How to you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. But it’s not quite that simple. Because there are lots of people out there riding horses, every day, hours a day, who aren’t as good as others who ride one horse, four days a week, in lessons. And others still are getting lots and lots of mileage in on a horse who is limited, either because of his talent or education, or because said horse is SO beautifully trained that it’s advancing the rider along without the rider really understanding what’s going on.
I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to keep my students advancing. It’s a multi-variable problem, because there are limits to most humans’ time and funds. But there are ways it can be done, even without a vast piggy bank to draw from.
The first challenge we come up to is this: horses are not soccer balls.
Let’s say that Sally has a terrific horse, sound of mind and body, appropriately educated for her level of riding, and with a cheerful disposition. She’s also got a great trainer with whom she can take a lesson every day. If Sally does so, Sally will ride a lot. But Sally doesn’t know as much as her horse, and so every day that Sally rides her horse, her horse works at Sally’s level. Over time, the horse will become less sharp, less muscularly developed, and less able to give Sally good answers, because Sally isn’t yet educated enough to keep her horse in tune. It’s not reasonable to expect our schoolmasters to maintain their training without occasionally being retrained by a more skilled rider. And for those who are learning along with their horses, it’s a “blind leading the blind” problem - the horse benefits greatly from occasional training rides, to show them the path up the levels, and they’re then better able to help their owners learn too. Horses aren’t soccer balls that are the same each day even if you’ve had an absolutely garbage practice the day before.
But every day the trainer rides is a day the owner can’t, and saddle time is, quite simply, the best way to learn how to be in the saddle. What’s an owner to do?
One option is to ensure access to multiple horses. “Oh sure,” I hear you saying, rolling your eyes. “Lauren says I just need to go out and buy more horses! Of course, why didn’t I think of that?” I know, I know. But while certainly owning multiple horses is a great option, for those with those financial resources, ownership isn’t the only way to riding. There are horses out there for lease. There are trainers out there who desperately need some barn help, and can trade rides for work. If you’re a young and unencumbered person, consider a working student position, where you will not get rich, but you will learn how to ride (amongst other important things).
Another great learning technique? Watch and listen. My students often listen in on others’ lessons. I run a busy program with horses and riders of all levels, so there’s always something going on. Watch the exercises that a trainer uses with their students. Watch how the student improves when the trainer asks them to go more forward, instead of just trundling along. And listen to the words the trainer uses, to see which resonate with you. While I don’t miss the days of screeching over other trainers in a crowded warmup, gone because of the invention of the electronic headset, I do miss being able to hear my trainer friends give lessons at shows, because I’d usually pick up one or two clever catchphrases I could bring home to my own students.
Working on your mental game can be a great way to make progress. Try the free "Take Back Your Power" series here.
The internet can also be helpful, but remember that context is important - in a video online with a random stranger, you don’t know anything about that horse and rider, or what their story is. And for the love of all that’s holy, stay away from the comments section. Consider the source of everything you watch or read. And remember that there are virtually no universal truths in horses: “X is an unfair piece of equipment that should never ever be used!” or “if your horse is doing Y behavior it’s because you’re doing it wrong!” might seem wise, but sometimes it’s totally called for to think outside the box in training, when done by skilled and compassionate hands.
And lastly, whether you’re riding or not, you’re still an athlete. On the days my students don’t ride, the good ones hit the gym, even if it’s for something low-impact like yoga or pilates. Core strength is everything. I can tell when my students have been skipping their planking! And here the internet is brilliant, because YouTube is chock full of free workout videos for all levels of strength, condition, and time.
Riding is certainly the best way to get good at riding. But there are some ways to make up the time that you can’t be in the tack.