De­velop Horse­man­ship In­stincts

An Olympian shares how to cre­ate that per­fect ride by tran­scend­ing cor­rect rid­ing tech­nique and be­com­ing one with your horse.

Practical Horseman - - Special Sporthorse Health Issue - By Peter Leone

Olympic jumper Peter Leone de­scribes how to become one with your horse to ex­pe­ri­ence the per­fect ride and main­tain that feel­ing over time.

Have you ever had a per­fect ride, when ev­ery el­e­ment fell mag­i­cally into place—the dis­tance to ev­ery jump came up just right, each dres­sage move­ment flowed ef­fort­lessly from the pre­vi­ous one to the next or ev­ery mo­ment of a trail ride was pure bliss? And all the while, you and your horse were so in tune that you merely had to think what you wanted to do next and he did it? This is what we call the “sweet spot.” Peo­ple talk about find­ing the sweet spot—or be­ing “in the zone”—all the time in other sports. In base­ball, it’s that mo­ment when a bat­ter hits a pitch per­fectly, send­ing the ball sail­ing into the out­field in the ex­act di­rec­tion he in­tended. In soc­cer, it’s the goal-scor­ing kick. In golf, it’s the swing that drives the ball straight, true and far.

Some­times the sweet spot is mo­men­tary—per­haps last­ing just a split sec­ond, as in the case of the bat­ter hit­ting a fast pitch. Many ath­letes find the sweet spot only now and then. An av­er­age golfer, for ex­am­ple, might hit that awe­some “ca­reer drive” one out of 20 swings, whereas a pro­fes­sional stays in the sweet spot for six, 10 or 14 holes at a time. The best ath­letes can pro­long the sweet spot over min­utes, hours, days and even years. Think of pro bas­ket­ball player Steph Curry of the Golden State War­riors, who stayed in the sweet spot for two en­tire sea­sons to earn the NBA’s Most Valu­able Player award twice. Or think of McLain Ward and HH Azur in the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jump­ing Final, dom­i­nat­ing all three phases of the com­pe­ti­tion. They never put a foot—or hoof—wrong.

In horse­back rid­ing, find­ing the sweet spot is twice as sat­is­fy­ing be­cause there are two of you. It’s like spend­ing a won­der­ful evening with one of your best friends. You know each other so well that you can fin­ish each other’s sen­tences. You “get” the same jokes, love the same sto­ries and are im­mensely com­fort­able to­gether. There’s such a deep un­der­stand­ing be­tween you that each of you feels like you know what the other is think­ing.

This is the same happy place you ex­pe­ri­ence when you find the sweet spot with a horse. He knows where you want to go and what you want to do with­out you hav­ing to tell him. He is an ex­ten­sion of you and you are an ex­ten­sion of him. You can sense his phys­i­cal, men­tal and emo­tional states. You know if he’s com­fort­able or not, if he’s ner­vous or scared. You’re in to­tal sync. In­stead of bat­tling each other, you’re act­ing as one, rid­ing against the clock or to outscore your last per­for­mance— or just to en­joy the best part of the day. It’s the most awe­some feel­ing! And it’s why we do this sport.

Whether you’re rid­ing in an eq­ui­tation class, per­form­ing a dres­sage test, jump­ing a grand prix course, gal­lop­ing cross coun­try or trail rid­ing at home, ev­ery­one is al­ways striv­ing to find the sweet spot. But there’s more to it than just get­ting all the me­chan­ics right. Yes, you must have the cor­rect po­si­tion and need to know how to bal­ance and move all of your body parts with the mo­tion of the horse while still be­ing able to co­or­di­nate them with one an­other to in­flu­ence him. For what­ever dis­ci­pline you ride, you must un­der­stand the ge­om­e­try and goals of ev­ery el­e­ment of it—whether that’s rid­ing an ac­cu­rate track on a bend­ing line, ad­just­ing stride length or pro­duc­ing a per­fectly shaped ser­pen­tine. To truly ex­cel, your horse­man­ship must tran­scend cor­rect rid­ing tech­nique. You need an un­der­stand­ing and sense of how to com­mu­ni­cate with your horse at all times, whether you’re on his back or on the ground—load­ing him into a trailer, cross­ing a creek, jump­ing a course or ask­ing him to

stand qui­etly while a storm ap­proaches.

