Quick Con­nec­tion

Ap­ply lessons from a for­mer NCAA eques­trian coach to quickly con­nect with a new horse, whether he’ll be a tem­po­rary mount or a long-term part­ner.


Five lessons from an ex­pert to help you con­nect quickly and solidly with that new horse or bor­rowed mount.

The most skilled horse-and-rider teams are those that have a con­nec­tion. Through years and many sad­dle hours, a rider gets to know her horse’s skills and tem­per­a­ment so she can get the most from him for a high-scor­ing per­for­mance or to nav­i­gate any ob­sta­cle out on the trail.

But when you get on a new horse, this con­nec­tion doesn’t ex­ist. The abil­ity to quickly con­nect with a new mount when you’re try­ing a new prospect, en­joy­ing a trail ride on some­one else’s horse, or draw­ing ran­dom horses for com­pe­ti­tion helps you max­i­mize his po­ten­tial. Here, I’ll share five lessons I taught when coach­ing NCAA rid­ers for com­pe­ti­tion that ev­ery rider can use to get the most from an unfamiliar horse. With this planned ap­proach and some prac­tice, you can learn to ride any horse to the best of his abil­ity.

Les­son One: Get Com­fort­able With Be­ing Un­com­fort­able.

The only way to get com­fort­able rid­ing new horses is by do­ing it. When you ride the same horse in the same set­ting all the time, any change is stress­ful and throws you off your game. If your first ex­pe­ri­ence rid­ing an unfamiliar horse is at a show or try­ing a new horse to buy, you might lack the con­fi­dence to ride how you usu­ally do. To re­gain this con­fi­dence,

broaden your com­fort zone by rid­ing many dif­fer­ent horses. There isn’t a spe­cific num­ber; it de­pends on you. Ride as many as it takes for it to no longer feel for­eign. When you get on a new horse and think to your­self, “Yeah, I’ve got this,” that’s when you know you’re men­tally ready to ride just about any­thing.

Ev­ery rider has a pref­er­ence of horse size, speed, sen­si­tiv­ity, and de­meanor. In com­pe­ti­tion, such as with eques­trian chal­lenges and in NCAA events, it doesn’t

mat­ter what you like or don’t like. Your goal is to ride what you’ve drawn to the best of your abil­ity. Rid­ing a va­ri­ety of horses pre­pares you for the vari­abil­ity. Choose to ride horses that you don’t nat­u­rally grav­i­tate to­ward and that chal­lenge you. If you don’t like sen­si­tive horses, ride as many sen­si­tive horses as you can un­til they no longer in­tim­i­date you. When you’re ner­vous, it’s dif­fi­cult to think clearly and you’ll strug­gle to trou­bleshoot an is­sue if the ride doesn’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. If you’re con­fi­dent, you won’t be caught off guard if your horse sud­denly over­re­acts or doesn’t re­spond. You’ll likely have en­coun­tered a sim­i­lar is­sue with an­other horse dur­ing your prep and will know how to quickly change your ap­proach and go to Plan B, C, or D if needed.

Luck­ily, when you’re pur­chas­ing a horse you have more con­trol. You can spend more time get­ting to know a horse and your han­dle won’t be un­der scru­tiny. How­ever, rid­ing many horses be­fore a pur­chase helps you make wiser pur­chas­ing de­ci­sions. You’ll un­der­stand how to quickly iden­tify a horse’s po­ten­tial as well as the traits you like and don’t like. If you can see what he’s got early, you won’t pass up a skilled horse or take one home that’s not quite right.

Les­son Two: Al­ways Scout Your Mount.

If given the op­tion, take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tu­nity to watch some­one else ride the horse you’ll get on. In a com­pe­ti­tion, this is likely a demon­stra­tion rider. At a pre-pur­chase show­ing, it’s of­ten the owner, seller, or trainer on the prospect. You can learn a lot about a horse by watch­ing him go. Ex­am­ine his ca­dence and how the rider han­dles him. If he has a smooth, con­sis­tent stride it

means he’s com­fort­able. If his stride is in­con­sis­tent or choppy, with high knees and con­strained move­ment, for ex­am­ple, he’s ei­ther un­com­fort­able or be­ing sent mixed sig­nals. Watch to see how he’s cued, in­clud­ing the spe­cific hand and leg move­ments used and the rider’s seat. If the horse is re­spon­sive and seems com­fort­able, model the rider’s ap­proach. If he seems stressed or frus­trated, this is a sign that the horse doesn’t like how he’s be­ing rid­den.

