A letter to my students...
You and I are both at the stable for the same basic reason, we love horses. We love riding. Every weekend there are plenty of passionate young horsemen and women at the barn. I spend eight hours each weekend day teaching in the ring, most days I don't leave the ring and I watch what all of you do. Most of you spend a few hours hanging out with friends in the barn, I can’t see you but generally I can hear you. You then casually make your way to the arena to ride, where you walk around texting or on social media. Following this, you trot a bit and then canter each way. Sometimes when your trainer isn’t in the ring, you spend time goofing off or cantering over poles with no clear plan of what you are trying to accomplish. I am not speaking about everyone, but in general and more so to the younger crowds who have not yet realized the importance of flatwork. When you are finished with your ride, you bring your horse back to the barn while they sit on the cross ties and you are your phone. After about twenty minutes of this, you briefly brush them, put them away, and go back to hanging out with friends. As your trainer, as your coach, and as a fellow horse person, this saddens me.
Given the sheer amount of hours you spend here, you should all be getting better exponentially. Sadly, many of you waste your extra time here. Yes, hanging out with friends and enjoying the weekend is important. I have spent quite a bit of time teaching you and I know riding is important to you. I know you want to be great. I know you have the capacity to be great but it requires work, focus, and diligence. The work to be great needs to come from you. The focus and thought needs to come from you. I can give you all of the right tools, your parents can provide you with the proper horse for the job, but the rest is on you.
If you want to get better faster and really understand what riding is about I encourage you to do the following:
If you are not riding a horse, watch and listen. Watch the people who are more experienced then you. Pay attention to their position. Where are their hands and more specifically how they move with the horse. Watch their legs and seat and how they change based on what they are doing. Watch their horse; watch the rhythm and feeling between the rider’s seat and legs to the horse. Watch the feeling between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth. Listen to their trainer about corrections they need to make. Try to learn from others mistakes. Listen to hear what they are doing well and how to fix what they are doing wrong. Take a few simple theories and exercises that fit your ability level and practice them. If there was someone who had a great position, copy him or her. If there were simple things you liked, try them.
Before you get on your horse, think about what you want to accomplish. Take one or two problems you have and work on them. For example, if you tend to cut corners, practice pushing your horse out at the ends of the ring. Take simple flat exercises you have learned in lessons and perfect them. Ask your trainer what you should work on during your ride. Ask them to give you exercises to practice. As a trainer, I have a difficult time watching my students just trot and canter around on the rail mindlessly during their open riding time. Make circles, half turns, serpentines, and change directions often. Work you horse laterally, do leg yields, shoulder in, and haunches in. Work without your stirrups. Focus on your full seat, then focus on your half seat. Whatever it is you chose to work on that day, have it be thoughtful. Work it equally both directions. Take your weaknesses and work them at lower gaits and in simpler exercises until you understand how to do them well. Have a plan for your ride.
During your rides, do not be afraid of trying different things. You will try, and you will fail, time and time again but then you will understand feeling. You will understand what works and what does not. I encourage you to make mistakes. Don't continually make the same mistake, try the same exercise a bit differently. Have a plan, know what you want and make changes to your leg, hands, and position until you get the result you want. Use trial and error and see what works. Think, then feel, then adapt!
Other than having a plan and things you would like to accomplish or change during a ride, I also encourage you to have patience. If you are frustrated and brash with your horse, their reactions will be similar. If you or your horse is frustrated, take a lap, rest a moment and then try again. Always end on a good note. If you accomplished something you wanted to, be done. Don't continue to work the same things until your horse is too tired to do it well. Don't continue till your legs are too tired to accomplish it. Set a simple goal, have a plan, and when you reach it, be done. You and your horse will go home feeling accomplished, and will go home happy for tomorrow's ride.
When you are done riding, do not put your horse in front of the fan and zone out on your phone for twenty minutes before giving them a quick brush and putting them away. Care for your horse. Spend time with them. Get to know all the ins and outs to their confirmation and their quirks. That same horse lives in a stall, going into turnout once a day, and otherwise lives for you, their rider. Appreciate them, care for them. Your friends and your phone can wait. Build your relationship with them. And take the time and spend fifteen extra minutes taking them for grass because they deserve it.
To all of the students who spend hours and hours at the barn on the weekend, make them valuable. Learn something. Love what you do. After you have watched more experienced riders and learned from them, take ownership in your ride, take care of your horse, and then go play with your friends. If you want to be good, if you want to be great, everything you need is sitting in front of you. It is on you to pay attention to what matters, to think about what you are doing, and to focus on your horse and your riding.