I’m sure you all have heard the saying…
The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.
Horseback riding is no different. With so many different disciplines, horses, riders, trainers, personalities, and teaching/learning styles the sport of horseback riding has more knowledge than most people will be able to obtain in a lifetime. Every rider will have peaks and valleys, struggles and triumphs. Weaknesses and strengths. Their horses will have good days and bad years. You’ll have layups and layoffs. Trainers and horses will come and go. You may change disciplines. You may have taken 10 years off from riding. You may have learned how to ride in your own back yard or at the top facilities in the state. But no matter what your background is or where you got your start or education/training, what every rider can always relate to are those moments in time where something just makes so much sense that a lightbulb goes on. They take two steps forward. Break through a barrier. Take their riding to the next level because they finally got over the mountain that was standing in their way. Some things you’ll struggle to learn while others will make so much sense you don’t know why you haven’t been doing it the entire time. Some things you will learn will turn everything you thought you knew about riding, inside out. And some will unlock progress so impactful, that rung by rung, will allow you to keep climbing all the way to the top.
The struggle is real. It wasn’t very long ago that I sat on my own lengthy plateau of discouragement and frustration with my own abilities and young horse. I struggled to find an inch of progress or improvement on my green warmblood gelding, but no matter how hard I tried, it just didn’t click. Until one day I met the right trainer, with the right set of keys, and I have not stopped opening doors and moving forward since. In fact, every setback or challenge my green horse could think of to throw at me became an invaluable teaching lesson that resulted in me moving forward, a stronger and more competent equestrian. Every time I was in the saddle I added a knew brick of knowledge to my riding foundation. Once it all truly began to click, and I gained more and more control, my horse even tried to get creative with his tactics to avoid things he didn’t want to do. He even went through a brief period of time where he actually became mad and frustrated that Mom now had the ability to make him really work and be really correct. “Who taught Mom to ride after a year of not really listening to her if I didn’t want to??” I was no longer a substitute teacher wheeling in the TV cart, signaling to the kids in the classroom that today was going to be an easy day to goof off. With the right trainer, I was a sponge with no limit to how much information I could soak up and retain every week in my training. My rides were finally contributing to his solid education, and all challenges he presented were accepted, and even enjoyed.
Riders may forget their courses or dressage tests while they’re in the middle of competition, but they always remember the moment when their riding progress transformed from being a passenger, along for whatever ride their horse wanted to give them that day, into a confident pilot and team leader. Those moments, techniques, concepts and milestones that took them further and made them better than they thought possible, as they fell in love with the sport all over again. Game changing moments where it all made sense and it all came together, and you could not be more proud of how far you and your horse have come. They make the sport challenging and exciting and today I’m looking forward to sharing some of my top “game changing” rider concept/technique breakthroughs over the years that have unlocked doors and helped to take my understanding and ability to the next level.
Just know that if you aren’t familiar with these concepts, you have a lot to look forward to. If you’re struggling with them, know that practice makes perfect. And finally know that with the right trainer, there is no reason why you can’t understand and master any or all of them as your skills progress.
1 . That reins are not your steering wheel or solo braking system. The sooner you realize that the sole use of your reins is not only to steer or stop your horse, the better. I know for beginner riders those reins, especially the inside one, is a lifeline that new or even nervous or unbalanced riders depend on. While they are used to aid in steering and stopping, that is not their only use. And the more you learn about how to use them properly, the more you’ll realize that the first time you were taught, you were taught backwards. Your reins (beyond steering and stopping) are a guidance/communication tool that helps to direct (and redirect) your horse’s energy, his head, shoulders and front end and movement and shape the position of your horse’s body parts. There are only so many ways we can communicate with our horses, but they’re much more dynamic than just left turn, right turn, brakes. Some of this also has to do with how far along a horse is trained. A very green horse will definitely need the guidance of the reins to steer, and even stop, until he learns how to move away from pressure and steer in other ways, but the ultimate goal is to move away from pulling your horse in the direction you want him to go with your reins, or pulling straight back to stop.
