When I Ride My Horse vs. When My Instructor Rides My Horse

On the way into the arena, my horse manages to grab a nibble of the rose bush, almost every single time.  My trainer marches my horse right past the rose bush.

After getting on, Universo and I wander around the arena, while I stretch and my horse checks out all the activity going on outside the arena.  After getting on, my instructor immediately asks for an active walk and starts warm-up exercises to get my horse’s physical body on her aids and my horse’s brain engaged inside the arena and on her.

While I am still meandering around the arena in a stretching trot frame, my trainer is doing leg yields, serpentines, spiral circles, shoulder-in’s, and other bending exercises.

After cantering for a bit and doing one change across the diagonal in each direction, I take a leisurely walk break.  My instructor does a series of 5 fours across the diagonal, medium canter down the long side, a series of 5 threes across the diagonal, another medium, collects the canter and asks for a transition to collected walk and does a walk pirouette in both directions before halting and taking a SHORT walk break.  Then she goes back to work.

Yesterday, I watched my trainer, Kris Barrett, ride my horse instead of riding myself.  The very first words that came to mind as I watched her were precise and efficient.  Everything she did had a purpose.  There wasn’t any wasted time or energy.  Her ride was very methodical.  As I watched her, I could clearly see her illustrate what she consistently asks me to do. 

Kris is always telling me that I need to start riding the minute I get on.  I have a lot of excuses for why I can't start work right away:   I need to warm up my body.  My 16-year old horse needs more time to warm up.  As I go through the warm-up exercises in walk and trot designed to make sure that my horse is both moving forward and sideways off my leg and establishing bend, I accept less than should and make allowances for not getting a correct response from my horse.  My trainer does not waste time or energy waiting for a response or plan to get one on her next attempt.   If she does not get a quick response to her leg, she immediately corrects and gets the response that she wants in the warm-up.   The point of the warm-up is to do effective exercises, which efficiently prepare your horse properly and fairly for the work you ask for later in the ride.

Throughout the ride, Kris made the most of every minute and consistently worked on quality.  If I do not ride a quality movement, I figure that I will fix it on my next attempt, so if I ride a shoulder-in without enough bend or activity, I will try to fix it on the next quarter line.  My trainer asks for the bend and activity before she even starts the shoulder-in, continues to ask for bend and activity throughout the duration of the movement, and immediately re-establishes any loss of activity and collection coming out of the movement before moving onto the next movement.  I tend to end my shoulder-in with a walk break before I try again.

Yet, Kris did not push my horse beyond his mental or physical capabilities – she just asked him to work hard mentally and physically – she asked him to engage fully in the activity.  She did not allow him to take charge and reminded him, with both her aids and her voice, that they were a team and that he had to wait for the other member of the team.  She also told him at least once that "she was not his mommy and he could not get away with that stuff” – I’m not sure if this was purely for his benefit, assuming he has a better command of the human language than I thought, or if it was for my benefit while I watched her ride him!

It is truly a pleasure to watch a kind and effective trainer work with your horse and witness the communication between the trainer and horse.  I could see Kris explaining the exercise to my horse.  She corrected his mistakes, tendency to second guess, or to rush through the movement, calmly and patiently going over the aids slowly and clearly again until he understood.  She consistently rewarded him with verbal praise, little pats on his neck, and very short breaks on a long rein.  She always quietly affirmed Universo the minute he got something right or did something well. 

Before watching my trainer ride my horse, I thought that I had become a lot more focused and effective.  However, I clearly saw the level of focus and attention to quality that I need to aspire in my daily rides to achieve my goal of competing at Prix St. Georges. 

But then again, I only have one horse one ride this day.  So if I want to meander around for a while – I am going to give myself the time and space to do so – however I will endeavor to make sure that it is outside the arena on the trail around the pond, so that both my horse and myself are able to delineate the time and space for recreation vs. focused work. 

There is pleasure and satisfaction to be gained by both riding my horse across a field under sunny blue skies and executing a near perfect canter half-pirouette in the middle of the arena under those same skies.  

Photo by cilest/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by cilest/iStock / Getty Images