Rider Responsibility: The Ability To Respond Correctly, in and Out of the Saddle

In this excerpt from her book Stride Control, renowned coach Jen Marsden Hamilton explains why responsibility is key to riding and training success and how we can take steps to develop a responsibility habit.

The riders I teach often hear me talk about responsibility. I am a great believer in taking responsibility for actions and performances. “If you want the glory of winning,” I say, “take the responsibility for the ride!”

It is only after reading Jeanette Wilson’s book Medium Rare that I started to understand what I was saying. Wilson breaks the word “responsibility” down and says taking responsibility for actions and performances is really the “ability to respond” correctly to a situation. Read responsibility back to front: “ability”… “response.”

  • Question: How do we learn to respond correctly?
  • Answer: By having prior knowledge.

Rider training teaches not only new skills and refines and maintains learned skills, it also helps to develop the ability to read a situation and problem-solve appropriately. Humans gain prior knowledge through reading, teacher-directed problem-solving, by watching others act, by dealing with a situation, and by self-directed problem-solving. Horses gain prior knowledge from life experiences or by being put into safe situations where they can figure things out. For humans, lessons that are always beautifully orchestrated where nothing goes wrong (or if something minor does go wrong and the trainer gets on) aren’t really learning sessions for the rider. These lessons do not improve the rider’s problem-solving skills. Working through a problem “through the rider” lasts longer in the rider’s memory bank than just being told what to do or watching someone else solve the problem.

The best lessons for the rider are the “breakthrough lessons.” Oddly, these often come after I’ve been told by a rider, “He’s never done that before!” “Really?” I always think. “It looks like he’s been practicing that a lot.”

It’s times like these that problem-solving conquers, rather than creating false memories or allowing denial of the issue. Obviously, there are situations where another rider or a trainer has to solve a problem for an individual. And certainly, the last lesson before a show should be an orchestrated session where all (hopefully!) goes according to plan so the rider goes to the competition with confidence. But remember: Skill development plus problem-solving allows the rider to turn mental knowledge into physical action. Responsibility is then developed—the ability to respond correctly to a situation. Strong basic equitation, combined with problem-solving skills and sport-specific skills, lead to fewer creative excuses by rider and coach when things go awry.

Photo by Carolyn Hazel.

The Importance of Having a Coach

I think it is very important for all riders, regardless of how novice or elite their level, to have a coach. Coaches are a major ingredient in the equation that helps riders learn responsibility. In order to respond correctly, especially under pressure, the rider must have good habits to declutter the brain and narrow the focus when a problem rears up—whether in training, out hacking, or during competition. Coaches are the eyes on the ground; they can see the whole picture and help direct learning. They can analyze the influence the rider has on the horse, and can teach and confirm positional corrections and technique, as well as be involved in decision-making. Coaches do so much more than just teach technical skills. They take you on a life-skills journey that can literally last a lifetime.

This excerpt from Stride Control by Jen Marsden Hamilton is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase the book here.