I’ve been talking with a few people lately about the difference between riding for yourself versus riding for the horse. A lot of people think that good riders ride for the horse and poor riders or beginner riders ride for themselves. Although there might be some merit to this idea, I don’t think it is entirely true. I think the difference between riding for yourself versus riding for the horse is one of mentality less than ability. Any rider can ride “for the horse”, the better riders will just do it, well, better.

Mark riding Lucy

When we think of a traditional lesson barn most of those riders are riding for themselves. As an instructor it is often my job to help the rider ride better, for themselves. The single most challenging aspect of my job is figuring out how to balance teaching the student without sacrificing the horse.

However, as a rider this situation is much more simple. If you want to ride for the horse you worry less about what you need to work on and more about what the horse needs.

So what exactly do I mean when I say “riding for the horse” versus “riding for the rider”? “Riding for the horse” means you are focused on what the horse needs or wants out of the ride and are working towards meeting those goals to the best of your ability. “Riding for the rider” means you are focused on yourself and what you are hoping to get out of the particular ride.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Say you are riding a slightly jiggy, anxious horse. Your goal for the ride was to work on your 2-point on the flat and making your circles round and accurate. The horse is jiggy and anxious so clearly he needs exercises designed to help him relax and settle.

If you are riding for yourself you might ignore the fact that the horse is a bit anxious and go about your ride as you had originally planned. You work on your circles and keeping the horse in line, ignoring the fact that he is a bit hollow, quick, and above the bit.

If you are riding for the horse you might take a long warm-up asking the horse to stretch down and bend through the turns. You might do some circles asking him to bend through his ribcage and drift out into a stretch. Your circles probably won’t be very accurate, but eventually the horse will stretch down and relax into the contact.

Although in both of the examples above you worked on circles, the goal and approach was very different. In one you worked to improve the horse’s emotional and physical well-being and in the other you stayed focused on doing what you want.

In my mind, riding for the horse is good riding and riding for yourself isn’t, plain and simple. In fact, the whole point of being a better rider should be to be able to help the horse feel and go better, right?

It is great to have opportunities to work on our position and gain new skills, but it should never come at the expense of the horse. If I want to work on accurate circles I need to first make sure my horse is relaxed and moving correctly. Then I can move on to my agenda, checking in along the way.

If everyone rode this way we would see so many fewer angry, shut-down, scared horses being forced into servitude by their often ignorant riders. After all, when you are only ever taught to ride for yourself you don’t even understand what you are doing wrong. Even trainers ride this way, which is really the biggest failure of the system. Riders never learn to ride for the horse and then become trainers who still don’t know how to ride for the horse. Instead of riding for themselves they just start riding for the owners. They work on making the horse easy for the owner and working on the activities that are important for the owner. The focus is still thrown off the horse onto someone else.

Think about it for a minute. Who are you riding for?

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