Wylie’s World: On ‘training’ your horse to save your butt

I’m kind of an expert on the subject, since my butt needs saving ALL THE TIME. In today’s column I share some tips.


I don’t aim to ride badly, but sometimes it happens. I’ll misjudge a distance or fudge a line or make some dumb seat-of-the-pants decision. I’ll lose my balance or my stirrups or my reins or my concentration. There are a thousand ways to screw up on a horse, and I’ve spent my entire life working my way down the list.

That’s why I make it my #1 training priority to teach my horses to clean up my messes.

Do you know why I love the photo that I use as the header for this column? Because in it, I am literally in the process of falling off, but my horse Rowdy is still 100% focused on the job ahead of him. It’s not until a split-second later, when I hit the water, that he even realizes things have gone south.


I love the annoyed expression on his face: “I’m out here jumping all these jumps for you, and you can’t even grab a little mane and hang on?”

The horse I’ve got going now, Esprit, has developed a similar ability to step up to the plate. So long as he understands the question in front of him, he’s committed to solving it–with me or without me. Certainly, he values my input–when I half-halt or put my leg on before a fence, he listens–but he also knows to keep an independent “the show must go on” mentality when his mum starts mucking things up.


Here we are at River Glen H.T. Somehow I’ve managed to lose my reins completely, but nevermind that–Esprit just keeps jumping, and well!

A prime example would be our showjumping round last weekend at Sporting Days Horse Trials in Aiken. Esprit warmed up nicely, but I could tell that since he was a little bit tired (we did cross-country about an hour before stadium) he wasn’t going to be standing off from any of the fences.

So of course, what did I do on course when we were galloping down to the triple-combination, a 3’9″ sea of brightly painted rails? Panic and kick for the long one– “Let’s go for it, Esprit!” To which he politely responded, “You’re an idiot,” and patted the ground. We pulled the first rail, but he scrapped his way through the rest of the triple nicely, no help from me. Despite getting jumped out of the tack a couple more times, we trotted off the course having only those four faults. What a good horse.


Sporting Days H.T.

So, how exactly do you train a horse to cover your butt? You can’t, really. But you can give him the skill-set he needs to be successful in those less-than-perfect moments.

First, he’s got to have the footwork to get himself out of a sticky spot. Gymnastics are fantastic for this purpose–they teach the horse to think for himself while the rider steps back into more of a supporting role. There are some great books on the subject (Jimmy Wofford’s Gymnastics: Systematic training for jumping horses is my fave) but the possibilities are really only limited only by your imagination. Our ring is a revolving door of different grid lines and combinations, all designed to develop quickness, agility, adjustability and athleticism.


Two, allow your horse to become more accountable. Approach each and every jump in the correct balance, speed, energy and straightness, and then turn the responsibility back over to him. Riders who nitpick and micro-manage are ultimately just getting in the way and creating more problems than they’re solving. Coming into a jump or line of jumps, the horse should be focused on the task in front of him, not distracted by the monkey on his back. Set him up for success, and then LET him do his job.

I know, it sounds so easy, right? But doing your homework and then getting the heck out of the way is harder than you think, especially when things don’t go as planned. Check out this video of Richard Spooner for a good example of what I’m talking about:

My final piece of advice: Show your horse how to play the game in a positive way, and chances are he’ll want to play it! When Esprit sees a cross-country jump, he knows that he’s supposed to go in between the red and the white flags–no ‘if’s, ‘and’s or ‘but’s about it. Out on course, he’s actively looking for his fences, and when he jumps into a combination, he’s always thinking about what comes next. This instinct takes time to fully develop, but in the event of an “oh crap” moment it can really save the day. Check out this video by Eventing Nation’s videographer friend BuzzterBrown:

Like I said, I’m no expert on perfect riding. But these few tips can go a long way toward minimizing the impact of mistakes!

Good luck, and Go Riding.

A big thank-you to my buddy Lisa for the lovely photos.

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