Horse-riding and equestrianism is addictive. Like many sports, once you are set on improving your skills or aspire to be ‘good’ at it, it is very difficult to walk away and admit you can’t do it. So, to avoid being defeatist, any spare time is spent honing skills, receiving coaching, purchasing equipment to maximise your effectiveness and attending events to see how the pros do it.
This is true whether the sport is tennis, football, curling or athletics. The difference with equestrianism is the addition of the horse. So the skill lies in how you can get the very best out of a horse by the use of your legs, seat, hands and brain. The brain is required to establish the training method that will suit that particular type of horse. It also takes a significant amount of sensitivity on the part of the rider to notice when a horse is out of sorts or on edge and to adopt calming tactics to placate the horse’s nervous energy. There have been many instances of world-class horses having ‘an off day’.
As a result, there are many elements of learning in equestrianism. From the basics of how to ride and defy gravity by staying on to communicating the aids for movements in advanced dressage or the best approach to a ‘dog-leg’ distance in a show-jumping competition. Then there is the welfare of the horse and how to care for it when it is not being ridden. There is a plethora of information and advice on how to manage grass turn-out through to identifying common ailments and symptoms for potentially fatal health problems such as colic. Riders also need to consider the psychology of the horse, how to ensure it has a positive experience when loading into a horse-lorry or trailer, how to combat bad habits such as napping, rearing and bucking. They may also need to know how to tow a horse-trailer or drive a lorry. A person who demonstrates good horsemanship has a sound knowledge of each of these elements.
Therefore a Sunday afternoon trip to an hour’s jumping coaching session is quite a serious undertaking in: preparing and loading a horse for transit, packing tack and other sundries (incuding first-aid) and feed and water, successfully and safely driving horse and trailer to the venue and back and then, during the session, absorbing everything the coach is saying about the horse’s way of going and your riding style and reacting quickly to each remark to make improvements. That was my experience this afternoon (although the owner of the horse did all the transporting part – I just had to turn up and ride). I have ridden for 25 years and competed at a novice level at a handful of events with all the passion and enthusiasm I can muster. I have lost count of how many horses and ponies I have ridden over the years and how many lessons I have had from different levels of instructor – from dressage judges to entry level British Horse Society instructors. Yet today I felt that all of that was just and experience that had not sunk in and I was back to square one trying to encourage a bit more energy in a thoroughbred horse’s action by doing a bit of trot, a bit of canter and going over some trot poles. A few years of riding horses that err on the side of laid back has skewed my riding position into a bad habit with an ineffective backwards seat in a poor attempt at driving them forwards with my bum. My fingers have been loosely holding onto longish reins losing any front action that I managed to help generate. In short I was crap today. What’s worse was I was crap in front of the horse’s owner and her friends (they were meant to be in the school too with a youngster who wouldn’t even enter the school) so the spotlight was on me. The session was good as the instructor (BSJA) identified basic riding errors that I should have seen myself. The session was crap because I didn’t jump in what was meant to be a ‘jumping’ lesson. Often she started her sentences with “When you were a child being taught to ride…” like my riding was of the level of a five year old (further inward groaning).
So I feel like all that experience has gone to waste because I have had a couple of years ‘off and on’ with horses owing to babies and time and money commitments.
This is why top olympic level riders are so much older than the typical olympian. It takes years to master good horsemanship because you are only as good as the horse you are riding yet it is down to the rider to get the very best out of the horse. Some riders have a natural flair for it, others, like me, don’t and have to try and do it by will, commitment and determination. Unlocking talent in a horse has got to be one of the most satisfying achievements in equestrianism, whether amateur or professional. That is what makes equestrianism so special. We are all striving for that Eureka moment and I will be working at that for the rest of my life.
To ride at your best you have to be constantly critical of your riding position to ensure the horse has freedom to enhance movement. To do this takes a sound knowledge of how a horse moves combined with a significant repertoire of training strategies. This is what makes equestrianism so fascinating and horse-riding so addictive.
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Thanks for reading.