You watch a horse and rider that glide around the ring, and it seems like the ride is effortless, and the aids are seamless. You quickly recall your last time in the ring, with your horse, where you were out of breath and exhausted from navigating you and your horse – definitely NOT effortless!
How can your rides become seemingly effortless?
Even very large horses can be sensitive to the aids. Just because a horse is large does not mean he needs a harsh bit and has to be ‘man-handled’. You can teach him to be as light as you want him to be.
Try smarter, not harder.
This saying has many applications when riding. If what you are doing is not working, then try a different approach. If you are doing an exercise and your horse cannot perform the exercise correctly, don’t try it harder; interrupt and do a different exercise or take a break for a bit. Here are some tips you might want to consider for creating a more sensitive horse and a softer/more feeling rider:
- Every day, decide how much pressure you want in your hands (how heavy you want your horse in the reins), and how strong you want your seat and leg aids to be. Don’t confuse behind the bit or behind the leg (behind the aids) with being soft. Teach your horse the connection to the bridle, but with practice you can choose how heavy or light you want him.
- When your horse starts to give you the right answer, then soften your rein and/or leg (whichever aids he is responding appropriately to) to let him know that is what you want.
- Don’t be an overachiever – do only a few steps in an exercise, but make those correct steps, then step out of the exercise (like walk or trot forward). Make all of your riding to be Perfect Practice. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” For example, if you start a turn on the forehand, just do one or two steps correctly then move your horse forward out of that exercise. If you keep going but are not doing the exercise correctly then you are not practicing correctly.
- If your horse pushes into your leg one direction or another, do a leg yield away from that direction.
- If your horse pulls on a rein one direction or another, ask him to yield his hindquarters away from your leg on the side he is pulling. If he pulls on the left rein, then turn on the forehand to the right.
- Another helpful exercise is to do a quiet rein back, one step at a time, keeping your horse on the contact. He should not rush backwards or go hollow, but step methodically one step at a time while staying on the contact with the bit and in a round shape.
- Interrupt your agenda and quietly correct your horse with an exercise – softly but with purpose. For example, if you are jumping a line of fences and your horse drifts right, then turn on the haunches to the left or leg yield left or half pass left – quietly and with tact – and when you have some achieved obedience with this interim exercise, then continue jumping or whatever you were doing. Break down the sub steps and concentrate on getting them done correctly before putting them all back together.
- At the start of each ride and during, take lots of breaths (or whatever it takes you to relax)!
- While you are riding, ignore the rest of the world – it will still be there when you finish your ride. Be present for your horse!
- Ride without stirrups, if you are safe, and let your legs hang from your hips (noodle legs). Gripping thighs/knees/calves are not what you want. Your legs need to be supple, athletic, and agile – Centered Riding by Sally Swift has excellent exercises to help resolve these types of habits!
- Ride with more leg and less hand. To help yourself use less hand, here are some ways to hold the reins for practice: use a single bridge of the reins, reins in one hand, driving rein (turn your hands over on the reins), etc. Change up your hands on the reins to break up habits of overusing your reins. Leg yield exercises should not involve a lot of hands/reins, but they should involve your seat and legs. Also, hands close together are often more empathetic than wide hands.
- Work on riding the hind end (and hind feet) to the front end. Pay attention to your horse’s hind feet and work to connect your legs to them so that you can feel his hind feet under your seat. This might take some time to learn to feel. Can you feel when the left hind footsteps forward? If not, perhaps noticing when a front foot steps forward and then following the cadence of the steps in whatever pace your horse is in, will help you start to feel when a hind foot engages.
- If you need a reminder about your mission to softness – put a ribbon or yarn in your horse’s mane (suggest to put it near the poll to remind you to work to keep the poll as the highest point). Or put a piece of colored tape on the neck strap of your martingale or neck strap as a visual reminder to be soft.
- Keep notes; make it easy – keep a notebook with pen handy and keep it brief. What went well with your ride, where can you make some changes, did you believe in yourself and your horse, how did it feel? Ask a friend to video for you. And during the session verbalize what you are feeling; and have that part of the video. For example, are you having a hard time keeping your horse from drifting left? Say that out loud so that you can review the video and know what you were feeling at the time and see what is going on. The video may show you why your horse is doing what he is doing. Perhaps your left leg is coming off him, or something like that.
- Heighten your awareness as to being correct and incorrect… Take what you have learned and are learning and continue to practice.
As you reestablish your lines of communication with your horse, test your new relationship. Keep going in your test or course and see how it goes without interrupting to do an exercise. How did it go? Where do you need to go back and do some polishing? Don’t expect everything to be perfect right away; this will be a work in progress, and that progress depends upon your focus and dedication to the softness and sensitivity. But the efforts will pay off! Believe in yourself and your horse.