Good Riders are Educated Riders
I think of good riding as having three main ingredients: a good seat, a lot of feel, and a coherent system of training based on solid theory. All good riders have a balanced, effective seat. All good riders are in tune with their horses. They all have that quiet, elusive quality called feel. But in addition, really good riders are educated riders. While feel and a good seat alone will make it easy for you to get your horse to do what you’re asking, you have to know what to ask for, and when, and why. You can’t help your horse become a balanced, happy athlete for the rest of his life without a thorough understanding of how to get there.
Von Reminics Athena - a happy, balanced, competitive athlete in her mid-teens and living proof that dressage is good for all horses.
It is, of course, possible to teach a horse to respond to almost any set of cues. I have ridden western pleasure horses taught to do a spur stop, i.e. the harder you dig into their sides with rowel spurs, the slower they go. I have ridden gaited horses trained to go faster when their rider pulls straight back on both reins of a long-shanked curb bit. I have ridden dressage horses who feel like they would fall down without heavy, constant rein contact. I have ridden show horses who warm up in draw reins or tight martingales until five minutes before they enter the ring, then maintain the frame they were forced into for long enough to survive and even win their class. I have worked with trail and endurance horses who have learned that the only way to slow down is a one-rein stop while ignoring their rider’s gripping legs or a bouncing seat. These ways of training a horse are dead ends: they may work, at least for a while, for specific purposes in specific situations. They may even lead to some degree of competitive success, but they are not part of a larger riding tradition with the long-term goal of improving a horse’s long-term physical and mental well-being. They do nothing to even out a horse’s lateral or longitudinal imbalance. Eventually, these dead-end methods lead to harsh corrections, mutual frustration, broken-down horses, or broken-down horse-rider relationships.
A coherent system of training, on the other hand, can help a horse develop into a more and more willing partner as time goes by. A coherent system of training promotes longevity, because it respects the horse’s physical and mental development while building the kind of muscles tht make carrying a rider more comfortable. Classical dressage, ranch-type western riding, working equitation, and probably a few other equestrian traditions I am not familiar with belong in this category. They all have important things in common: a long history, a body of theory, a gradual evolution that continues, and generations of master equestrians who serve as role models. All long-standing traditions of horsemanship also have a lot more in common with each other than most people realize, so which one you choose is ultimately less important than your willingness to learn.
But how do we learn? How can we avoid getting lost in the jungle of information about horses and horsemanship? It’s not as simple as repeating what someone else is saying. Educating ourselves means taking lessons, attending clinics, reading books, watching videos, watching other riders, thinking a lot, recognizing the dead ends mentioned above, and asking lots of questions. It means finding trustworthy, knowledgeable mentors who guide us and allow, even encourage us to ask these questions. It means examining and re-examining the answers we get. It means putting the theory we study into practice on actual horses, because if it doesn’t work, we’ve either misunderstood it, or it’s faulty. Because of all this, education in the horse world is not a simple, straightforward process. It’s complicated, even messy
It's so simple. It's so complicated. No, this is not a contradiction.
To avoid the inevitable phases of confusion that are a part of any true learning experience, many of us feel tempted to choose and then blindly follow a training method, or worse, a guru figure, like some popular teacher, or a winning competitor. Don’t do it. It’s a shortcut. Like all shortcuts, it can be satisfying for a while, but won’t lead to lasting results. Above all, be extremely wary of systems and methods named after a single person. Traditions of horsemanship take a lot more time to evlove than the few short decades that make up one human lifespan. True horsewomen and horsemen know this. Rather than claiming to have reinvented the wheel, they humbly acknowledge that they stand on the shoulders of those who came before them.
Lastly, a coherent system of training is not, ever, a cookie-cutter solution that fits all horses, all the time. Riding traditions are based on clear values and principles, but they still respect each horse as an individual. A training system that has evolved over centuries is, by definition, not random. On the other hand, it’s not rigid dogma, either. It can’t be. Horses are living beings, not robots with buttons we can push. Good riders are sensitive to what their horse needs at any given moment. I respect the training scale of classical dressage, yet realize it is not set in stone. It’s a set of guidelines, with certain limits and exceptions. Its principles are valid for all horses, yet their exact interpretation varies from horse to horse, depending on conformation, training history, and temperament.
A few of my favorite books.
Are you confused yet? If so, You're not alone. I’ve been a student of horsemanship for almost 40 years. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. There’s only one thing we can do: embrace the process, with all its loose ends and untidy edges. From there, we can look forward to moments of clarity that become more frequent over time. So, read the books. Watch the videos. Find a mentor, or two. Ask the questions. Educate yourself. Your horse will thank you.