with Patrick King
Regardless of discipline, preferred breed, or level of training, some riders consistently improve themselves and their horses while others languish. The degree of success can be measured by the habits the riders form; great horsemanship comes down to a series of great habits. Amongst the riders that aren’t making improvements or are struggling with their horses, these habits are usually lacking in some capacity. Here are 10 habits that you can start adding to your horsemanship today that will help you to find consistent improvement.
Habit 1: Equitation
Many riders think that equitation is just about “sitting pretty” on their horse or as simply another class at a horse show, yet this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Equitation refers to the rider’s position and ability to communicate correctly and effectively with their aids. As Charles DeKunffy, noted dressage master, states it: “Horses are born knowing how to be horses. Riders are not born knowing how to be riders.” Alignment, tact, timing, and sensitivity are major pieces to our equitation – and we are wise to make a habit of being mindful of this and working to improve with every ride.
Habit 2: Improving Fitness
Riding is an athletic endeavor and having a regular routine for fitness is going to be very important in improving horsemanship skills. Fitness programs which incorporate practices with a focus on balance, coordination, and core-strength such as yoga and pilates will improve equitation. Increasing our flexibility, muscle control, and tone through stretching and basic fitness will allow us to use our aids more effectively and will contribute a great deal to the improvement of our equitation. We are asking our horses everyday to give the best of themselves to us – shouldn’t we offer the same thing back to them?
Habit 3: Ambidexterity
Ambidexterity is the skill of using both sides of our body equally – and that’s important for helping our horses to use both sides of their body equally. Making it a habit to balance our tasks is important to our horse’s balance. Saddling from both sides, mounting and dismounting from both sides, leading from both sides, haltering and bridling from both sides is a great habit. Making a conscious effort to start to work with our horses in both directions evenly will help us to keep our horse more balanced.
Habit 4: Dressing the Part
Dressing the part is important. Riders should wear appropriate riding clothing such as breeches, jeans, riding boots, and properly fitting helmets. Ill-fitting clothing and untucked shirts can result in a rider’s getting caught on the saddle horn or grab-strap.
Habit 5: Organization of our tools
Another important habit that is common with great riders and horsemen that I know is the organization of their tools. They handle their lead ropes neatly while they use them, not bundled in a wad in their hands like and handful of spaghetti. The same is true of their reins, lunge lines, ropes, bridles, whips, training sticks, and saddle pads they may use for whatever reason. There’s a preparation that is always in place with this kind of coordination – they are always ready for use and adjustment as necessary. Similarly, when not in use, they are neatly hung in preparation for the next time they are needed, rather than left in a pile or tangled mess. We should all keep such a habit of keeping our tools organized and ready for their next use.
Habit 6: Cleaning and Conditioning Your Tack/Gear
I am always telling my students to take care of your gear as if your life depends on it – because it does! This means regular oiling of their leather, washing or scrubbing of any non-leather gear, bits and other tools. Sweat, dirt, dust, slobber, and weather conditions can damage your tack and gear. The number one reason for broken leather and other tack is dry-rot and damage to stitching that routine care would have prevented (which also means money saved by not needing to replace your gear as frequently).
Habit 7: Consistent Expectations
Our communication with our horses relies on our ability to maintain consistency in our expectations of them. Many riders get by with excuses of “that’s good enough this time” or “well, there was ‘this or that’ distraction” or “I’m in a hurry, so that’ll do for now”. Without maintaining consistent expectations for our horse, we leave the horse to guess at what we want from each request. Make consistency a habit. If its “good enough” this time, it will need to be “good enough” next time. Make it a point to decide what you will accept, and stay consistent with that.
Habit 8: Preparing for What’s Next
Great riders and horsemen are always riding ahead, in their mind. They are always planning and preparing for what’s coming up next with their horse – both in an immediate sense (riding and preparing for the next maneuver or obstacle) as well as in the long-term sense (building today’s work in preparation for longer-term goals that we might have for our horse).
There’s the old adage that “the fastest way to dig a crooked furrow is to turn around to see if it’s straight.” In other words, don’t worry about the move that just happened – it’s too late to change that. Always be preparing for what’s coming up next so that you can be better prepared with your aids and so that your horse understands what is coming up. One of my mentors, Ray Hunt, used to say “when it’s time to act, it’s too late to prepare.” Make it a habit to always be preparing for what’s coming next so that we are ready when we get there.
Habit 9: Releasing on the Effort
It’s the release of our aids that tells the horse that he is on the right track. We should release our aids when the horse is getting ready to do the right thing in order to help the horse to develop confidence in his own decisions. We help him to find the idea and then we soften the aids. This softening helps the horse to hunt for an understanding inside of our aids when he makes his effort toward what we’re asking of him. The result of this will be the horse getting softer with each request, understanding us more, and putting up more effort from less aiding on our part. Make it a habit to soften your aids when your horse puts effort towards what you’re looking for.
Habit 10: Continuous Learning
Never rest on your past knowledge or experience. Especially in a time when science, technology, and philosophy are all coming together within the horse world to expand our knowledge more and more each day. Within the areas of nutrition, training, tack fit, biomechanics and more, we are so much farther along in our understanding now than we have ever been… but we have to actively seek this knowledge out. We should all remain eternal students of the horse. Make it a habit to constantly be seeking more knowledge, skills, and experiences so that you can become the best possible rider and horseman you can be.
By incorporating these 10 habits into your horsemanship today, it is guaranteed that you will find consistent and continuous improvement. Maybe you’re already employing all of these habits already. If so, that’s fantastic! If not, now is the time to start.
Do you have other habits that contribute to your success as a rider/horseman? Leave us a comment to tell us about them!