Using Lesson Feedback

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

When students tune in to their horse's immediate feedback then make subsequent decisions based on that feedback, their riding moves to a newer, more mature, level. Most riders do not pay attention to their horse's feedback or, if they notice it at all, they put a negative spin on it. A rider's mental chatter goes, "The horse is stubborn, lazy, ignoring me, evading my aids." Just fill in any excuse why the horse did not respond to the aids the way the rider intended. The rider blames the horse for the poor result rather than believing the animal's response to the aids was honest.

Beginning and intermediate students depend on their instructor's feedback to help them develop relaxation, balance, an ability to follow the horse's motion, an understanding of which aids to use and an understanding of how to apply those aids. The instructor talks the student through a movement step by step. This frees the student from the responsibility for coordinating everything at once. Feedback from a ground observer is positive and practical until the rider can balance without gripping, follow the motion of the horse, and use her seat, legs, hands and upper body independently.

When a student tunes in to the instructor, however, she tunes out her horse. She cannot listen to both at the same time. That is all right in the beginning. However, things change once the student masters the lower levels on the riding tree and progresses to coordinating her aids and using them to influence the horse. An instructor on the ground cannot speak fast enough to suggest an aid adjustment to the rider before the moment to apply it has passed. Students who want to reach the upper levels must progress from a simple mechanical understanding of what aids they should apply to developing a feel for the results their aids produce. When the rider is able to control the individual body parts that create each corridor of aids, the nuances of pressure and timing are infinite. She can no longer depend on an instructor to tell her what to do and when to do it. She must take responsibility for the accuracy and clarity of her aids and use the horse's feedback to adjust those aids for each individual horse.

When I teach riders at the upper level of the riding tree, there may be long intervals when I do not speak to the rider at all. Then we stop to discuss what the rider intended, how the horse responded, how the rider interprets that feedback, and what correction might be appropriate. I want the student to judge the effectiveness of her communication with the horse and to develop a feel for what the horse communicates back. As an instructor, I see bad decisions by a rider as positive things as long as the rider evaluates the horse's feedback correctly and adjusts her aids accordingly. Many riders find it hard to wean themselves away from constant commentary by an instructor. But the rider has to give up that support in order to advance.

Communicating with the horse involves more than just the right choice of aids for a particular movement. The degree of pressure for each aid in a corridor of aids and the precise timing of those pressures will vary from horse to horse depending on the horse's training level and temperament. It will vary depending on how the horse feels on a particular day—is it calm, lethargic, tired, sore, frisky, or spooky. Many times a horse and rider are learning together and they are at different levels on their respective riding or training tree. The feedback issue becomes even more complicated when a beginning or intermediate rider is riding a green horse.

Take the example of a green horse just learning to trot with a rider on its back. The trainer waits for the horse to offer a trot then immediately applies the correct corridor of aids for the trot. Timing is critical. The horse interprets that instant feedback from the trainer and gradually makes the connection between a particular set of aid pressures and the feeling of 'trot' that makes them go away. The horse's feedback tells the trainer whether the timing and release of the pressures was accurate and whether the degree of pressure was suitable for that horse at that moment. Lower level riders without good balance and body control apply their aids inconsistently and often incorrectly so that the green horse does not get or give good feedback. Learning stalls. The horse gets labeled stubborn, lazy, evasive, etc.

Schoolmaster horses are invaluable because their understanding of the correct aids is so sophisticated that they will simply ignore any incorrect aids. Take something as simple as a circle. The average beginning rider thinks that the way to turn a horse in a circle is to pull on the inside rein. A schoolmaster who understands sophisticated aids will turn his neck in the direction the rider pulls while continuing to move straight down the arena wall. The average rider simply makes the same aid 'louder' and the schoolmaster simply ignores it even more. However, when the rider asks for a circle with correct seat, leg and rein aids, the schoolmaster rewards them instantly with the feedback that they got their corridor of aids absolutely right.

Communication in riding sports is challenging because individuals from two different species are attempting to 'talk' to one another. As the presumed more intelligent species, it is our responsibility to develop a common language. When I hear students say they hate riding one horse or another, I realize that the horse is too challenging for them at their current level on the riding tree. Once a rider learns how to influence horses with her aids and to communicate clearly with horses by using their feedback, then she can enjoy any horse she gets on.

One of the biggest contributions the natural horsemanship movement has made to the relationship between people and horses is its emphasis on paying attention to the horse's feedback. The heeding taught at Meredith Manor for over 30 years and similar training methodologies are not so much about 'whispering' as they are about listening. Before riders can influence their horses, they must pay attention to their feedback. Our students learn to pay constant attention to their horse's reaction to whatever they do on the ground or under saddle. Then they modify whatever they do in the next moment or the next stride based on that feedback.

People who are passionate about horses want to understand them better and to improve their relationship with them. Riders can look forward to some great conversations and closer relationships when they pay more attention to the feedback their horses constantly provide.

Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.

I have never grown as a person as I have in the past year and a half. This place changed my life!
Emily Shiver: 2008 Riding Master VI Graduate