Most people assume being a good rider is the same as being a good trainer, which is far from the truth. Good riders learn proper position and aids. They learn how to ask correctly for skills and ride well trained horses. However, when a horse doesn’t respond properly a good rider might not have the tools to guide the horse towards the correct answer.
I cannot even begin to list the times students have told me, “I did what you told me to do and it didn’t work. How do I make (the horse they are riding) listen?” This is a symptom of riders who have been taught to ride, but know nothing of horsemanship. They cannot problem solve their way out of a situation because they don’t have a good idea of how to work with a horse. Instead, their riding is limited to pushing “buttons” and hoping the horse responds as expected. Since horses are living, breathing animals, this is an obviously flawed system.
Trainers on the other hand specialize in guiding the horse through challenges and teaching them how to think. Their position may not be as perfect (although good position does make communication easier), but they are uniquely prepared to teach a horse the correct responses to various aids. When they do not get the desired response, they can try alternate ways of asking or come up with a way to show the horse what they would like him or her to do. They are constantly teaching the horse those “buttons” that riders rely on and working with the horse to maintain an understanding.
As a riding instructor and trainer I am alarmed at the increasing divide between these two approaches to riding. More and more young riders are learning how to sit on a horse and be perfect, but are at a total loss when put on anything young, green, or confused. As an industry we are no longer teaching horsemanship along with riding.
I’m not saying that everyone should be able to train their own horse from the ground up. I recognize that this takes a special skill set and years of dedication to learn. However, anyone that is going to put time, money, and effort into riding should understand the basic principles of training a horse. After all, every second you are with a horse you are teaching him something. If you spend enough time with horses you are bound to run into sticky spots that you need to get through and you aren’t going to have your trainer on call 24/7 at your side to help you through it.
Recently I have been expanding my lesson program largely to do my part to fix these shortfalls of many other programs. I would like to see the day when every rider understands pressure and release, bending and suppling, and riding with a focus on relaxation. These are all important concepts that take time and practice to learn, just like learning to perfect the two point, trot without stirrups, or jump fences. Most traditional programs focus on the mechanics of riding and completely ignore the feel, timing, and methodology of working with horses. I personally would much rather see a slightly bouncy rider who treats her horse with respect and understanding than a rider in flawless position that muscles and forces her horse into the desired maneuvers. After all, riding is first and foremost an art, not a feat of strength and athleticism.
This is why when I work with students I don’t just teach them position. By the time students are able to post I teach them how to begin to supple a horse with the reins and use their legs to steer. I don’t expect perfection, but I want to put that idea in their heads before they become attached to the idea that the reins are for steering and stopping, since that is a hard habit to break. When teaching I like to use horses that respond genuinely to the rider, not shut down horses that buckle down and do the job at hand, so that the riders learn the give and take of horsemanship. As the years go by I hope this will start to make a difference in the industry. I hope more and more instructors will begin to see the benefit of this kind of instructing and will adopt a similar method. I hope eventually to see a majority of riders who understand that riding is training and who understand how to work through something with a horse instead of sending it to a trainer to “fix”.