Les­son Three: Start With a Plan.

In a com­pe­ti­tion, you likely won’t have much time to warm-up with your horse (if at all) be­fore you’re ex­pected to per­form. If you don’t start with a plan, you can quickly run out of time. Ap­proach the pre-ride and warm-up me­thod­i­cally with step-by-step drills and ex­er­cises that help you get to know your horse. Start with a slow jog. It of­ten re­laxes a horse and can curb ex­cess en­ergy be­fore a per­for­mance. If you find your horse tries to speed up and be­comes anx­ious, walk in­stead.

Af­ter a cou­ple laps, be­gin your warm-up drills to test your horse’s flex­i­bil­ity, re­spon­sive­ness, and sen­si­tiv­ity. Start with flex­ing ex­er­cises, first lat­er­ally to test his re­spon­sive­ness to di­rect-rein cue­ing as well as his flex­i­bil­ity. Ask for ver­ti­cal flex­ion to de­ter­mine if he gives at the poll. If he seems to fight this or is re­sis­tant, don’t force the is­sue. It can quickly es­ca­late to ir­ri­tabil­ity. Then move on to mov­ing his shoul­ders and hips.

As you lat­er­ally flex, ap­ply pres­sure with your legs to ask him to yield his shoul­ders and hips sep­a­rately. Test if he can com­plete a pivot on the fore­hand or hindquar­ters. These sim­ple ma­neu­vers show you how sen­si­tive he is and how well you can con­trol his body. When you’re con­fi­dent and you know your horse’s skillset, you can be­gin to vi­su­al­ize your ride, plan­ning which ma­neu­vers can earn you high marks and which you sim­ply need to aim for cor­rect­ness. For ex­am­ple, if he piv­ots eas­ily, you know this is an area you can likely earn ex­tra points by adding speed; if he strug­gles, make a men­tal note to avoid high­light­ing this in the arena.

In the case of a pre-pur­chase ride, your horse’s abil­ity to do these things might be a deal-breaker, or it might iden­tify an area you want to work on later.

Les­son Four: Ride What You Have, Not What You Wish You Had.

When it comes to a horse’s skills, ma­neu­vers fall into two cat­e­gories: Thrive and sur­vive. The thrive ma­neu­vers are those that your horse does will­ingly and cor­rectly. These are your top­mark-earn­ing ma­neu­vers where you can chal­lenge your horse to give his best per­for­mance with­out him get­ting frus­trated. Sur­vive ma­neu­vers are those that he strug­gles with. If you put pres­sure on him to add speed or more tech­ni­cal ex­e­cu­tion, he can un­ravel. With these, aim for cor­rect­ness.

Af­ter the pre-ride drills and warmup, you’ll have an idea which ma­neu­vers are your horse’s thrive ar­eas, or strengths, and which are his sur­vive move­ments, or weak­nesses. This helps you plan your rid­ing ap­proach. If you know that your horse is will­ing in one skill, ask him to give you more when it comes time to per­form that ma­neu­ver in the show pen. This earns you higher marks that can off­set dif­fi­culty else­where. For ex­am­ple, if he’s re­spon­sive to your body move­ment for speed tran­si­tions, ask for greater speed vari­a­tion be­tween your trot and ex­tended trot or your small slow and big fast cir­cles in a rein­ing pat­tern.

When you ride a new horse, whether it’s in a com­pe­ti­tion or try-be­fore-you-buy sit­u­a­tion, you must be com­fort­able asking for every­thing that your horse can give. High-level per­for­mances, or the ones that re­ally stand out, com­bine a high level of cor­rect­ness with speed. It’s easy to fall prey to the speed trap think­ing that if you do the ma­neu­ver faster, you’ll earn top marks; that’s not al­ways the case. I teach rid­ers to choose cor­rect­ness over showi­ness when ap­proach­ing a pat­tern. While a fly­ing lead change is flashy, if it’s poorly ex­e­cuted, it’s likely to earn lower marks than a tech­ni­cally cor­rect and clean sim­ple lead change. Keep this in mind as you de­ter­mine how much pres­sure to put on your horse. Be con­fi­dent enough to ask your horse to give you his best but avoid let­ting the ride get off the rails and be­com­ing sloppy. When show­ing, it can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween a medi­ocre score and a win­ning score. When you’re buy­ing, if you don’t put pres­sure on a horse to per­form, you don’t know if he has the tem­per­a­ment or skills you’re look­ing for.