2. That on a well trained horse, your core and seat play a bigger role in your horse’s pace and downward transitions, than sometimes your reins. What the…?? There’s not a cowboy movie on TV today that doesn’t show a guy slowing up or stopping his horse by yanking back on his mouth. While some horses definitely respond to it, and may even need a little rein aid to “whoa there”, your core and seat will tell a well trained horse to slow their gait, make a downward transition, or even halt. That on some well trained horses, you can accomplish this without even touching your reins. Additionally, you can lengthen, or speed up, and shorten or slow down your horse’s pace and stride by either restricting your movement in the saddle by engaging your core, or by increasing your movement. Not every horse will do this, because they don’t understand the cues, but if you start combining your rein aids, with your seat aids at the same time, your horse will learn to associate the two, and begin responding to just your seat.
3. That your horse goes where his shoulders go, not his head. Umm… wait, you mean that just because my horse’s head is pointed at the jump doesn’t always mean we’re going over? Ok, so after being ejected off of our horses, many of us know how well they can use their shoulders to go any direction they want. Your horse also sees things differently than you. He doesn’t have to turn his head to look where he’s going. He sees out of the sides of his head, for predatory protection reasons. He’s perfectly ok turning his head one way, while going another. In fact, your horse at times can even have a blind spot on things that are directly in front of him. If you’ve ever been dumped at a fence by a horse that ducked out, or even had your horse spook under saddle or on the lunge line, you may already know that your horse’s body does not aways go in the direction you’re pointing his head. That a balanced horse moves his shoulders not his head in the direction you want to go to stay balanced.
So I do know that in horse jumping, there is such a thing as a guiding rein, where you open your rein to let the horse know which way you’re going to go. But the outside leg usually does the actual pushing around the turn.
So to illustrate my point about how a horse leads his movement with his shoulders, I’ve got two very different videos for you. One, is an FEI rider training a canter pirouette. I don’t expect you to do these, but I do want you to take a look that it’s the horse’s shoulders the trainers are telling the rider to move over with outside rein, not to turn his head. Its a pretty exaggerated example of how much control you can have over where your horse places his shoulders, and how they move first. The second video was a fun alternative to showing you a horse and rider fail reel of horses using their abilities to move their shoulders independently of their heads, to duck out or spook at fences, sending their riders one way, while they travel another. I guarantee you’ve all experienced it at one point or another, and if you haven’t, keep riding. You’ll have the pleasure one day! When it does, just hang on, it comes with the territory. As you watch the cutting highlights, take a good look at how quickly the horse uses and changes the direction of his shoulders. Their heads and necks are there to balance, and usually go first as they follow the cows, but that’s not where the turns come from. The rider gives the horse the reins and he has total freedom to cut like he’s been taught. Needless to say that the riders who passenger these amazing cutting horses are probably pretty good at handling spooks!
4. That your left rein turns your horse right, your right rein turns your horse left. Not the other way around. Excuse me? How in the world can I get my horse to turn left by using my right rein? That goes against everything my brain and defensive instincts say are right. The inside rein is a lifeline for some riders. Its instinctual. Its what your brain tells you to do… grab ahold of that rein and turn your horse’s head to the inside and surely his body will follow. But NO. You don’t turn your horse by turning his HEAD, you turn your horse by controlling and moving his shoulders. This is a continuation of #2, understanding that a balanced horse steers with his shoulders, not his head. If you turn your horse just by using your inside rein, you are pulling him off balance and on the forehand, encouraging him to not only lean, but also giving him leverage to actually send his body in the complete opposite direction, if he wishes. If I wanted my horse to turn, unless I was asking for an inside bend, I accomplished it with my upper outside thigh, sometimes outside leg, and a series of half-halts with the outside that PUSHED (with my leg aid) that directed my horses shoulders, guiding his movement around the turn, maintaining my connection and keeping him round and balanced. I did not pull him around the turn with my inside rein. She’s completely correct when she says, “It’s time to break up with the inside rein…” Just LET IT GO. Literally. The video is great, it shows the trainer completely throwing away her inside rein, but still getting her horse to turn regardless.
