It’s a Riding Lesson- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Photo: J.J. Fierro.
Photo: J.J. Fierro.

It starts innocently enough, just like every other thing that happens around horses. A rider might have a problem with their horse, or maybe a goal. It sounds innocent enough.

Then there’s the horse, maybe he’s confused or maybe he’s bored. No blame, no fault. He’s being honest and if you don’t like what he is saying, lessons are a good idea.

The rider might have grown up with horses and worked with lots of trainers or she might be just starting with horses, lessons, and this whole world.

Start here: she loves her horse. No, really, as if I need convincing, she tells me how great her horse is. I never disagree, it’s pretty easy for me to find something to like about an equine, but more than that, no one calls a trainer for help because they hate their horse. Then she probably tells me one more really wonderful thing about how they got together or some big success in the past. She’s getting closer to telling me more about the problem, which might feel almost be like a betrayal. “I love him, but he…” It can be a precarious place for a rider, being critical of the horse who inspires their passion. At the same time that they want me to like him, they want me to see what’s ‘wrong’ with him too.

*Visualize a field of land mines for all concerned.* In this infinite world of horses, there is one thing every single one of us has in common: massive, huge, and over-sized feelings about our horses. What could possibly go wrong?

Insert a trainer: I meet the rider and listen. I meet the horse and listen. They usually tell different versions of the same story. I try to establish a common language. This part is tricky, even if we all speak English, no one seems to define the words the same way. If you don’t believe me, ask two people to define contact. Or forward. Or leadership. See?

Here is where I got into my Building Inspector mode: I check the foundation for loose bricks and cracks. Is the horse sound, does the tack fit? How is the emotional foundation of the horse? Are there any symptoms of a sour stomach or ulcers? This is such a common challenge in riding horses and since the first signs are usually behavioral, a trainer might see them before a vet sometimes. This first step never varies: If the horse is not sound, his behavior is the only way he has to communicate that to you. It would be a huge mistake to train his symptoms away rather than listen and help.

If I am certain that the horse is sound and the tack is not abusive, I try to find a light-hearted and cheerful way to let the rider know the good news: it’s something they are doing. Sometimes the rider translates that to my fault. Harsh words, and a sense of humor is pretty important right about now. But what did you expect? Was I supposed to compliment you and your horse, tell you the problem was imaginary, and ask for my check?

It’s actually good news! If it’s something you are doing, it can change. Communication can improve, balance can become more solid, and confidence can grow. Some of us have herds of retired or lame horses, and we’d be thrilled to think we could change that by just riding better.

Here is the truth: Riding well is hard. Horses are not dirt bikes, if you want to improve your partnership with your horse, it is something you will work on forever. Dressage riders are eternal students of the horse, we never stop learning. There is no stigma about lessons, it is just a matter of course if you are serious about horses. So no guilt, no apologies

There is an old adage and we have all heard it so much it sounds trite. You are training your horse each time you ride. Well, it’s just flat out true.

I hear riders sometimes talk about their lessons as punishment, that their trainers yell and they are constantly corrected. Some of us have trainer horror stories, I certainly do. No trainer can be right for every client and first lessons are always a bit stressful, but shop around and find someone who makes sense to your ears. Let your horse have a vote, too. There are some trainers out there who really don’t like horses much. I know, it shocks me, too.

This is the biggest thing I know: Horses thrive on rhythm. All bad things, like spooking, bucking, or bolting are a loss of that natural calming movement. It’s no coincidence that the foundation of dressage training pyramid is rhythm, and a horse can’t have relaxed and forward gaits with a tense or upset rider, so my first priority is to put the rider at ease. And then get ready to say good boy, this is supposed to be fun.

Am I shamelessly promoting riding lessons to line my pockets with your hard-earned cash? No. Every week I am reminded that there is a very fine line between a well-loved family horse and a horse abandoned to rescue or his lonely pasture. The difference is only a few lessons.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

22 thoughts on “It’s a Riding Lesson- What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

  1. So wish we knew you back when our Spirit was telling us something was not quite right. I know she had the potential to be a great partner… just a little consistency and time. But we hope she is content in the pasture with the herd, well fed, cared for and loved. We will continue training so the rest of the herd is happy as our partners. thanks for your perspective… aw heck it isn’t a bad thing to line your pockets… you are helping so much you are worth every penny!

