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Canter Chronicles: The Things I’m Doing While I’m “just sitting there”

Every equestrian has heard it: “Horse riding isn’t a sport; the horse does all the work, and you just sit there”. Of course, we know it isn’t true.

We all know the aching legs and core that come after a good lesson, and we all know the long list of things we’re checking when we ride. But even though we know how much effort goes into riding, even equestrians don’t give enough credit to how challenging this sport is.

I’ve had a messy introduction to horse riding. I went through several yards and schools and lease horses before landing at ESC, and I started my equestrian journey with Western Mounted Games. All of this resulted in a poor foundation for riding, and I very quickly learned that my basics were severely lacking.

In making the shift from the games to dressage and jumping, I went through a rough patch in my riding. I was struggling to make progress, and it felt like every good lesson was met with three or four bad ones. After a particularly rough week, my instructor gave me a pep talk. She told me that riding is a difficult sport, and the reason it’s so difficult is that there are so many variables, and many of them are ones you can’t control.  

Maybe your body isn’t at its best, or the horse isn’t. Maybe the weather is acting up, or the ground is uneven. Maybe your head is in a bad space, and you can’t focus, or there is too much going on around you, and the horse isn’t focusing well. There can be a hundred different things happening that make this ride different from the rides before it, and, as a rider, you need to know how to work with – or around – each and every one of those variables.

She’s right, of course, and the more I investigated it, the more ‘things’ I discovered that could be impacting my riding. Recent research has shown that horses can read our facial expressions and that they respond to these by avoiding or drawing towards us. What’s more, is that they remember these facial expressions, and this will impact their emotional state while you’re working with them.

Horses sync their heartbeats to their riders the same way that they do with other horses in their herd. Perhaps more interestingly, they don’t do this equally well with all people – some horses and riders are simply never able to “sync up”, and the horses in these horse-rider combinations don’t perform as well athletically as those combinations where they are able to sync their heart rates.

That’s a lot of stuff that we can’t control, even when we go into a lesson with the best of intentions.

While I genuinely love Western Mounted Games, the criteria for good riding back then were “go fast and stay on”. When that’s all you have to do to be successful, it’s easier to take some of these other variables into account in a lesson. We never ran patterns together, so I never had to worry about other horses and riders during my lessons. I could focus my attention on keeping my balance, keeping my horse calm and, when it came time to do the run, going fast and staying on.

Now that I’ve moved to English riding, the criteria are very, very different. I found myself repeating a little mental checklist as I’m riding, trying to remind myself of all the criteria I need to get right in order to “get it right”: head up; shoulders open; elbows in (but soft); thumbs up; back straight; core engaged; sit back; knees open; leg back; keep your legs long; heels down; look where you’re going. Doubtless, I’ll get a message from my instructor adding something I forgot once this post goes live.

In any given moment, this mental checklist is also being interrupted by all the things that I’m actually doing (or going to do soon) to ask the horse to go where I want it to go or do what I need it to do. At the same time, I’m listening to what my instructor is telling me and responding to the things that the horse is doing that are out of my control or are unpredictable.

That mental checklist becomes peppered with reminders to half-halt, add leg, or add aids to ask for a huge variety of movements and transitions, all the while maintaining balance and going in the direction you’re planning on going.

If you’re jumping a course or riding a dressage test, you can add thinking about and setting up for the next step into the mix of things that a rider is thinking about and working on in any given moment.

Each week, it feels like new things are being added to the checklist. Coming from a riding environment with a very short checklist, this constant adding on of new things I’m getting wrong often left me feeling like I wasn’t making progress. But thinking about all the things we’re doing when we’re riding helped me realize that the opposite is true: we start off with “sit up” and “keep your heels down”. All that other stuff gets added on, bit by bit, as you get the stuff before it right.

At some stage, this will all become second nature, I know. But, for now, here’s a novice rider reminding you that you’re doing a lot more than just sitting there, and if your checklist feels like it’s growing, it’s only because the list of things you’re capable of has grown with it.

Author: Rochelle Jacobs