10 Steps To Getting The Most From Your Schooling

Here’s a rundown of 10 schooling solutions to help you get the most out of your schooling session or riding lesson. Remember, when it all goes wrong in a schooling session, return to something your horse finds easy and finish on a good note.

1. Start a riding diary. Record your feelings, problems, goals and achievements after every lesson or schooling session. Write down which school movements or exercises solved particular problems and remember them for next time you encounter the same situation.

2. Arrive in plenty of time for your lesson. If you’re flustered, your horse will notice. He’ll assume that if you’re tense, he should be.

3. Warm up before you ride. No other athlete would consider training before a proper warm-up session. Some gentle leg and back stretches plus shoulder and hip rotations will loosen up stiff muscles. Allow your horse to do the same, begin gently and don’t make him work too hard, too soon.

4. If your mount is new to you, look at his conformation before you get on and try to guess what his problems may be. If he’s long-backed and gangly you may feel like you can’t ‘hold him together’ and steering may even be tricky.

Whereas if he’s short and stocky, his paces may be choppy and he’ll have problems stretching.

5. If you’re obsessed with getting your horse on the bit, forget about it. Concentrate on riding forwards, working on suppling exercises and getting him to respond to the lightest of aids.

6. Assess every horse every time you ride. Does he feel stiff to you (or stiffer than usual), how does he accept the rein contact, are his footfalls even? If necessary, adjust your schooling plans according to your observations. If you’re having a lesson at a riding school speak to your instructor about the horse, find out as much as you can about him and ask whether your assessment is accurate. Some horses will surprise you, so allow yourself to be flexible.

7. Here’s a great bit of equestrian advice from Suzanne Shaw from Equine insurance experts Bva.org.uk: “When it all goes wrong in a schooling session, return to something your horse finds easy or enjoys and finish on a good note”.

8. Everyone recommends transitions, but it’s because they work. Use lots of them. They stop your horse getting bored, get him listening to you, improve the quality of his paces and make you a better rider. Try making a transition at a specific point and work on accuracy, or count 10 strides of walk, then trot for 10 strides, then ask for a canter transition, and so on.

9. After a lesson on your own horse, ask your instructor for homework – it will give you ideas about what to work on when you’re alone.

10. Make a playlist to ride and sing along  to as you school. This can relieve tension and help you relax and breathe in time with his movement.

Using Your Body To Communicate With Your Horse

A rider influences the horse mostly through legs, reins and weight.

These actions should always be used together (they don’t work singly) and are called the aids. The legs and seat tend to be forward-driving aids while the reins (and sometimes seat) have a more restraining and guiding action.

Weight

To make your horse’s job easier, you need to be light and comfortable for him to carry. This means aligning your centre of gravity with your horse’s and allowing your body to move with your horse so you don’t disturb his rhythm or restrict his movement.

We’ve all had instructors yell at us to sit still and many people talk about a still and supple seat. In reality, a good rider is constantly moving as the pelvis swings to follow the horse’s movement. It just looks like they’re sitting still because they are moving with the horse and not restricting him due to their rigidity.

In walk, tense up your whole body and keep everything as still as possible your back, pelvis, legs, shoulders and arms. Don’t move a muscle. You should immediately notice a change in your horse’s way of going. He will find it difficult to move underneath you and may even grind to a halt. Now release the tension, imagine it flowing out of your body and allow yourself to become completely floppy and limp, almost to the point where you can’t stay in the saddle.

Again, your horse may not enjoy carrying you. Tense up once more and, this time, as you allow the tension to flow out of you, hold it when you feel comfortable and gently allow yourself to follow your horse’s movement. Direct your thoughts towards your hands are they giving and taking slightly as your horse’s head moves? Then concentrate on your pelvis is it moving with your horse’s back movement? Are your legs following the movement of your horse’s belly from side to side? You may look very still, but your body is in constant movement. So is your horse.

An exercise to try

If you have, or can borrow, a reliable horse, find somewhere safe and ride bareback. You don’t have to leave walk if you don’t want to. Try to feel your horse’s back muscles and footfalls under you as he walks and concentrate on how they influence your seatbones and pelvis with each step he takes. You should be able to tell as each foot hits the floor. Ask someone to lead you and try this with your eyes closed.

When you halt, without looking, try to feel where his feet are. Has he halted squarely or is one hindleg left behind? Then look and check if you need to. This exercise will make you aware of your horse’s movement and body. Once you’ve mastered this bareback, try it with a saddle.