  2. I know, same song next verse but seriously DITTO for the dogs! There is so much untapped potential in the dog that’s more of a lawn ornament than a partner in fun. Sometimes you have to look around to really find the ‘right’ fit among all the possible activities but it’s there somewhere. And it’s probably the same with horses. I know I wanted my Arab to be a Dressage candidate but he wanted to be a reining horse. He loved doing roll backs on the lunge. And he ended up the companion to a young girl whose grandparents were top reining horse trainers. I love it when a plan comes together

    1. Yes, I think about all the dogs left in yards too… seriously! Sometimes these conversations end differently than we think, but what matters is that you listened.

  3. Why can’t you be in North Carolina? I would LOVE to ride in lessons with you!!! I have been riding 55 years and continue to ride with trainers because I want to ride WITH my horses, not just ON them. I’ve finally gotten to a pretty good place – and it has been worth every bit of the effort. But a recent unfortunate trainer encounter drove me to the internet to find answers for my mare stopping with me – found your site – and have been reading the blog ever since. Your comments are so correct and easy to understand. Everything I’ve learned has made my “horse” experience (both on the ground and in the saddle) better and better. Thank you very much….. Oh and my mare is no longer stopping with me and I am noticing so much more about my 7 horses and their personalities!!! Guess I might owe you some lesson money anyway! 🙂

  4. No doubt, all of your students remain immensely grateful for the “no blame”, “no fault” attitude you bring to their lessons. We have more than enough of that in our own “self-talk”.

    Frankly, we teach our horses (and dogs) with every single interaction that we have with them. The looming question is, “What have I just taught you?” Bless them for giving us multiple opportunities to get it right!

  5. Working at a training barn, I am amused and touched by how similar riding lessons are to couples therapy. I have a new appreciation for the fine line a trainer has to walk: sometimes horse and rider DO either have to take more lessons, or be trained seperatedly for awhile, to establish consistency (for horse), and good habits (for rider) before they can come back to work successfully as a connected team. This news is often received badly by owner. There are unethical trainers out there. We’ve all experienced or heard the stories. Sure makes it hard on the good ones.

    Some horses and riders, no matter how much they work together, just don’t fit – like couples. No trainer can, in a few lessons, help a severely frightened rider build a calm and confident connection with a severely timid, untrusting horse. It’s a bad match. Trainer then has the unenviable job of laying out for the owner what length, type, and cost of training it may take to help them. And. It may be better to find a new owner for beloved horse that can build his confidence and trust in under five years, and use that money to find a horse that is safe for frightened owner today. A truly thankless, but ethical, conversation that every good trainer dreads.

    You are one the good ones, Anna, but you know that. 🙂

  6. “Horses are not dirt bikes” …yet a common misunderstanding persists. When some non-horsey friends heard I was taking lessons, they said, “But we thought you knew how to ride!” If only 😀

  7. I get this. I get this so much. One of the best gifts I ever received was a series of riding lessons. After they were over I hired on at the barn to earn more lesson time. I miss riding and lessons. I hope that someday I’ll have the time and energy to dedicate to a horse again. Until then, I’ll ride when and where I can when I get the chances. 🙂

  8. I am new to your site but am so enjoying it! Very inspiring and educational. I am an older rider who came back to riding 10 years ago and then suffered 2 serious fractures a year apart. Have gotten back up (not riding friends horses, just who my trainer chooses for me at our barn). Have recently lost the ability to ride my wonderful leased horse who carted me around through events and jumpers (only 2’3″) but fun since we moved our barn and he couldn’t come with us. Now getting used to other horses, 1st was not a good match but not dangerous, now on another horse. They all teach me something when I listen, and focus on that instead of trying to be “perfect”–not relaxed then! Sorry for the long comment, but thank you for this site!

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