How learning skills in new disciplines can improve your riding

Trying new disciplines can greatly benefit your riding style and improve your horse’s attitude and understanding at any event.

We all put our left foot into the stirrup, lift our right leg over our horse’s back, and sit down in our comfort zone. Whether it’s in a lighter English saddle with thin irons and rounded pommel, or a heavier tooled western saddle with silver inlay designs and a back cinch, we all find our security in the familiarity of the saddles that fill our tack rooms. We all walk in boots – some cover our lower leg in slim black leather, while others have thicker leather with square toes — but all are covered in the dust, sweat and tears that accompany our preferred disciplines.

As riders, we all have a similar passion in our hearts. But over time, we become complacent about what we know. We tend to close our minds to other breeds that don’t occupy our barns and pastures, and feel no need to broaden our skillsets. But just because we’re faithful to our disciplines doesn’t mean we can’t learn something new to better our horses and ourselves.

As we approach prime riding season, why not put in a new bit, tighten a new saddle, or walk to a new mounting block? Here are a few disciplines you can try for a change of pace:

Trail riding – the endurance sport 

Unlike its leisurely name, trail riding is not a mindless sport. It requires a great deal of common sense, and safety is always a high priority. While the escape of an open trail can tempt you (and your horse) to take off running — don’t! Familiarize yourself with a few trail riding basics, and you’ll reap the many lessons this sport has to offer! Here’s a glimpse into what you might learn:

  • Better ground manners. Before venturing out, your horse should have impeccable ground manners. A strong knowledge of the basics will enhance his etiquette on the trail. But even the most well-behaved horses will learn a thing or two from riding away from the barn – skills such as standing while tied in the woods, and weaving between trees.
  • The importance of carrying a first aid kit. Trail riding away from the barn limits the resources you have at hand during emergencies. This discipline will force you to learn what you need to carry along in your saddlebag – and how to use them.
  • Respect for the land. Any seasoned trail rider will tell you how important it is to make as little impact as possible on the environment. This sport will give you a deeper appreciation for nature and teach you how to “leave no trace”.
  • How to handle unpredictable situations calmly. Regaining control of a spooked horse and keeping yourself in the saddle are just a few priceless lessons you’ll take away from trail riding.
  • How to handle a runaway horse. Hopefully this is a lesson you’ll never have to learn firsthand…but you never know. A loose horse is one of the most frightening sights for any equestrian. As tempting as it might be, a smart trail-goer never chases a loose horse – ever. Instead, read up on some smart ways to grab his attention and lure him back to safety.

Dressage – the fancy discipline  

The early and classical forms of dressage were developed to train cavalry horses for war. The horse’s ability to perform maneuvers quickly from side to side, change direction and explode into a gallop or halt quickly came in handy on the battlefield.

Today, the protective movements that were used in combat have been adapted into a modern discipline, in which riders perform harmoniously in an artistic freestyle pattern set to music. Interested in trying dressage? Here’s a few skills you’ll pick up along the way:

  • How to ride with purpose. If you’re not already familiar with the importance of your horse’s balance, self-carriage and engagement, you will be after trying dressage. You’ll also become more aware of your own deep connected seat and correct body positions, and will learn how to communicate better with any horse you ride.
  • Patience to master powerful yet soft aids when riding. Aids include your hands/reins, seat/weight and leg pressure. Dressage will teach you how to use these aids effectively to lengthen and shorten your horse’s strides, perform a leg yield, transition up and down gracefully, and ride in a measured complete full circle.
  • Goal setting, to gauge improvement. Every horse and rider have holes that can cause blockages and even stop the learning process altogether. Dressage will help correct any negative bad habits and establish a stronger foundation for both you and your horse.
  • A stronger partnership. It’s not a skill, per se, but dressage can help all breeds in all levels of training, and all riders in every level of experience, bond on a deeper level. It strives to bring horse and rider team together for a true partnership, using the whole body to ride the whole horse.

Rodeos – the cowboy and cowgirl sport

Rodeos involve horses galloping around the pen carrying costumed flag-waving cowgirls, stands full of rowdy cheering fans, and fireworks exploding in the distance. But don’t let the party atmosphere fool you. These timed events take a lot of skill, impeccable timing, and a will to win. Here’s what you can gain from partaking in a rodeo event – or even just the training.

  • A desensitized horse. A scared horse is a dangerous horse that will lose trust if constantly put into threatening or unfamiliar situations. A good rodeo horse, on the other hand, has to deal with some crazy sights and sounds in order to do his job. With a gradual approach to rodeo training, you’ll teach your horse to be braver and overcome fears.
  • The ability to effectively use his gas pedal and brakes. It’s not always about speed – it’s more about control. Learning to feel when and how much gas to use and when to apply the brakes without abruptness are just two skills you’ll learn if you decide to train in the art of rodeo riding.
  • Better control your horse. Practicing for the rodeo means learning to guide your horse’s shoulders, hips and ribcage with minimal cueing. The goal is to get him to move from side to side, and perform lifts and bends you can use in the rodeo ring and in everyday riding.
  • Effective use of adrenaline. Rodeo riding can be scary – but it’s also incredibly exciting. By practicing for this type of event, you and your horse will both learn how to use that exhilarating energy to your advantage.

Jumping – the flying sport

The delight of soaring over jumps on horseback gives many equestrians a thrill like no other. Here are some of the things you might take away from a jumping class:

  • A new level of confidence and responsibility. Your concentration on not getting hurt and not putting your horse in danger will be first and foremost in your mind.
  • An ability to stay focused and think more logically. Instructors will demand that your head is clear of all other distractions and that you’re fully aware of your decisions.
  • Improved core balance and better timing. Jumping with your horse will teach you to stop shifting your weight in the saddle. It will also instill a rhythmic inner timing to allow you to correctly approach a fence by either half-halting, shortening or lengthening your horse’s stride.
  • Self-love and forgiveness. Jumping lessons will build character as mistakes are easily made and have different repercussions than riding the flat. Miscalculations can result in a pole hitting the ground or a flat-out refusal that can land the rider on the other side of the jump without her equine partner. Tough sports make tougher riders.

We may disagree on which is the best discipline, most talented breed, or whether a saddle should have one girth or two cinches. But we should never let our differences stand in the way of striving to become better horsemen and horsewomen. Once we step in the stirrup and swing our leg over the back of that animal, we all share the true love of horses.