Tip

As you become aware of your weight, try asking your horse to stop by momentarily tightening your back and abdomen muscles and clenching your buttocks. Don’t tense any other muscles or lean back. Repeat the aid for a couple of strides if necessary but return to normal as soon as he halts.

The Legs

Your legs control your horse’s legs. Use your leg aids to ask him to go forward or sideways and also to regulate sideways movement. In their normal position, your legs should be just behind the girth so your heel is in line with your hip. Think of your legs as a damp cloth wrapped around your horse’s belly, softly in contact with his side. As he walks and his belly swings, your leg will cause a slight pressure on his side. In a well-trained horse, this is enough to keep him moving.

Try this

If the horse you ride doesn’t respond when you use both legs at once to ask him to go forward. change your tactics. The best time to apply an aid is as the hindleg you want to influence leaves the ground. As you feel your horse’s belly swing, say to the left, briefly tighten your left calf muscle just as it begins to move away from your leg the same time that his left hindfoot is lifted off the ground. As your left leg relaxes and your horse’s body swings to the right, briefly tighten your right calf muscle as you feel the contact move away from your right leg.

To move sideways

You also need your legs to ask your horse to move sideways and forward. The aid is applied in the same way but behind the girth (around 10cm further back than normal).

The Reins

The reins hold impulsion, control speed and give direction, but only if used in conjunction with the other aids.

The ideal contact with the horse’s mouth has been compared to many different things but the simplest way to look at it is as if you have hold of something very precious and fragile. You need to keep it safe and secure, but not hold it so tight that you crush it.

To give a rein aid, close your fingers momentarily (think of squeezing a sponge) or, if necessary, turn the hand inwards slightly from the wrist. Then return your hand to its normal position.

Sometimes it’s necessary to open the rein. This aid is used in sideways movements and to ask your horse to bend, for example in turn on the forehand. Turn your hand slightly in at the wrist and move it a few centimetres from the neck, in the direction you want his head to go. Then return your hand to its normal position.

The Voice

Trainers hold widely varying views about the voice as an aid. There are those who believe that the voice is of little use and we should teach ourselves to understand the horse’s language and not expect him to understand ours. There are others who believe the voice is a useful tool, and that horses respond well to tone of voice and can even be taught to recognise certain words.

It is true that many horses seem to respond well to a soothing voice as praise, but take care that you only use it when praise is due. It’s easy to fall into the trap of inadvertently praising him at the wrong time and that could easily confuse him!

An exercise to try

On the lunge, or with a friend leading you, knot your reins and circle your arms slowly backwards two or three times. As they return to your sides on the third time, tense your hands, arms and shoulders as hard and you can, hold for 10 seconds and then release.

Now circle (shrug) your shoulders down and back to get rid of any remaining tension. Carry your hands as if you were holding the reins (but don’t pick them up) and, each time you feel your arms tensing, repeat the exercise.

If you’re confident, try trotting (rising and sitting) and cantering without holding the reins when you’re on the lunge.

Tips

  • Used the lightest aid possible to achieve your goal and always start with a light aid and increase pressure if necessary, rather than beginning strongly. If a strong aid is needed, return to light pressure as soon as your horse proceeds.
  • If your horse does not respond to the rein aid, don’t be tempted to pull back or fix your hands. Simply release the aid and try again, fractionally stronger. Repeat this until he understands and then praise him.
  • Don’t ever clamp your legs to your horse’s side in an attempt to get him to move forward – it will have the opposite effect!

How The Horse Learns

Understanding how your horse responds to the aids is vital for riders.

The horse is an intelligent animal. He’s adaptable, sensitive, quick and willing to learn. He just needs us to tell him what we want him to do in a way that he can understand. Until recently. scientists believed that animal learning was confined to conditioning (see below) but many now accept that horses are also able to absorb information in other ways and learn complex tasks (something riders have always known!).

Horses can also learn to modify their instinctive behaviour. For example. a good trainer can teach a horse to approach an unfamiliar or frightening object, when instinct tells him to flee.

Conditioning

Conditioning is where a stimulus provokes a response – such as bright light and blinking. Unlearned responses like this are called unconditional reflexes. Conditioning also happens by means of reinforcement or reward. For example, a trainer asks the horse to walk on by giving a leg aid. As the horse moves, the leg pressure is immediately reduced this is the reinforcement. Quickly the horse learns that legs mean go forward and as soon as the horse does this he is rewarded (the pressure is released).

