How's your riding progress?

Are you feeling stuck? Here are some tips to help you become a better student, and move forward with your riding.

Why do some riding students move ahead more quickly than others? People often think it’s all about taking lots of lessons. But what if your ability to progress wasn’t actually dependent on instruction?

During my career, I have seen many cases in which having the best horse and the best trainer didn’t always guarantee success. I have also seen students without access to regular training make huge progress and become amazing riders. How does this happen, and how can you set yourself up for success? Let’s begin by looking at a few common ways students hold themselves back.

Learning types

Students who feel stuck often fall into one of two categories:

1.  The “good student”: These are the students who want really clear instructions and constant supervision. When on their own, they can become paralyzed by the fear of doing something “wrong”. Being “good students” translates into not doing anything until told to. This doubt in their own instincts prevents them from being able to offer real communication with their horses in the moment; their responses are always delayed, so a disconnect grows. They may take many lessons and become more and more dependent on their instructors. Their confidence decreases as time goes by, and they will eventually hit a wall of frustration.

2. The “controller”: These are students who often ride in highly competitive or critical environments (and by the way, the environment may be coming from within, since self-criticism is often worse than what anyone else can say). “Looking good” is prioritized over harmonious communication. These students get stuck holding everything together in an effort to make it
look like things are working when they aren’t. Working too hard to make a horse do simple things means it’s impossible to develop more complicated movements later. A fear of “messy moments” prevents students from experimenting to find really amazing results. There will always be a point at which holding things together no longer works. Either tension builds up and you can no longer control it, or dullness and desensitization set in and you are stuck carrying your horse around the arena.

If a student is stuck in either of these modes, it doesn’t matter if she is in professional training with the best trainer in the world – she will still end up stuck. I have seen many examples of capable students riding excellent horses, but who were unable to advance. On the other hand, I have met students with very ordinary horses who realize amazing results in spite of little access to instruction.

The successful student

Successful students take full responsibility for their riding. This means they have a clear vision of what they want to create. They seek resources that serve them, put high priority on communication with their horses, and allow themselves the freedom of trial and error.

These riders show up for lessons knowing what they want to learn. They realize that they need to communicate with their horses and have a keen awareness of the cause and effect of their aids. These students don’t just want to be told to “put their leg on”. They want to know why, they want it to feel good, and they are willing to experiment to find that harmony.

Of course, some styles of instruction will push students into being afraid to experiment. They don’t care how hard a student is working as long as she “gets the horse to do it”.

Know your vision

If you take care of your vision and communication, then a whole world of resources opens up. It allows you to play freely and become better rounded. The clearer you are on the theme, the more you can play with the variety within it, and create a more solid base for your riding development.

If you stay too single-focused, the risk is tunnel vision and limitation. Conversely, if there is too much variety, training can get scattered and you lose track of where you are heading. The ideal is
to find resources that have a clear alignment with your vision and offer some variety on that theme. For example, my vision is excellence in gymnastic development while deepening the partnership between horse and rider so both can have a lifetime of harmonious results (and have fun doing it!). Everything I do and offer points to that, and I share a wide range of topics with students –from liberty and long lining, to meditation and shoulder-ins. You may have to create your own team of resources, but with a clear vision you can do it. Make sure your instructor and resources are working for you!

No matter where you are right now in your riding ability, you are the one sitting on your horse – only you can feel what he is doing. Only you know what you really asked. Only you know how your horse answered you. With effective communication and a clear vision, you will be able to confidently tell your horse what you want to happen, and make adjustments in the moment to help him do just that. You will also know what you need to practice so you can get it right in the future. This empowering approach will help you and your horse progress in a way that is a win-win for everyone.