Who is Training Whom?

by Faith Meredith
Director, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

In a perfect world, every green rider would have a schoolmaster horse to help them learn, step by step, how to stay relaxed at every gait, sit in balance at every gait, follow the horse's motion at every gait, understand the correct aids, and, ultimately, coordinate those aids to influence the horse's rhythm, pace, direction, etc. This "independent seat" is the ultimate goal of the riding tree we use to build skill upon skill. The nice thing about a logical rider training system like the riding tree is that it enables most riders to develop an independent seat. Their riding skills progress to that point that they can influence most horses at least some of the time.

In our perfect world, every green horse would have a trainer with an independent seat and the knowledge of how to introduce skills horse-logically one by one. Whether you are on the ground or mounted, you are training your horse at some level any time you work with him. The nice thing about following a logical training system like the training tree is that you work with your horse in a purposeful way. You groom, lead, go to the arena, mount, ride or whatever you do with purpose. You may be showing the horse something he does not yet know, asking him to repeat something he is in the process of learning, or enforcing something you are sure the horse already knows.

We live, however, in an imperfect world. Green riders fall in love with green horses. Budget limitations may restrict a rider's choices. Things may start out well, and then a horse that seemed to be progressing well may hit a plateau or even regress.

Understanding the logical progression of skills that rider and horse must each master as they move up their respective training trees can help the green rider on a green horse figure out the next logical step. Key to making the situation work is that the rider should never ask the horse for more than she or he is capable of riding. Here are some things for the inexperienced rider on an inexperienced horse to keep in mind:

  • Break everything down into the smallest baby steps you can.
  • Remember that correct groundwork carries over into your mounted work. Every time you work with your horse, work on proper "heeding" and that relationship will carry over into your mounted work.
  • Teach your horse to longe. When the horse is comfortable working in a circle on a longe line, you always have a "comfort zone" where you can try new things.
  • Going faster does not mean you are accomplishing more. If you can only influence your horse with an independent seat and accurately applied aids at the walk, then stick to the walk for a while. Anything the horse learns correctly and thoroughly at the walk will carry over to the trot, etc.
  • If you have a friend who knows how to longe horses, ask that person to longe you on your horse to help you develop an independent seat at every gait.
  • If you run into a problem, back up. If you cannot maintain rhythm, relaxation, and balance at the canter, go back to the trot. If your horse does not turn well at the trot, go back to the walk until you can turn accurately and correctly each time. Go back to the walk, longe work, even groundwork. Go back to the last place where things were working correctly and start again there. Remember to take things in baby steps.

An inexperienced horse and rider combination may be able to progress sufficiently on their own to enjoy trail riding or showing at lower levels. However, to progress to higher levels, they will need professional help. Sometimes a green rider may find herself in a training predicament that is frustrating at best or dangerous at worst. Finding the right trainer to help you takes careful research.

Inquire about the trainer's philosophy. Look for someone with a logical, systematic program that takes horses through clearly identifiable levels. For example, do they start a horse with groundwork? Do they work horses on a longe line? How do they begin mounted work? How does training progress? Ask to watch the trainer working with several horses at various training levels to be sure you can understand and follow the logic of the trainer's system. Do not just take your horse to a trainer to "fix" a specific problem. Look for someone with a program that "fixes problems" by building a solid foundation of horse-logical skills that not only addresses the issue but also helps you both get to the next level.

When your budget is limited, a trainer who also wears an instructor's hat can help you get the most out of your horse's training. Just as a good trainer has a systematic plan for developing horses, a good instructor has a systematic plan for developing riders. The trainer/instructor should discuss both short-term goals (like getting accurate canter departs) and long-term goals (such as competing in specific activities). An instructor should be able to evaluate what skills you need to ride your horse effectively and to help you set appropriate goals.

Again, watch a few lessons. Look for clear lesson plans and a "safety first" mentality. The student should have a clear picture of where she is in her skill development and what the goal is for that day's lesson. The instructor's directions should be logical and clear to the student. Any directions should be appropriate to the rider's skills.

Any time you work with your horse, either you are training the horse or the horse is training you. If neither you nor your horse knows enough to train the other, get help. If you do not know how to build your riding skills logically in order to develop an independent seat, get help. If you do not know how to develop your horse's skills logically baby step by baby step, get help. If you do not know how to match your skills safely to those of your horse, get help. Safety should always be the first consideration whenever an inexperienced rider partners with an inexperienced horse.

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.

Great school to learn a lifetime of skills! Loved it and all the great connections I made!!!
Amy Ballard: 2009 Riding Master VI Graduate