Looking for a Better Ride?

WMJasperLet’s say you’re a middle sort of rider. You aren’t a rank beginner; you’re comfortable in the saddle but it isn’t always pretty. Either you’ve been in lessons a couple of years or you’ve ridden all your life, more or less like you do now.

You know it could be better. Perhaps you’re considering switching to a different riding discipline. Or maybe your horse has the tolerance of a saint and you want to make it up to him. Or maybe another rider climbed on your horse and he transformed into a soft, willing partner who seemed to dance lightly on his feet, as joyously as he plays at liberty. Oh, that’s it; he looked free. Who doesn’t want that?

Whatever kind of rider you are, everyone shares this one truth: You’re usually getting the ride you’re asking for. Make all the excuses you want, but it’s true. Horses are honest. Assuming your horse is sound and healthy, chances are that he’s being fair in his response. If you consider yourself a solid rider with good hands but your horse is tense, or has trouble with his canter, or is always flipping his head, guess what? You’re wrong and he’s right. And if you want a different ride, it’s you that has to change first. It’s how you can tell you’re the leader; you have to model the change–and it probably needs to start in your brain.

Riding well, meaning in a way your horse appreciates, is hard. The challenge isn’t learning the principles; itโ€™s managing the subtle communication horses like. Somethings are obvious. You know that abruptly shouting Canter! and gouging him with a spur isn’t the best idea, but sometimes nothing works, and the harder you try, the worse it gets, and you can’t just lose the fight! That’s when you notice it’s become a fight.

Give yourself a break here. It’s just natural for a human to get louder if we think we are not being heard. It doesn’t work well with horses, but it’s what we do. Louder means we cue bigger or harder. Things usually speed up right about then, too, so if your horse tried to respond, you’ve already asked three more times and he is so confused he just quits. It’s a calming aid; he’s telling you he’s not fighting, but it’s too late to hear it and you’ve lost.

If your horse is resisting your aids, don’t take that inane, stupid, and uneducated advice to get a stronger bit. Controlling a thousand pound horse by micro-managing his nose isn’t how it works. Even if everyone you see is slamming the bit, metal on bone, to get the horse behind the vertical–it’s still wrong. Instead, take off your spurs, get a nice gentle three-link snaffle, and start convincing your horse than you are finished being adversarial. Let it soak in; it could take a while, but a light, happy, responsive horse isn’t made through war. Even a passive aggressive war, which is how most of us do it.

It might be time to do some riding out of the saddle; some thinking, visualizing, and having a few lick and chew moments yourself.

By now, you’ve noticed that everything about riding looks like a fussy fine line. A fine line between not enough forward and too much. Between too much contact and too little. Between being dull to the aids and over-reactive. Between your need for control and desire to surrender. Then there’s the thing they don’t tell you–the faster the gait, the smaller the cue. Somehow all these fine lines turn into a spider web and the more you try, the more bound up you and your horse become. Congratulations, you are right at the place you want to be.

In order to improve, a rider must first grow in perception and being able to see these subtle things is a required first step. Now slow your brain down, mentally relax and simplify it by taking one small bite-sized piece and breathe it up until it’s large and slow. Make that instant big enough to move around in, and it’s about now that you notice your horse has done the same. This quiet place might be the eye of the hurricane, but it’s where you and your horse connect, and he’s waiting there. It’s the place where it’s possible to make better choices, intuitively soft and quiet, and then traverse the distance of perception that takes you from the outside past-tense effect of what’s already happened to the internal in-the-moment presence needed to ask your horse politely. It’s altering time to be your aid and instead of time always leaving you behind in the dust.

Altering time isn’t new or even rare. It’s how tennis players return serves clocked at over a hundred miles per hour. How batters hit fast balls out of the park. And how elite riders of any discipline make it look so easy. Know that the two skills that define a higher level of work are perception and preparation. And it starts with a breath.

