We all want to become better riders. Working with a good instructor is an important part of learning how, but it takes more than that. I’ve been taking riding lessons since I was seven years old. I’ve learned a lot in the last forty-plus years, but I’ve realized that the learning process - at least for me - is much more complicated than doing what my teachers tell me to do. Most of my lightbulb moments happen when I’m riding on my own, in between lessons, when the concept my instructor was trying so hard to explain suddenly makes sense - not just in my thinking, rational mind, but on a much deeper level.
Ulla Hudson, a teacher I respect, trust, and like.
I used to believe more was better when it came to instruction. I used to audit every clinic within a 50-mile radius from my barn. I used to spend every spare dollar I earned on lessons from anyone who had competed at higher levels than I had. I also constantly used visual feedback. When I worked at a dressage barn with a big indoor arena, I rode past the big mirror on the long side all day long on different horses, obsessed with what I saw there: were my heels down? My hands in the right place? Was my horse’s neck arched enough? His nose close enough to the vertical? Of course, my position was never correct enough, my horse’s trot never engaged enough. After I got off my last horse for the day, I would beat myself up about my flawed and sloppy riding all the way home, then the process would start over the next morning.
What did I learn by doing this? A lot. I worked with a couple of excellent mentors who helped me become a more effective, more correct, more educated, more compassionate rider and trainer. These teachers also helped me understand that dressage is more than the movements required in tests, more than a sport with ribbons and prizes, but a way of helping horses become the best versions of themselves physically and mentally. I will forever be grateful for these lessons.
Other things I learned were less helpful. For example, I learned to hold my breath while riding because I was trying so hard to keep all my body parts under tight control. I learned to worry all the time about not doing the movements right, about my horse not bending enough in the shoulder-in or not crossing his legs over far enough in the half pass. I learned to worry about not looking like a competent dressage rider should look. None of this made me a better rider.
Now, the older and hopefully wiser me works out of a barn with one small and pretty much useless arena mirror. I use video feedback as often as I can get it, but try to wait until I’m done riding for the day to watch these clips. I still take lessons, but only from teachers I respect, trust, and like - no one else, no exceptions.
I still believe that working with a good instructor is essential for good riding. There is no substitute for regular lessons, but I’ve learned the hard way that, while outside feedback is a wonderful thing, too much or the wrong kind can become counterproductive. Riding on my own is just as important because it allows me to hear the feedback from each horse.
Our goal is to become good riders, not passengers on horseback who know how to follow instruction. We ultimately want to develop feel and timing and wisdom. We can’t develop these qualities without the chance to listen to our horses, to experiment with the information we get from our mentors. Most of us need time and an anxiety-free space to process the knowledge we glean from others. We need to make their insights our own, to transform them from a string of words we understand intellectually, in our heads into something we know on a much deeper level - in our bodies, in our hearts, in our gut.
Learning how to ride is a process that happens in layers. It’s easy to memorize and repeat phrases we read in books or overhear at clinics. It’s much harder to physically do what our teachers tell us to do, to translate the theoretical concepts we hear and read about into some degree of effective communication with our horses. But the hardest thing by far is to understand how good horse-human relationships work on an intuitive level - to reach a place where we know exactly why we do what we do with each horse we work with, to know without really thinking about it when we need to do it, and how much of it, and when it’s time to stop. Feel and timing don’t get better when you try harder. Often, the opposite happens: these elusive concepts sneak up on you when you listen to your horse, when you're not really thinking at all. So yes - read the books, attend the clinics, take the lessons. Please do all of these things. But don’t forget to open yourself to the most valuable feedback: the feedback you hear from your horse.