Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Importance of Riding Well

The Importance of Riding Well

Riding well—it is so obvious, but so many, many trail riders don’t see the importance of it. Once they learn to stay in the saddle at all gaits, (a must for trail riding, of course) they think they are done. When I ride down the trail, I see so many poor riders, and it looks like they make no effort to improve themselves. Every other sport in the world of horses realizes the importance or good riding, why don’t we? I think this is one of the reasons that riders from other sports do not take trail riders seriously—because we don’t take riding seriously, ourselves.

The only difference between other riding sports and trail riding is that we don’t have judges awarding us to give us incentives. No one is handing out ribbons for excellent trail riding. When was the last time you had someone approach you and say that you trotted that last section of the trail in a lovely, balanced position? I never had it happen to me, either. Now, you are probably saying. “What difference does it make? We are only trail riding. ”

Whoa—did I hear you say we are only trail riding? Does that mean you truly think that riding crooked makes no difference at all? I would say that it makes more difference, as far as the good of your horse, than in a show ring.

Think about it. Carry an unbalanced backpack on your back for 20 minutes at all gaits while in a show ring, and then carry the same unbalanced pack on a 2-hour hike at all gaits and through all sorts of terrain. Tell me which will make you sorer at the end of the day. A well-balanced rider is essential to the comfort of her horse—no doubt about it.

Some people are born natural riders. You may have seen them yourselves. They may never have had a lesson, but sit lovely in the saddle without much effort. And then there are the rest of us…

I’m one of those people who have had to work very hard on my riding, and still, when I see pictures of myself on horseback, I cringe because I think I can do better than what I see. I am always reminding myself to pay attention to the way I am sitting. Photos and videos are very helpful in showing us how poorly we ride; but first, we need to know what to look for when we see the pictures.

Most of us were born a little crooked. Have someone take a picture of you riding from the back. Your shoulders and your hips should be level. If one shoulder is higher than the other and one hip is lower, you are lopsided. I often see people who are riding crooked, and I am sure they aren’t aware of it in the least. I often wonder how it could possibly be comfortable, but the human body just gets used to the status quo and changes feel awkward. A person’s shoulders will be crooked, not because there is anything wrong with their shoulders, but because their whole side is compressed on one side. The side with the lower shoulder needs to be straightened out.

Now, for your vertical alignment. This is a big one. All the riding books and riding instructors will talk about a shoulder-hip-heel alignment, but how many people work on keeping it while they are riding on the trail? For that matter, how many people realize how far off they are from the ideal? I cringe when I see someone shoving their heels forward as they sit back in the saddle. What do they think—that they are sitting on a chair and resting their feet on the footrest? A horse is not a recliner! Not even a gaited horse!

So now, you are wondering what the big deal is all about, after all, you are comfortable. If you ride like this, you are not in balance. You are putting undue stress on your horse’s spine because you are not carrying your own weight. Stress means pain, eventually. Is this what you want to do?00

If your saddle fits, yet your horse seems to have back pain, look to your riding. Does your horse get crabby after an hour or so of riding? Has he become fussy when you saddle him? If you run your hand in the area that the saddle sits on, does he flinch? You might hear tail swishing, your horse may not allow you to mount him without a fuss or he might act in a totally different way. Some horses just shut down. They simply don’t want to go along in a happy manner. If you ever rode a horse who truly enjoyed a trail ride, you would know the difference. How can a horse enjoy himself if he is sore?

If you want to post, it is harder to do if you are out of balance, and you may use the reins for support and not even be aware of it. Undoubtedly, you will not be landing lightly in the saddle, either. In the end, posting out of balance is harder on you, too. By being in balance, you can post lightly and the horse can easily push you back up. Imagine you are sitting on a stool with your feet in front of you as if you are sitting in a regular chair. If you want to stand up without using your hands for balance, you will need to move your feet so they are underneath your body. Why wouldn’t it be the same if you were posting.

Some horses are more tolerant than others. My horse, Mingo, is a very tough horse to ride in the arena because he expects you to be perfectly in balance. This is great for me because it keeps me aware of what I am doing in the saddle. He is a terrific feedback horse. On the trail, though, he will go the way your point him, and if you are satisfied with that, everything is fine. I wasn’t satisfied with that, though. I liked the way he trotted in the arena, better than the way he slowly jogged down the trail. I found that the only way to consistently get him to move nicely on the trail (if we were going away from home—towards home isn’t so much of a problem) was to ride him as carefully and precisely as I do in the arena. The day I realized that that is what he expected, I was riding all by myself, and I blurted out, “You’re kidding, Mingo, I have to do that here, too? ”

My sister and I have had some problems with Cruiser and Ranger. When we trot or canter towards home, they get a little hyper and try to turn it into a race. We have tried various things that have helped quite a bit, but we have also discovered that none of those things will work well unless we ride in what we call “the seat. ”If we can stabilize our bodies when they are flying down the trail in a mega-trot or a big canter, (not always an easy thing to do) we can get some semblance of control. Then we can keep the front horse from going so fast that he instigates a race, from slowing down to encourage the back horse to pass and to keep the horse in the back to stay where we want him and not challenge the front horse. Ideally, we will trot right next to each other at the same speed. There is no way we can do it on our two high-powered horses if we were flopping all around the saddle.