The next time you and your horse are at odds, humor me. Just stop everything; all the pressure and debate and stress. Breathe deep and slow, as if it matters. Because nothing matters more. Then pretend you’re an advanced rider. Sit taller and play the part well. Lift your mind, expect a light agreeable response. And since you have all the time in the world, use it to prepare your horse to succeed. Give him time to balance himself and find his crucial rhythm. Then feel your horse improve every step as he carries you on.

Wouldn’t it be crazy if the only thing standing between you and the happy progress that your horse is capable of, is your breath? Unless of course, it’s really true that Less is More.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

43 thoughts on “Looking for a Better Ride?

  1. Sharon

    These words are so familiar to me… I know you have been saying them to me the entire time we have worked together. Yet I can look back at my last ride and know, I failed Ebony miserably, too heavy on the hands (not to the point my arms were sore the next day… but). Yes, she told me and in the end she was very clear she was done … I listened, I stepped down and we went to the arena and had a better conversation on the ground. I have to better perfect the ride in my mind… for Ebony’s sake

  2. gail

    very good article anna. i know it all to be true!!!!! ๐Ÿ™‚ i just wish you could be here in person to assist me rather than for me to always be doing things on my own (with my horse of course!!)

  3. Frances

    This is sooo true, I love reading your ‘posts!’ I hack out an ex-racehorse (called Simocki) here in the UK for a lady, who has 6 other horses to keep fit (I believe you call them OTTB’s?). She’s incredibly forward going even at 24, I ride with a snaffle, no noseband/martingale etc etc, but I’m not a seasoned rider and have never had my own horse. I did a lot of groundwork with her in the beginning so we could build up a good relationship and I could really get to know her, I didn’t ride her for a few months until I was confident that I was ‘good enough’ for her. I had only ridden riding school horses before her and the odd ‘trail’ ride on holidays, so it was a whole new way of riding for me. I’ve had to learn to ‘breathe’ rather than hold the reins tighter when she ‘spooks’ and to relax when she gets excited especially when we enter a field-(she still gallops like the wind!!). She’s been a fabulous and patient teacher and my riding has definitely improved!! I’ve been riding her for 2years now (I’m 50) and she’s given me some of the best rides of my life and taught me to be a far better equestrian (and person) than I ever thought possible. Sorry for my ‘ramblings’ but I felt compelled to write, because if I can ride without harsh tack then anyone can!!!
    Best wishes x

  4. Thanks Anna! Your words always seem to come right when I need them; I was mulling this topic over myself last night. My old black mare has been trying to teach me… I think I heard her say “finally!” when I got it the other day. All things considered she’s very patient!

  5. Susan Blount

    I ride school horses for lessons. I notice if I’m balanced I can use minimal aids and I have a willing and happy horse

  6. I love this. Every word. In my experience it’s only .01% of the time we might have to grab, take over, react with serious speed and demand- all while staying calm. Working with young horses there are unfortunate times when you simply have to keep everyone safe. Right. Now. But how often do we need to do that?

    Best best training I’ve had instilled in me is: when things begin to escalate or feel overwhelming…slow everything way down. Your breath, your thoughts, your ask, your gait. And toss the auto “fix this” response as far as possible. Slowing down, as you pointed out, also means being still and listening closely. The hardest part is being humble enough to realize I am the one responsible for communicating in a way the horse can hear, because sure as heck the horse is telling me when I’m doing a lousy job. Even when another horse might have been sooo relieved with the exact same way of communicating. I swear every day is a lesson in humble pie. Hopefully smaller and smaller slices…

  7. You did it again Anna. I love my horses and we do wonderful at liberty and when we are doing ground work. They really do seem to appreciate me and even care for me. Both girls will come to me, let me put on a halter and will walk with me anywhere, even into a trailer. I have a young woman who helps me with them a couple of times a week. When she arrives and we head for the arena the horses are responsive. She will ride through the walk, trot and cantor and it beautiful to watch, even with my 31/2 year old. Then it is my turn and the struggle begins. We are only using a side pull with my youngest and a bit-less with Mom. When I get on the girls are polite but stubborn and neither one of them is willing to do much more than walk or may trot for maybe fifty yards. I have to laugh. I am not certain what I am doing or not doing but it is clearly me. My mare and I can do some maneuvers when we are walking but we have been doing that for a long time. It is a good thing I am not in a hurry and I do breath with them every day. Now if I could just find my seat.

