There are so many areas in our life where we are defined by being called a “beginner” or “novice” or “advanced” or “expert”, and everything in between. But when it comes to horses and horsemanship, what do those labels mean?
It is common that people equate speed with ability. We hear from many riders that they want to run, which is loads of fun, but have you thought through all that could happen when you run without the riding skills to manage that speed? What if you lose your balance? What if you cannot stop your horse?
Riding skills do not develop simultaneously; they develop at various rates in different areas. And, as with many passions, the more you know, the more you realize how much you have to learn. So, is striving to be an expert a realistic goal? Or is being a lifetime student more realistic? Ask most horse people who have committed their lives and studies to understanding horses and riding, and they will tell you it is the latter. The quiet ones are the ones who often know the most, as they are being quiet so they can observe and learn and continue to grow their skills.
But what differentiates a novice rider from a more experienced one? We can break it down into two main areas: physical and mental.
As a rider progresses along the path from novice to advanced, they gain more physical control of their body while on the back of the horse. They go from fumbling with the reins, struggling to maintain the proper rein length and proper feel with the horse’s mouth to continuously making minor adjustments in rein length to always have the proper contact with the horse’s mouth and remain ready for the next step. They go from bouncing around on the horse’s back and losing their balance to moving with the horse at each gait with a balanced seat. And they go from grabbing the horse’s mouth abruptly and holding onto the reins (and thus, the bit in the horse’s mouth) for balance to having soft, gentle hands that allow the horse to relax and be soft and supple in return. As a beginner, you can’t feel badly about struggling to manage the reins, having a bumpy and unbalanced seat, and being rough on the horse’s mouth. That is why beginner riders are paired with a forgiving and patient horse! They are the teachers, and the rider is the student. But, as a rider develops these skills, they can move to a horse that is more sensitive and less forgiving; with the appropriate level rider, that makes for a pleasant riding experience. For the same reason that you wouldn’t put a driver with a learner’s permit in a Ferrari, we wouldn’t put a new rider on a highly reactive horse.
Just like with the physical aspects, there is a progression in the mental game of riding as you advance. When you first start riding, your goal is just to stay on top of the horse and stay in control. But, as you begin to master the physical skills mentioned above, you can start upping your mental game. How are you giving the cues to your horse? Are you tuned into your horse’s response enough to notice when they respond to a cue so you can release the pressure at the right time? Timing is a huge piece of getting your horse to respect your cues and respond to them appropriately. As you progress in this area, you begin with often not releasing the pressure properly when your horse responds to your cue, and thus frustrating and confusing them so they ignore your next cue. Once you have more experience you will find your horse begins to respond more quickly and more willingly as they get consistent feedback from you. As you advance your skills, you will start being able to think ahead, anticipate what you might encounter with your horse, and cue them ahead of the need so you have already corrected the action before it becomes a problem. Have you ever watched the wranglers ride and wonder why their horses don’t eat grass on the rides? Watch closely and you will see they are constantly anticipating the horse’s movement before the horse even makes the move towards the grass, so they are stopping them before it becomes a problem. That’s thinking ahead and quick response time at work.
All of this is describing the multi-tasking nature of riding. It is a lot of things happening at one time, and, while I have a way to go in my horsemanship, there are just some things I do when I ride now that I do not have to think about. This allows me to focus on other things. Unfortunately, there are very few shortcuts, and it just takes time in the saddle. Some people incorrectly equate athleticism with riding ability, and balance with the ability to stay on. While athleticism helps, it can only help with the physical portion of horsemanship. You still need the mental/communication part of the “dance.” Balance is not only the ability to stay on the horse, but also the ability to communicate using your position on the horse and positioning your body so the horse can move naturally. It is the ability to dance with your partner in such a way that you don’t step on their toes and you both move in sync with each other.
None of these skills come quickly, but we do all we can to fast track you during your stay so you can gain as many of these skills as possible. This makes for a more comfortable and less frustrating riding experience for you, and it makes for a better relationship with your horse. Soak up all the instruction we offer, ask a lot of questions, and let go of any ego you may have as you walk into the barn. The horses do not give a rip about what you think about yourself—they see right through all that human stuff. And we want to teach you what we know and learn together as we all grow our skills. Our goal is for you to have fun, your horse to enjoy being ridden by you, and for both of you to stay safe. So let’s ride!