Riding new horses is definitely a mental game. People get nervous, and if you’re not riding different horses every day, you’re not going to be prepared to get on something you don’t know. Part of that discomfort, unfortunately, is just something you have to ride through.
In a practice setting, I have my girls ride a different horse every single day to get them used to every kind of horse that’s thrown at them — whether it’s a hot horse, a ‘dead head,’ or something in between. That’s definitely where we start in practice, and part of that means pushing them a little bit, even when they’re uncomfortable.
Maybe they’re kind of a hot rider, and when they are on a hot horse, they feel like they are getting him or her even more worked up. Usually, I’ll try to find the most difficult horse for a particular rider and make her ride that horse more often. They don’t like that, but it’s kind of the best way. My riders also have their favorite horses and I also don’t let them ride those horses as often as they might like.
One thing that people don’t realize about being on a new horse is that it’s good to use your time to sort out some mistakes.
The first thing I’ll tell my riders when they’re on a new horse they don’t know, whether it’s in practice or competition, is to work on the flatwork and see how much you can push this horse. How much step does it have? How much can you lengthen it and how quickly can you get it back and collected underneath you? It’s about working on those transitions, forward and back, and seeing what kind of horse you’ve got.
Once a rider feels comfortable (and once I feel they’ve figured the horse out on the flat), we’ll usually start jumping small — just some cavaletti. We don’t do anything big until I feel that they are comfortable in a practice setting. We’ll do a lot of forward lines, short lines, and bending lines, so they kind of get their horse figured out over jumps.
In a competition setting, it’s a little bit different. When we’re at an away school where we might not know all the horses, the way it’s set up is that we get to watch the horses being schooled for 30 minutes. During that time, I’ll ask the girls, "Hey, who does this horse remind you of from home?" So then, just by watching it, they can start mentally thinking about who the horse they’re riding is like and how they would ride that particular horse in a practice setting. When they get on the new horse, they only have four minutes to get to know it, so obviously, that’s a really quick turnaround time. I always tell my riders not to be afraid to make mistakes in those four minutes. You’re supposed to — otherwise, you’ll never figure out the quirks and the buttons you can push.
During those four minutes, we’ll work on a lot of the same things as we would at home: two minutes of flatwork, pushing the horse forward, bringing him back, and then seeing what kind of transitions you’ve got. Testing out the lead change and the different parts of your flatwork. Then, we get to jump four jumps in those four minutes, so we’ll mix them up and do two verticals and two oxers.
One thing people don’t realize about being on a new horse is that it’s good to use your time to sort out some mistakes. I know that everyone wants to be perfect, obviously, but if you’re not going to make the mistake in those four minutes — or when you have some warm-up time at home — then it’s most likely going to happen in your competition round or when it matters, so you’d much rather get it over with.
Part of that discomfort, unfortunately, is just something you have to ride through.
It’s great to gain experience riding new horses (even if it’s difficult!), and especially if your goal is to eventually ride on a college team. When I’m recruiting, I’m looking for girls who are kind of that ‘catch rider.’ In my mind, that’s sometimes even better than the medal finals winner who is on the same horse every day. I’m definitely looking at a variety of girls, but I love hearing that they’re catch riding a horse and they’re showing it right away.
The bottom line is, you just have to have confidence in yourself and in whatever horse that you’re on. Part of that is about knowing that all the practice you’ve done at home, especially while riding different horses, has you prepared to be successful on something new.
Abby O’Mara is the Hunt Seat Coach at Texas A&M University. In her first year with the Aggies, she led them to a 15-4 record in Equitation over Fences. A four-year letter winner herself from Georgia, Abby earned two NCEA All-America honors and two All-SEC selections in Equitation over Fences.
Photography by Tori Repole.