What Makes a Good Rider?

In this excerpt from her book Yoga for Riders, horsewoman and yoga teacher Cathy Woods explains what she feels is one of the most important, and under-acknowledged, characteristics of a good horse person.

What makes a good rider? The answer I often wait for and rarely hear is awareness. To me, this is the most important trait of good horsemanship (and also good living!). In my opinion, the best rider is not necessarily the most technically trained but rather the most aware rider. Highly trained equestrians are not always guaranteed to have heightened attention, awareness, or common sense. I’d much prefer riding with someone who is less technically skilled but brings greater awareness to the table. This makes for a safer and more enjoyable experience. All equestrians know the tremendous importance of safety for themselves, others, and their horses.

Awareness is a key factor in keeping well-being a priority. An aware rider pays attention to everything—and all at once! By becoming a more skilled, focused human with greater overall awareness, you are capable of being attentive to the multitude of things that go on around horses. There is a lot happening—as a horseman, you know this! You’re paying attention to yourself, your horse, the ground, surroundings, other riders, other horses—and even anticipating what might happen next. Because true yoga heightens all of your senses and awareness, perhaps you can see here how it ties in well with horsemanship.

A good rider is aware of many things. Here are a few of significance:

Personal Body Consciousness

This is a good place to start when talking about riding with awareness. It would seem obvious—sure, we’re aware of our own bodies…we live in them, right? Sometimes, we are not aware of the things we do all the time, slipping into complacency.

Yoga enhances awareness of your body, which tends to translate to everyday life and into the saddle as well. You often notice things about others more quickly than you do of yourself. You’d probably notice when other riders are not sitting centered in the saddle, or their hands are too high, or they’re slumping. The thing is, there are times that you think you are riding properly and engaged, but maybe your weight is not symmetrical in each stirrup. Or you are tense and holding your shoulders up around your ears. Aware riders know their body mechanics, placement, and breathing. These people are usually body-aware out of the saddle, too.


It’s everywhere! Aware riders are attentive to the energy they bring to their horse encounter—for example, it could be positive, supportive, centered, balanced, and confident, or scattered, emotional, nervous, fearful, and under-confident. They also know how that energy affects their mounts and the other horses and riders—when they need to raise it or notch it down. Attentive riders know when their internal focus shifts because of fear, nervousness, or complacency. Beyond their own energy, they hone into their horses that day. Like people, horses have different moods and vitality levels, based on various elements. True horsemen quickly know when a horse is cooperative and focused, or unfocused and lazy, or if there is something physically going on with the horse (such as lameness, stiffness, or other similar conditions).

Horse’s Body Language

Adept, aware riders and trainers always read the horse’s body language, as it’s very telling as to what is going on with his mind, physical body, and overall energy. For example, ears up and alert, eyes soft, licking and chewing usually mean thinking, paying attention, and being relaxed. Whereas, ears pinned, fidgeting, or tail swishing, could indicate agitation, discomfort, or impatience. People who are aware then try to figure out what might be causing these things. Maybe, the relaxed, attentive horse is truly enjoying the learning or being in the company of his rider. On the flip side, the agitated horse may have a poorly fitting saddle, a physical ailment, bad manners, or perhaps other horses are crowding him.

Other Riders, Other Horses, and Spacing

Smart riders “feel” into the best pace or spacing to put between horses. (This may seem like common sense, but countless times, inattentive riders can allow their horses to crowd, kick out, or pin their ears, which can alter the entire experience.) When someone is having a challenge, keen riders will pay attention to see how that might be affecting other horses in the ring or on the trail. Maybe switching the lineup or changing the pace would help. Keeping an eye on what else is going on around you allows a greater chance to get out of harm’s way should something go awry.

Photo by Carol Eagan Borrelli

External Situations

Perceptive riders are tuned in to shifting outward elements, such as changes in weather, anything that might be dangerous, or obstacles in the way. This does not only apply to natural elements, but perhaps someone is walking by with an umbrella or a stroller, or maybe there’s an unusual sound—anything a horse might react to. These riders are paying attention to their ever-changing surroundings and adjusting accordingly.

Again, a good rider is not necessarily the most technically trained, but she is the most aware. Yes, these are the people I like to ride with!

This excerpt from Yoga for Riders by Cathy Woods is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. You can purchase it here