someone who does not have the ability to communicate clearly. NEVER stop learning, there is no way that any human can know everything about horses and riding. Natural born riders don't have to get everything right, but us lesser mortals have to work and work at getting everything right if we are to have any hope of competing with the naturals. Even then, after all that work, you will often find that the naturally good riders win even if they do not ride as correctly as you do. That is just the way the universe works. Life is not fair.
Outside of competition, though, there is great reward for all this work. I can often make difficult horses look easy to ride, and my teachers like seeing me ride their horses. But the sweetest moment is when less experienced riders look at me and say "you're really good, you must be a natural."
In spite of my Multiple Sclerosis.
If I can do it anyone with the desire and determination can do it to. Study, think, ride, train, and LISTEN TO YOUR HORSE.
Have a great ride!