Growing up on Long Island in the 1960s was a lucky break for an aspiring horseman. The quality of competition, even at the lowest levels, was keen with local riders vying for National honors every year. With the level of competition so high, the riding instruction had to reflect that quality. While there were many good people to learn from, and I took advantage of many of those opportunities, one teacher will always stand out. He was Captain Vladimir Littauer. Captain Littauer was well into semi-retirement when I met him in the mid ‘60s. He was content to do a few clinics and work on revisions of his many successful riding books. His theories and adaptations of Italian cavalry methods had proven very successful and were the model for how all children learned to ride at the time.
By a happy bit of luck he and his wife were friends of my mother and so I would see them quite often in social situations. Having had me as a student in several clinics, the Captain would always ask how my riding was coming along. He was always interested in my development as a rider and often he would suggest a book or technique. As I got older my questions got deeper into the “whys” and away from the “hows.” Encouraged by my developing thought process we had many a lively conversation. He encouraged me to teach saying it would make me a better rider and it did. The Captain also encouraged me to write because he thought it would make me a better teacher. It did and of all the many and varied things I learned from this knowledgeable and generous man, the thing I keep going back to is: “Thinking Like a Rider.”
During the 90 seconds a rider will spend doing a round over jumps in a horse show, that rider will make hundreds of decisions. Most, maybe 90% of them will be tiny and these must be subconscious. These tiny decisions; how much leg to use to maintain the canter, how much and how long to hold the indirect rein to achieve a proper bend, etc have to be practiced at home until they are second nature and require no conscious thought at all. A few of those words bear repeating; practice at home, second nature and no conscious thought at all.
The rider has to be practiced to the point where he knows these little decisions will be made correctly and in a timely manner and be confident of that fact. The rider’s mind has to be focused on the other 10% of the decisions. For if I am correct in saying there are hundreds of decisions to make, then even 10% of them is a lot to think about. Of course the best prepared riders think things through again and again before they enter the ring. They have studied the course and have a very clear idea of where they are going and what they want to do. They are aware of striding and know how much pace to carry and where to smooth it out if necessary. On course, they are thinking of where they are and where they want to go. The 90% of the rider’s decisions, the bulk of the iceberg below the waterline, you don’t see and they don’t consider. Their confidence in the ring reflects their confidence that these decisions will be made correctly.
Practice those details at home until they are second nature and require no conscious thought. You’ll be surprised how much time you have to think in the show ring.