Everyday Conditioning: Riding on your own

It’s nice to have a trainer holding your hand, but there’s a lot to be gained from riding solo as well. Katie Passerotti outlines some tips on getting your riding homework done in between lessons.

From Katie:

So far, we’ve discussed getting your horse into basic shape for the upcoming show season (or trail riding season if you don’t show!) and how taking the time to plan what you want to do will help you to achieve your goals and keep you on track. Now it’s time to discuss riding on your own, sans instructor.

For some, this is a terrifying prospect; for others it’s no big deal.  But unless you can afford to ride with your instructor every time you ride, it’s something that every rider has to learn to cope with. Whatever your lesson schedule, if you want to get the best out of you and your horse there are a few things you should do.

First off, don’t be afraid for it to get complicated. That brilliant canter depart that you were getting in your lesson probably won’t happen right off the bat. You’re going to get tense, and your horse will throw his head up for a second and do two strides of speed trot before obliging you with a heavy on-the-forward canter. Don’t sweat it. Keep your cool and take a moment to remember back to your lesson. What specifically was your instructor saying to you? Double check that you are sitting correctly. Were your hands too grabby? Did you not prepare enough? You have to figure out what the missing puzzle piece is on your own.

Why? Because while you can get away with some rail-side coaching in flat classes, if you are on the opposite side of the arena from where your instructor is posted he or she isn’t going to be able to whisper those reassuring words that keep you focused. Or, if you are riding a dressage test or at an event, you will be eliminated if anyone helps you. When you’re in the middle of your jumper course and your horse is behind your leg, it’s up to you to troubleshoot and get that canter fixed and up in front of your leg before you get to the next fence.

So am I saying that you actually want things to go wrong when you ride? Yes, yes I am. Of course I don’t mean seriously wrong, but you want things to not work out so well so you can figure out how to fix the problem. Riding the horse you have on any given day is a super important skill to have. My horse generally likes to grab onto the bit on his left and not soften. Last week he decided that he was going to curl up and evade on the right side instead. I had to figure how to get him straight and after just a few laps around the arena I had it. The next time I rode he was back to his left side antics.

Of course, practice doesn’t make perfect–perfect practice makes perfect. As riders, we also know that what is perfect at home will quickly fall apart at a show for any number of reasons, so it’s important to practice our coping skills and how we handle those “oh crap” moments. So let he mistakes happen and work through them.

The second rule of riding between lessons is to not overface yourself or your horse. I know what you’re thinking–doesn’t that go against rule #1, “don’t be afraid to let things get complicated”? There is a big difference between having things go wrong and working through them and overfacing yourself or your horse.

In lessons I jump 2’6”-2’9” and do oxers and funky lines. When I ride on my own, I rarely jump over 2’3 and the jumps are simple. I work on the basic, yet extremely essential things like rhythm and pace and getting my leads after fences. We take wonky spots and I figure out how much leg I need and how to balance through our turns without hanging on the bit, but I am very comfortable over this fence height. 2’6” and above still give a bit of the heebie-jeebies, so I leave that for my lesson time when I have someone to hold my hand every stride.

Third, do your homework. I used to help out a 4-H kid once a week–she was the best student ever because whatever we worked on in the lesson and whatever I told her to work on during the week, she did. I would come back and the first thing I would ask would be to see how she was coming with whatever we had worked on. There was always marked improvement. This allowed us to advance and work on new things or perfect what we had started last week.

We’ve all seen the riders that take the same lesson every week, month after month and year after year. (Not that there is anything wrong with that–it may be exactly what that person wants: fun time in the saddle.) If you want to improve or compete (while still having fun, ’cause if it ain’t fun why are you doing it??), you have to do your homework. Do the exercises, figures and the gazillion and one transitions that your instructor suggested you do. Remember, you PAID them to tell you what to do, so listen to their advice!

Riding without your instructor’s melodious voice reassuring you and telling you exactly what to do can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Be confident in what you are doing, learn how to manage your mistakes and ride the horse you have, don’t overface yourself and do your homework! Use the rides between your lessons to deepen the bond between you and your horse; every problem you work through just makes your partnership better. Good luck!

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