Some rid­ers are for­tu­nate enough to be born with this in­stinct. Suc­cess­ful jumper rid­ers like two-time Olympic gold medal­ist Beezie Mad­den, top show jumper Aaron Vale and 2017 USHJA In­ter­na­tional Hunter Derby champ Vic­to­ria Colvin have a re­mark­able tal­ent for con­nect­ing to the horses they ride, of­ten es­tab­lish­ing that con­nec­tion in a sur­pris­ingly short amount of time. Their mounts al­ways seem happy and will­ing when they’re in the sad­dle. How do they do it? Aaron’s web­site says it all: It’s thinkslikea­horse.com. And he does! He thinks like a horse.

Own Your Ed­u­ca­tion

Ob­vi­ously, not ev­ery­one is born with this tal­ent to seem­ingly read horses’ minds. But that doesn’t mean others can’t de­velop sim­i­larly good in­stincts and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. You just have to find them in your­self. Good-qual­ity in­struc­tion can help, but teach­ing rid­ers how to “feel” is much harder than teach­ing the ba­sic me­chan­ics of rid­ing. The best in­struc­tors can try to paint a pic­ture of what it should feel like and give you tools and ex­er­cises to try to con­nect with that feel­ing. But what works for one stu­dent may be dif­fer­ent from what works for an­other.

Ul­ti­mately, you have to take own­er­ship of your ed­u­ca­tion. The first step is to fig­ure out your in­di­vid­ual learn­ing style: Do you learn best by lis­ten­ing? By watch­ing? By do­ing? You can sup­ple­ment your reg­u­lar in­struc­tion by rec­og­niz­ing and tap­ping into these strengths.

For ex­am­ple, if you’re a vis­ual learner, pay close at­ten­tion to any good im­agery you en­counter. To work to­ward an “ed­u­cated seat”—a seat that sticks to the sad­dle like a fly on fly tape, blend­ing into the horse’s back while also in­flu­enc­ing his mus­cles to af­fect his per­for­mance—when you sit the trot, you may find it eas­ier to pre­tend that you’re eas­ing into a tub of hot bath wa­ter. This will help you sink into the sad­dle while you fo­cus on re­lax­ing your mid­sec­tion from your rib cage to your hips, imag­in­ing that it’s made of Jell-O or marsh­mal­lows. Once you feel your­self mov­ing in the rhythm of the gait, you can then stretch your up­per body tall and use your weight in a positive man­ner to in­flu­ence your horse.

I per­son­ally draw on a com­bi­na­tion of learn­ing meth­ods to con­tin­u­ally im­prove my per­for­mance. While I’m on course, I try to pro­duce the can­ter, rhythm, bal­ance, take­off spots, etc. that my ex­pe­ri­ence and in­stincts tell me are ideal for help­ing that par­tic­u­lar horse go clear. As I ride, I make men­tal notes of how each of those vari­ables feels. Later that evening, I re­view the video of the round to ver­ify that what I see is what I felt. Some­times it’s not. For ex­am­ple, my ten­dency has al­ways been to give horses too much room in front of fences, so I of­ten have to re­mind my­self to get deeper to the jumps. Some­times I feel like I’m suc­ceed­ing only to see later in the video that I wasn’t quite close enough.

In ad­di­tion to those key pieces, I in­cor­po­rate feed­back from other pro­fes­sional rid­ers and train­ers whose ob­ser­va­tions I trust and value. If some­one like Ge­orge Mor­ris or my brother Mark says I could have given a horse more sup­port off the ground or rid­den him straighter, I fac­tor that into my eval­u­a­tion. Then I wrap all this in­for­ma­tion to­gether into a new plan and ex­e­cute it—over and over again. The do­ing is what gets you to per­fec­tion.

Which par­tic­u­lar as­pects of the ride you

Ul­ti­mately, you have to take own­er­ship of your ed­u­ca­tion. The first step is to fig­ure out your in­di­vid­ual learn­ing style: Do you learn best by lis­ten­ing? By watch­ing? By do­ing? You can sup­ple­ment your reg­u­lar in­struc­tion by rec­og­niz­ing and tap­ping into these strengths.”

pay the most at­ten­tion to de­pend on what your goal is. Even though we all want to end up in the same happy place, the ex­act in­gre­di­ents that go into find­ing the sweet spot vary from dis­ci­pline to dis­ci­pline and day to day. If you’re en­ter­ing the ring for a Ju­nior Jumper clas­sic, your goal will be dif­fer­ent than it was when you schooled on the flat at home four weeks ago.

