Monday, January 23, 2012

A Rider's Foundation ~ Part I

Most of the time when I write this blog, I speak of training the horse. After all, the concept here is about training horses and all of the various methods, techniques or philosophies thereof. But something we can never forget is the rider, because without the rider, we would have no trained horse to ride.

Unless you happen to be an extremely naturally athletic individual, learning to ride will be a difficult journey and you will need to learn entirely new skills, as well as be able to apply them to an animal with a mind of its own. There are so many things to learn and so many ways you can learn them, which means both good and bad. I personally prefer to teach the absolute beginner starting from scratch, as opposed to the rider who has already formed some sort of opinion (and along with it often some bad habits) on how best to do things on horseback. Let's concentrate on bringing along the beginner student in this installment, which means we need to run through a series of lessons, starting from the beginning.

After we get the horse groomed, tacked and out to the round pen or arena, our lesson is going to begin with the student mounting the horse. Depending on several factors, we will either mount from the ground or off a mounting block. Either way, the rider's right hand should firmly grip the left stirrup and the other should be on the reins at the base of the horse's neck. Once the left foot is in the stirrup, the rider should move that hand to the front of the saddle, and swing up onto the horse's back. The taller the horse, the more challenging this task is, which is why we may utilize a mounting block. After the rider is settled in the saddle, I'll set about showing them proper position. Starting with the seat, legs, arms, hands and shoulders, I'm going to explain at each step what I'm looking for and why.

I want my riders settled in the saddle, not perched forward or slouched back. Riders need to be aware of how to properly sit (which seems positively simple, doesn't it?), and keep their weight distributed evenly. A rider's legs should be relaxed and against the side of the horse, with no pressure applied when standing still. Weight resting on the ball of the foot, with heels down, toes mostly forward. I say "mostly" forward, because the old train of thought from 30 or so years ago was that the toes should be pointed STRAIGHT forward, which I find awkward and incorrect for proper riding. Toes should never be pointed outward or down, though when cueing the horse there is room for a slight variance as you rotate your calves into the horse. Having the stirrups properly adjusted will go a very long way toward being able to ride correctly and communicate effectively with your horse.

To be effective (you'll hear me say that word a lot), a rider's arms should be at their side, though exactly where varies depending on the discipline they're riding. I start out all my beginner riders Western, and using two hands on the reins with a snaffle bit in the horse's mouth, so we begin with a basic position. Arms from the shoulder to the elbow relatively straight at the side, if slightly ahead of the hip. I want to see a nice bend in the elbow, though generally not more than 90 degrees unless cueing the horse. As the rider advances (on a trained or finished horse), the need for more bend becomes less. Ideally, I'd like to see a relatively straight line from elbow to the horse's mouth.

Hand position is vital because of how much communication you can do with your hands. I don't want to see a rider's hands too close together, as many trainers have them start out. Opening up the distance slightly will increase your ability to communicate with your horse. They should not be held too close to the horse, nor too high above the saddle. In a Western saddle, those hands will be higher than while riding most types of English, other than Saddleseat (and even then, when first starting out, I'll have my riders keep their hands lower than ideal for the show ring).

One of my basic tenets of good riding is, no death grip on the reins! I want the rider's hands softly closed around the reins with thumbs slightly bent upward, not horizontal to the horse's withers. Wrists should not be bent backward or forward (sometimes referred to as "puppy paws"), but in line with the arms. Shoulders should be back but relaxed, not rigid -- something I really don't like to see are the riders who arch their backs and artificially pull their shoulders back to the extremes. This makes for exceptionally ineffective riding. All of these tips can help a rider to become competent, gain seat control and not balance on their horse's mouth using the reins.

Now that we have the basics, in a future installment we can continue the lesson. Remember, riding is a learned skill. Don’t worry if everything isn’t picture perfect the first time, with time your skills will improve as long as you take it slow. Just like with our horses, skipping steps will show up in your riding. I always recommend taking lessons with a skilled instructor who understands your needs.


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