If the legs are clamped to the horse’s side, there is no reward and the aid will not become conditioned. The horse will not walk forward because he won’t understand what is being asked. As training progresses, these aids are refined and the horse learns that a leg aid In a slightly different place means go sideways, but the theory remains the same.

When the required response is achieved, there has to be some reinforcement or reward. Other examples of reinforcement include giving tit-bits when the correct response is gained, or praising either with a pat or the voice.These are sometimes referred to as positive reinforcements.

Punishment

Punishment is not a productive tool for teaching horses. Training using punishment is based on fear and submission and does not make for a happy relationship. It’s also very difficult to get the timing of the punishment right. We’ve all seen the confused expression on a horse’s face when his rider hits him as they’re leaving the arena after a disastrous show jumping round he has no idea what he’s done wrong because the punishment is late and the poor soul has probably associated it with something he thinks is right every other day of the week.

Over the next few articles, you’ll find advice to improve your horse’s schooling. Use your knowledge about how horses respond to the aids to get the most from this information and become a better rider. Every time you give an aid ask yourself: “Did l make my request perfectly clear, have I rewarded or reinforced my aid?”

Remember

  • It’s important to be consistent with your training and riding. Always praise the right response and don’t change the goalposts.
  • Be positive and authoritative. Lack of confidence will confuse your horse.
  • Allow your horse the time he needs to digest and understand your request – his instinct is to run from trouble, not stand around trying to figure it out, so be patient.

10 Tips To Becoming A Better Rider

Horses can’t talk. Of course, it sounds obvious, but so many of us forget this when we’re around them. The only way a horse can tell us something is by his actions. Whether he’s relaxed, happy, frightened or in pain, he’ll try to communicate this in the only way he can.

A good rider constantly strives to understand this and learn his language. The art of good riding is seeing things from the horse’s point of view.

You don’t have to be an owner to be a good rider so don’t worry if you don’t have your own horse. Riders who regularly ride at riding schools or on borrowed horses are often more adaptable and confident on different horses than those who get used to only ever riding the same animal.

Also, if you don’t have the financial constraints of horse ownership, there’s often more money available for valuable lessons, lectures and demos. When horse owners get strapped for cash, it’s often that all-important training session with a good instructor that falls by the wayside.

Finally, good riders come in all shapes and sizes and ride in varying styles. Mark Todd, Michael Peace and Lester Piggot are all top-class horsemen – although they’re all very different.

How To Be A Good Rider

  1. Ask yourself why you ride and why you enjoy horses. Does it challenge you? Do you thrive on the adrenaline of speed or competition, or do you just love hacking?
  2. Once you’ve established your reasons for riding, it’s easier to keep your goals within your level of enjoyment.
  3. Set yourself a riding goal and consult your instructor about the steps you should take to achieve it.
  4. Don’t let anyone persuade you to do something that makes you uncomfortable or goes against your instincts. It could shatter yor confidence.
  5. Question everything you’re told, but dismiss nothing. Don’t blindly accept advice from friends, instructors, books or magazines because you think it’s someone more knowledgable. Think it through and ask yourself whether the logic is sound.
  6. Don’t worry about your mistakes – everybody makes them. See them as an excellent opportunity to learn.
  7. Find out as much as you can about how the horse’s mind works and how he thinks. Understanding his nature is the key to a great partnership.
  8. Get yourself fit to ride. You owe it to your horse to be supple and well balanced and he’ll find a fit rider much easier to carry. If you have a fairly inactive lifestyle, this could mean taking up jogging or going to the gym. Yoga and Pilates classes also benefit riders as they improve balance.
  9. Ride as many different horses as you can – especially if you have your own faithful mount on whom you feel safe. Have a lesson at a riding school or swap horses with a friend for a hack.
  10. Book a lunge lesson and ask the instructor to spend half an hour working on you, not the horse. This will do wonders for your position, balance and flexibility.
  11. Get yourself an idol! Choose a rider you really admire and study their riding style and try to fathom what makes them so great. It could be a jockey, show jumper, dressage champion or eventer depending on your preference – they’re all good, just different. Image that you’re riding like your hero and try to deal with situations as they would. You’ll find yourself sitting taller, smiling broadly and your confidence will soar!

A Good Rider…

Appreciates that a horse is a flight animal and will naturally want to run or shy from perceived threads.

Understands that punishing a horse for his natural reactions is futile.

Praises the horse’s efforts regularly and forgives his mistakes (just as he does you).

Treats all horses as individuals and knows their limits.

Is aware of their own body and its effect on the horse.

Is calm, patient, observant and prepared to spend time learning.