Les­son Five: Use Your Body to Make His Job Eas­ier.

You can’t com­pletely re­train an unfamiliar horse in a short pe­riod; you can only ride the horse you’re given. But there are some tricks to en­cour­age your horse to re­spond cor­rectly to your cues. You likely know that your rhythm in the sad­dle helps you stay seated, en­cour­ages mo­tion, and slows your horse. Use these same body-con­trol tech­niques as you ride a new horse to en­cour­age cor­rect lead depar­tures or lead changes and to suc­cess­fully ex­e­cute a pivot. →

Your body’s move­ment can make even the dullest horse more re­spon­sive. To ad­just speed, or to test a horse’s rate or abil­ity to change ca­dence, use your hips and weight to your ad­van­tage. To ex­tend a gait, use your ver­bal cues and legs and ad­just your rid­ing rhythm. Lean for­ward slightly while driv­ing your hips slightly faster than your horse’s cur­rent speed. To slow him down, do the op­po­site. Sit deeply in your sad­dle and slow the move­ment of your hips. A heav­ier, slower seat en­cour­ages your horse to match you with a slower, more re­laxed gait. You can also hum qui­etly to your­self. He’ll feel the vi­bra­tions through your sad­dle, which has a calm­ing ef­fect on some horses.

Lead changes and depar­tures can also be as­sisted with your hip move­ment and tim­ing. For a lead de­par­ture, set your horse up be­fore you ask him to take off. (You’ll know how easy or dif­fi­cult this is based on the re­sults of the warm-up ap­proach noted in Les­son Three.) Pick up your in­side rein, move your horse’s hip over; pick up his shoul­der; and when you’re ready to de­part, pro­pel your hips for­ward, open­ing them in the di­rec­tion of the lead de­par­ture you’ve asked for. Cue your horse with your legs and ver­bal cue at the same time. This lit­tle bit of mo­men­tum makes it eas­ier for him to tran­si­tion into a lope.

Ap­ply the same strat­egy for lead changes. Set up your horse, and when you’re ready to change, get out of his way by open­ing your hips in the di­rec­tion you want to go. Tim­ing is also im­por­tant. If you’re in-tune with your horse’s rhythm, you’ll feel when he takes a step with his lead in­side leg. Cue for a fly­ing lead change be­fore he takes his next lead-leg step, not af­ter. If you ask for the change at the in­cor­rect time, you make the change more dif­fi­cult for your horse. This also of­ten causes the un­de­sir­able ver­ti­cal move­ment, or hop, you some­times see in a lead change. Set your horse up, ask for the change, open your hips to get

out of his way, and per­fect your tim­ing, and you’ll be more likely to get the smooth lead change you’re look­ing for.

Fore­hand and hindquar­ter turns are more dif­fi­cult to in­flu­ence. Fo­cus on your torso’s po­si­tion. If you hunch too far for­ward in a hindquar­ter pivot, you move your cen­ter of grav­ity over his front end mak­ing it much more dif­fi­cult for him to man­age his shoul­ders. Use your hips to make your horse’s job eas­ier. Open them slightly in the di­rec­tion you’re turn­ing. For ex­am­ple, in a left-hand hindquar­ter pivot, open your hips to the left. This shifts your weight off his in­side shoul­der. With a fore­hand pivot, open your hips again, but in­stead lean your torso just slightly for­ward, en­cour­ag­ing his in­side shoul­der to stay put.

Your body po­si­tion can help your horse or make his job more dif­fi­cult. Be mind­ful of your torso, seat, and legs so you can get the re­sponse you’re look­ing for and stay out of your horse’s way.

TOP-RIGHT: Ask to ride horses owned by your trainer, a friend, or a fel­low boarder to prac­tice and ex­pand your com­fort level. Have the owner watch and give con­struc­tive feed­back. BOT­TOM-RIGHT: Be­gin by test­ing out your horse’s steer­ing at a walk, jog,...

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