Now, what do can you do to help your riding? Of course, lessons are the first thing that comes to mind, but it isn’t always an option. There is always a chance that there are not any good instructors around you. I’ve sat in some crummy lessons in my time at the various boarding stables that I’ve kept my horses at over the years. Anyone can give lessons—that doesn’t mean they are worthwhile. Don’t waste your time if you don’t feel a person is qualified. There are two good ways to find out. Ideally, you can watch the instructor give a lesson to someone else. The instructor should be knowledgeable, patient and be able to explain concepts clearly. There are some very talented riders that can’t explain what they are doing. A good rider may not be a good teacher. Another good test is to watch the person ride. I have seen some very poor riders that give lessons. Good teaching cannot happen if the teacher can’t ride. That’s even worse than a good rider who is a bad teacher.

Another obstacle to taking lessons that some people have is the lack of proper facilities at their barn. There are plenty of people who don’t have a good riding area except for the trails. There are others who may have a good ring, but it is only dry enough 3 months out of the year. Other people may board their horses in places that don’t allow lessons. (There are a few in our area like that. )Maybe you could trailer your horse to a place where you can take lessons—but don’t have a trailer. Realistically, how can you take lessons if there is place to take them?

Then there is the cost. You may not be able to afford lessons. They can be very expensive. Owning horses is costly enough without adding another big bill. It is nothing in our area to pay $30.00-$40.00 per hour for a private lesson. To get real benefit from lessons, you can’t just take a handful. At that point, you are just getting warmed up

Stay tuned…next month I will give you tips on how to improve your trail riding skills.
Lessons about Horses Learned from Cats

I have had (not owned) cats all my life, and I just adore them. My current cat, Thunder, is a Mini Maine Coon Mix, and we are best buddies, to say the least. Whenever I am in the house, he is with me. If I am in a different room, for some reason, he calls for me. Silly me, I usually run to him to see what he wants. He has slept with me every night since I got him, too. Sure, he wanders off before dawn, but he often comes back bringing a toy with him.

Since I have spent so many years with cats, I have a pretty good idea what they are thinking and what they want. If Thunder holds his plume-like tail up in the air, he wants me to follow him. When he sits on his round pedestal, he is ready for bed. If he looks up at the microwave, he wants a toy. If he sits funny, he doesn’t feel good. Just call me the cat whisperer.

Well not really. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about how cats think. I started wandering about the internet. After some time, I finally found what I was looking for—some very good articles about cat behavior. I went right to the ones about body language. Most of it I already knew, but I was surprised to read that cats do not like direct eye contact. That is why a cat will walk into a room of people, go directly to the person who doesn’t like cats, and say hello. It is not because the cat knows about the person’s dislike for cats. It is because that is the only person not looking at him! All the cat lovers can’t take their eyes off the cat.

This got me thinking. The only time that Thunder acts a little out of character is at night. I put him on the bed, and he will sit there, looking at the floor for a couple minutes. I talk to him and rub him behind his ears. Eventually, he will curl up by my side and go to sleep. At other times, when he sits on my lap, he will purr himself to sleep, but not at night.

It was time to experiment. That night, I brought him upstairs, put him on the bed and I looked at him with half-closed eyes. He burst out in purrs! He ended up purring himself to sleep. This is how he has been ever since.

Now how does this apply to horses? First of all, it emphasizes how important body language is when working with other species. Ever try leading a horse by facing him and pulling the lead rope? Horses will go the direction that you are facing, not the direction you are pulling. (I have taught my horses to respond correctly to this, in case I have to lead them through a narrow place and I want to go first—you can too.) Try lounging and having your body in the wrong place or facing where your horse is coming from instead of where he is going. If your horse is reluctant to trot on the lounge line, try trotting yourself in place. The list goes on—just ask Kevin who is learning all of this for the first time with Starry. By the way, he is doing very well with lounging Starry, now.

This applies to horses in another way. Just because I had cats my whole life, it didn’t mean I couldn’t still learn something about them. It is the same thing with horses. We can’t stop learning if we want to be true horsemen and horsewomen. Now, I truly believe that the people who are reading this feel just that way—that’s why you signed up for my newsletter—to learn along with me.

Beware of the people who know it all. They often don’t know very much because they have decided they don’t need to learn anymore. If you hear someone say that he or she has been riding since the age of four, that doesn’t necessarily mean their advice is valid. Take all advice, even mine, with a grain of salt. Only until you have thought it through thoroughly, should you take it seriously. I have received and heard of other people receiving very bad, even dangerous advice from the so-called “experts” that have been into horses for years. Beware! ! !

Be smart, be safe and if you want your cat to purr, try looking at him with half-closed eyes.
Trail Training Newsletter – 97
February 2009

Dear Readers,

It has been a bad winter for us. Every now and then, I can take Mingo down to the frozen river and back. We have had a lot of snow, extreme cold and an icy driveway. Kevin rides the hill much more, since he is retired. Ellen has decided that she is better off working in the arena where it is warmer, and she can be more productive. (And she is—Ranger is doing better for her this year than ever. )I can’t ride Cruiser in the snow because he needs shoes to support his tendon. Last year, when I pulled his shoes, he reinjured his tendon, so it isn’t worth the risk to me, just to ride out in the snow and cold. That’s what Mingo is for!

Kevin had a bit of excitement while he was riding up and down the hill on Starry. There was at least a foot of snow on it, at the time. Someone was leading a horse down the river that Starry never saw before, and he became fixated. He wanted desperately to follow the horse up the hill. When Kevin wouldn’t let him, Starry decided to leap into the ditch by the side of the trail. He had his front legs in the ditch and started tilting to the side. The next thing Kevin knew, Starry brought his hind legs into the ditch, too. Now, Kevin wasn’t sure how he should handle the problem. While he was pondering the problem, Starry pivoted and took a big leap out. Kevin stayed in the saddle and was in a state of shock. All is well that ends well. Remember, when you aren’t sure what to do, sit still, hold on and maybe your horse will solve the problem for you.