The process is also dif­fer­ent on dif­fer­ent horses. You won’t find the sweet spot with a hot Thor­ough­bred in the same way you would with a more mel­low warm­blood. Ev­ery ride is a unique col­lec­tion of balanc­ing acts: be­tween be­ing strong and soft, work­ing and re­laxed, dis­ci­plined and gen­er­ous, pre­dictable and spon­ta­neous, and so on. In the end, the one goal that all rid­ers share is of earn­ing the horse’s trust and form­ing a strong bond with him.

I was re­minded of this in 2012 while de­vel­op­ing an Ir­ish horse named Lin­court Gino. He had a very good head on his shoul­ders, but was also re­ally sen­si­tive. I started him in the 1.30-me­ter classes in Jan­uary and de­buted him at the grand prix level in May. As we got to know each other, I re­al­ized how im­por­tant it was to build up his con­fi­dence in the warm-up be­fore a big class. I learned that al­low­ing him to loosen up with a nice big gal­lop—rather than pres­sur­ing him to do lots of col­lec­tion and tran­si­tions—and then gen­tly putting him to­gether pre­pared him to per­form his best. Re­lax­ation, sup­ple­ness, rhythm and con­fi­dence were the key in­gre­di­ents for him.

By Au­gust, I was re­li­ably tap­ping into this for­mula and he was re­spond­ing like an ATM: al­ways fin­ish­ing in the money. We ended the sea­son by win­ning the in­au­gu­ral Amer­i­can Gold Cup at Old Salem Farm, best­ing three horses who had ei­ther com­peted in the Olympics or have since done so.

Lis­ten to Your Horse

An­other key fac­tor for find­ing the sweet spot is learn­ing how to lis­ten to your horse. Many peo­ple get in the sad­dle and im­me­di­ately start dic­tat­ing: “Do this! Do that! Go here! Go there!” Try hear­ing what your horse has to say. How does he feel physi- cally? How is he men­tally and emo­tion­ally? What seems easy to him and what seems hard? Is he com­fort­able or un­com­fort­able?

To take this lis­ten­ing ex­er­cise to the next level, pe­ri­od­i­cally change your school­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Horses thrive on rou­tine, but ex­pos­ing them to dif­fer­ent sur­round­ings now and then and ob­serv­ing

how they re­spond can of­ten be ben­e­fi­cial. For ex­am­ple, if you typ­i­cally school in an arena, try to find a nice open field to ride in one day. Af­ter warm­ing up, gen­tly ask your horse to lengthen his stride at the trot. Then gen­tly ask him to col­lect it. Fol­low that up with a small leg-yield in one di­rec­tion and then the other. How does he re­spond? How is his re­ac­tion dif­fer­ent from his nor­mal be­hav­ior in the ring?

This new knowl­edge will help to strengthen your bond with him. It should also come in handy in fu­ture com­pe­ti­tions. When you en­ter the ring, check in with how he feels. Be­fore you pick up the can­ter, take a nice deep breath. Your horse will prob­a­bly do the same! And he’ll be more re­laxed and sup­ple as a re­sult, which will make the rest of your per­for­mance that much bet­ter. This is how you turn the me­chan­i­cal process of ex­e­cut­ing a course (or dres­sage test or what­ever dis­ci­pline you pur­sue) into an art form. In­stead of feel­ing as if you’re rigidly go­ing through an in­struc­tion man­ual, you’ll breathe and feel and fol­low your in­stincts.

Lis­ten­ing to your horse is an­other im­por­tant balanc­ing act, though. If you let him do all the talk­ing, he may take over the ride. Try to think of him as a child or a pet who needs ten­der guid­ance and in­struc­tion. Lis­ten to his con­cerns, but then try to ad­dress them with con­struc­tive ex­er­cises—flat­work, gym­nas­tics, etc.—to ed­u­cate and de­velop his per­for­mance.

Ride in the Mo­ment

One of the most im­por­tant lessons to learn about the sweet spot is that it’s a mov­ing tar­get. It changes from day to day, week to week and year to year. Horses are just like us: They have dif­fer­ent moods and dif­fer­ent phys­i­cal states. The horse you’re on to­day won’t be the same horse he was yes­ter­day. I learned this with my Olympic part­ner Crown Royal Legato. At our shows be­fore the Olympics, I typ­i­cally com­peted him in an open warm-up jumper class on Fri­day in prepa­ra­tion for the grand prix on Sun­day. He of­ten per­formed re­ally well in the Fri­day class, so I would get on him on Sun­day and try to re­visit that same state and karma. But that of­ten didn’t work be­cause he didn’t feel the same way on Sun­day that he’d felt Fri­day. So the ride I tried to give him was too soft or too strong or oth­er­wise not suited to how he was feel­ing.

