I classify myself as a dressage rider looking to make it to the highest level of the sport. But I spend most of my time teaching clinics all over the U.S. and Canada and run a pretty sizeable training program out of my homebase in Marshall, Virginia.
In any particular year I teach about 200 riders, from green to grand prix, from beginner novice to the international levels of eventing, and the occasional hunter, Western, endurance, gaited, sidesaddle, or driving rider mixed in for good measure. No matter the level, discipline, breed, type, age, or ability, I spend about 75% of my time working on the same monotonous, yet common rider mistakes that come back to haunt my everyday teaching career. But because of these issues that riders come to me to fix, I’m able to pay my mortgage, my vet and farrier bills, and most of my show entries every. single. month. And I know I’m not alone.
So if you’d like your trainer to be forced to get a night job to make ends meet, as you will no longer be paying off their college loans by working on the same damn things as everyone else, begin working on this list:
1. Stop hanging on the inside rein.
Hanging on the inside rein pulls your horse off balance. And if you’ve been an inside-rein-hanger for awhile, your horse is probably quite good at being crooked to compensate for you. So when you say, “But Lauren, when I let go of my inside rein, my horse ricochets into outside flexion!” that is a sign not that you need to keep pulling on the inside rein to keep your horse straight, but rather that you’ve trained him to ignore that inside rein and maintain straightness on his own. It’s time to hit reset and teach your horse to carry himself in a relatively straight line without your assistance. And if you do it on your own, you don’t have to give me your money to tell you to do it.
2. Use your muscles to sit down, not gravity.
While beautiful Charlotte Dujardin and beautiful Laura Graves look like they’re just sitting pretty up there, I can assure you that they are not. They are using their incredibly strong cores to hold themselves in their tack, and in doing so, they are able to influence their horse with more subtle aids and stay out of their horses’ ways, rather than perching forward, grabbing with the knee, shutting the back down, and otherwise being a hindrance to your dance partner. This is, in fact, a sport. You’re going to have to use some muscle if you want to get anywhere, and if your abs aren’t burning by the end of every lesson you take on learning to sit the trot, you need to dig in and give it more effort.
Photo by Susan Stickle.
3a. If your horse is lazy, take your leg off, then reapply.
The heirs to the Herm Sprenger company must have fat college funds based on the number of big honking spurs I see on riders. Rather than contribute to their investment portfolio by investing in even bigger, hairier rowels, try removing your leg, then reapplying your leg. If you grip and grip and grip a horse who’s inclined to be a little uninspired by the leg, your leg becomes like the browband, a thing he acknowledges when you first put it on, and then promptly forgets about. Refresh the aid. Make the baby Sprengers get summer jobs mowing lawns if they want to go to Harvard.
3b. If your horse is hot, apply your leg, and don’t take it off.
That said, if your horse reacts to your leg like you’ve fired a cannon at his side, it’s time to make him feel like your leg is a browband, a thing that is a normal and acceptable part of life, rather than a five-alarm fire. Give him a hug with your calves and don’t stop. If he runs off, make him slow down without removing the leg. When he finally takes a chill pill about the leg, move your leg around; be a little sloppy sliding and flopping it about until he can accept the leg without having a fit. Acceptance of the aids: it’s a thing. And the more you teach your horse to deal with it before I’m in the room, the less time we get to spend on that, and the more time we get to spend on other fun things.
4. Shorten. Your. Reins.
Long reins are untidy, ineffective, and immediately noticeable. Just do it.
5. Stop staring at your horse’s head.
While your horse is, I’m sure, very pretty, you can stare at him on your own time. When you look down, it throws off your balance, which is bad for your back (hello, Quasimodo!), bad for your horse’s balance, as well as making you a hazard in the warmup at a busy horse show because you’re going to cause a 10-horse pile-up if you’re not looking up at the world around you. If you can’t tell whether your horse is on the bit unless you stare at his neck, we need to talk. And by the way, you folks who spend a lot of time sitting at a desk staring at a computer for work? Invest in a standing desk or an exercise ball. You can render both your trainer and your chiropractor less employed all at once!
6. Just give it a try.
This is a true story: a client recently said to me, “You know, you’ve been telling me for a while now to give my inside rein to make my horse straight to the outside rein, and every time you tell me, I think to myself, ‘Well, THAT can’t be right.’ Today I tried it, and it made him so much straighter!” When your instructor tells you to do something, even if it’s something out of your comfort zone, give it a whirl. Just try it. Because you know what’s going to happen if you overdo it, if you do too much in the opposite direction of the way you’re currently doing something? Probably not much. It’s unlikely that the polar ice caps will melt or that Canada will invade Michigan if you sit too hard, apply too much inside leg, ask for too much leg yield, or lean too far back. Don’t be afraid to swing the pendulum of any particular bad habit the other direction.
And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t stop to tell me that I’m wrong. Because then I won’t be unemployed — you’ll be fired!
Read this next: Roll Call: Who Else Has Nerves?
Feature photo by AK Dragoo Photography.