    1. You know, Fred… it’s true. Riding is hard, if you care to listen to the horses, and your mares have opinions. Keep at it! and happy holidays to all of you.

  8. Suzanne

    One more great one! I found your site searching for an answer after the trainer I was working with told me (well, actually screamed) I wasn’t trying hard enough and I was never going to get it. I don’t question that she was correct about it being ME and not the horses (since every one of them quit on me and wouldn’t move). I had the evidence – just never was instructed that trying harder doesn’t mean bigger, harder cues. I credit you for helping me figure this out (I didn’t stay with the trainer). Slow learner that I am, I have made baby steps to knowing how to lightly squeeze on a rein, tap lightly with my heal, squeeze gently with my thigh or calf and my mare of 21 and I are now BOTH much much happier and doing phenomenally. Also true above is that some of us feel we owe our horse loads and want to pay them back! Thanks again.

    1. Not all trainers like horses, hard as that is to imagine… and Suzanne, like you I owe a debt bigger than I can pay in one lifetime, but I do chip away at it…How lucky your mare is!

  9. Sandy Filippi

    Thanks for another wonderful article! I spent the first 30 years of my riding career blaming the horses, because I was told I was a great rider. Once I figured out being a good rider and a good trainer don’t go hand in hand I started to make some progress. My hallelujah moment came with the discovery of positive reinforcement training, which taught me to slice behaviors down into their tiniest slice, then mark and reward the correct response, and gradually shaping the behavior precisely and calmly. My 22 yo mare, who was my victim for so many years, is actually enjoying our time together, and, low and behold, the horse that people told me was crazy and would kill me because she was so hot, is now a joy to ride. And she looks the best she has ever looked, even as a senior horse. I hope I get another 30 years, but I’m so grateful to have learned at last!

    1. I’ve come to equate the term “hot” with terrified. I wonder how many horses are misjudged like your mare was. And I’m so thankful for the positive training path. People have always trained this way, but I fear we have always been in the minority… Thanks, Sandy

      1. Sandy Filippi

        Totally agree: hot equals terrified. I apologize every day to her. She forgives, but never forgets, so I appreciate her level of trust these days so much. She is so special.

  10. Diane Calamia

    Great Blog, as always:) Ive had many rides where myself or a friend has had to stop, breath, regroup, then ride on. My favorite reminder is, a horse and rider should = 10, (1 being very calm) if the horse is a 7, then the rider has to be a 3…to keep us balanced, the more anxious a horse, the calmer we have to be, and visa versa…some horses are a 1 and we have to be a 9, but a calm # 9, being harsh never wins. Thank You for sharing yourself with us Anna.

  11. Tonya

    I needed to hear this, this morning… Thanks for being a quiet voice in the distance reminding me to just breathe!

  12. Lynell Abbott

    Oh, Anna. I am in 100% agreement with this and each of your blogs! Now, if all you say would just sink in and become second nature, life would be grand. For now, though, baby steps! Thanks!

  13. Susan

    Awesome post with really great advice. When I bought my QH gelding he was being ridden in a 7 inch shank bit with a short tiedown. He was a head tosser and rushed into his upward transitions. I ride him with no tiedown, a fat French link snaffle, and his transitions are now lovely and he no longer tosses his head. He’s finally realized there is no need to panic, and I’m getting lovely, soft rides. He’s amazing.

  14. If in doubt I always look at his ears. Lately, he has developed a draw to the gate. Meaning sometimes, he’s mentally not with me. But usually, when I have his ears, I know that he is trying to understand what I am offering. So usually it’s me messing it up. It’s somehow even sad. Because I am at the point where he is really really light (and soft) sometimes. But he is not able to become softer because I have reached my capacity of softness ๐Ÿ™‚ Lovely post as always.

  15. Pingback: Riding and Revelations | Neversummer and Nocturne

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