I had an­other horse who re­quired com­pletely dif­fer­ent warm-ups de­pend­ing on how he was feel­ing on any given day. He might jump with the power of King Kong one day and then feel ner­vous and in­se­cure just three days later. On those days, in­stead of go­ing straight to a 1.20- or 1.30-me­ter oxer, I’d start with a smaller ver­ti­cal with bigger ground lines and would jump as many as 10 to 14 fences al­to­gether, mak­ing the ox­ers slightly smaller and nar­rower than usual. Then I’d fin­ish the warm-up with a bigger ver­ti­cal in­stead of an oxer.

On other days, the same horse might show up high as a kite. So I’d can­ter four laps around the ring in ei­ther di­rec­tion to take the edge off, act­ing as a “hu­man turnout” or “hu­man longe line” for the horse. If he was still too fresh, I’d make a few more laps be­fore get­ting to work.

The very same horse some­times ar­rived at the ring al­most lack­adaisi­cal. On those days, I kept his warm-up short and sweet to con­serve his en­ergy, maybe only jump­ing a to­tal of four or five fences be­fore go­ing into the ring.

That’s how I learned the value of rid­ing the horse that’s un­der­neath you to­day. Be in the mo­ment. Don’t get hung up on how your horse felt yes­ter­day or two days ago.

If you’re a typ­i­cal rider with a busy sched­ule full of work, school and/or fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, you may find rid­ing in the mo­ment chal­leng­ing at times. On some days, your body and mind are go­ing a mil­lion miles an hour all day at work. Your stress lev­els keep crank­ing up­ward as you fight traf­fic to get to the barn. So you’re still all worked up as you sad­dle your horse and start your ride. It’s no sur­prise then when the ride doesn’t go to plan. Horses pick up on all that ten­sion. To give your ride a chance to suc­ceed, it’s re­ally im­por­tant to take a minute—or 10 min­utes—when you ar­rive at the barn to slow down, catch your breath and get to a calm place emo­tion­ally be­fore in­ter­act­ing with your horse.

As your abil­i­ties to ride in the mo­ment and con­nect with your horse grad­u­ally im­prove, you’ll dis­cover that you can find the sweet spot more quickly. Over time, you’ll be able to ex­tend that feel­ing for longer pe­ri­ods. How fre­quently you find the sweet spot at com­pe­ti­tions is a great way to gauge your progress and know when it’s time to move up a level. Many rid­ers get caught up want­ing to com­pete at higher and higher lev­els, of­ten be­fore they’re ready. To avoid mak­ing that mis­take, ask your­self how of­ten you find the sweet spot. If you con­sis­tently find it ride af­ter ride—not for just two-thirds of the ride, but for the en­tire ride—and show af­ter show, you’re ready to move up. If not, give your­self more time to progress.

For ex­am­ple, to suc­ceed in any given jump­ing round, there are prob­a­bly more than 30 things that need to hap­pen cor­rectly. There are dif­fer­ent kinds of jumps placed in dif­fer­ent ways and a num­ber of re­lated dis­tances. When you’re in the sweet spot, you’ll meet the “out” jumps of those dis­tances as ac­cu­rately as you meet the “in” jumps. You’ll leave the ring know­ing that the en­tire course was smooth and flow­ing— and no ma­jor, glar­ing er­rors oc­curred. Once that hap­pens for mul­ti­ple cour­ses in a row, you know you’re ready to move up a level. If it’s not hap­pen­ing, don’t worry, you’ll get there when you’re ready.

Top ath­letes can pro­long be­ing in the sweet spot: McLain Ward and HH Azur were in the zone dur­ing all three phases of the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jump­ing Final in Omaha to cap­ture the ti­tle.

With more than 200 grand prix jump­ing wins to his credit, Aaron Vale, here rid­ing Acol­i­nar at the 2015 Devon Horse Show, has a re­mark­able nat­u­ral tal­ent for con­nect­ing to the horses he rides.

Peter learned with his 1996 Olympic team­sil­ver-medal part­ner, Legato, to ride the horse that’s un­der­neath you on that day.

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