5. That I was much stronger keeping my elbows completely bent and at my sides, instead of keeping my reins short, and my arms extended, to be pulled back for quick leverage. Spending time riding a forward off-track thoroughbred mare, who didn’t want me to touch her mouth, I developed some defensive habits, such as stretching my arms toward her in order to keep my reins really short, with light connection. But do me a favor… play tug of war with your dog (or your little brother or daughter) both with your arm extended completely out, and with your elbow completely bent at a 90 degree angle and glued to your rib cage. You tell me which gives you more strength, power and leverage to control your horse.
6. That half-halts come from the core and elbow, not from breaking my wrist, pulling down on his face, or doing anything else with my hands what-so-ever. I sort of always knew this was a bad habit a trainer once taught me and in fact, I once had another instructor bring a pair of wrist guards that actually made it completely impossible for me to break my wrist at all. I’d constantly break or fidget my wrist to get my horse round and by the end of the lesson, I’d have an annoyed horse trying to pull the reins out of my hand. I learned that by engaging/restricting my core, half-halting straight back, not only were my rein aids stronger and smoother, they were more effective than not using my entire body and yanking back on the reins or twisting my wrists. When you break your wrists, you break that straight line you need to have from the bit to your elbow to maintain your proper connection with your horse.
So this video (first let me point out how incredibly amazing it would be to have one of those horse simulators, second, understand that the correct execution half-halt applies to all disciplines not just dressage!) is actually really cool in the respect that it shows you how truly quiet a half-halt and almost undetectable can be, when you engage and leverage the strength of your core and do it properly.
7. That in order to have a more secure seat in the saddle at the canter or sitting trot, I actually needed to LET GO with my legs, not use them to hold on. If I just let go, I’ll have a better chance of staying on? Sounds counterintuitive. Coming from a hunter background, my saddle used to just be the thing I “rode over” and sometimes “ON” but never “IN”. It was rare I ever completely sat in it at the canter, let alone even attempted a sitting trot. When I started cross-training in dressage, I could not get myself into the deep seat no matter how hard I tried, especially if my horse was forward. It wasn’t until my trainer forced me to ride the trot and the canter while lifting my legs completely off the horse all the way up to my thighs did I realize, 1. that I actually had seat bones!! and 2. that the more I tried to use my legs to hold on or secure my seat, instead of balancing on those seat bones and just letting my legs hang loose to absorb the shock, the less secure my seat was always going to be. If you grab on with your leg, you restrict your core from following your horse’s movement. If you grip with your knees or calves, your upper body will be pushed forward and out of the saddle. It’s in your body’s ability to leg go of the saddle, find your seat bones and absorb the shock of the trot into your heels, and to keep your leg free and loose at the canter, balancing and following the motion with your core and seat bones.
8. That the response to an aid comes as you release the aid, not necessarily if you apply it continuously/non-stop. Horses are trained with the use of “pressure”. When the pressure is applied, such as a leg, seat or rein aid, the horse looks to relieve that pressure. He reacts to the pressure, and when his reaction is what the rider/trainer was looking for, the rider ceases the pressure and the horse knows he’s made the right decision. If the horse makes a wrong decision, the trainer reapplies the pressure and asks again. The horse then tries to figure out what you want, or rather, what he needs to do, to prevent you from applying pressure again. When you apply a continuous aid, such as squeezing him like a tube of toothpaste to get him to go forward, or pulling back on his mouth and holding if he’s going too fast, you don’t give your horse a chance to give you a response to the aid. You also don’t give yourself a chance to apply a correction aid for either the wrong response or a lack of response (which is also an incorrect response).
9. That it was 100 times more effective and correct to PUSH my horse in the direction I wanted him to go, instead of pulling him. This goes back to my understanding of controlling your horse’s shoulders, and a better understanding of how they are trained to move away from pressure. That if you controlled your horse by pushing him where you wanted to go with your legs, seat, and even a half-halt, you kept him balanced, round, connected, and in total control. That pulling him with my reins would only lead to two things… me losing control of his shoulders, sometimes resulting in us going in the opposite direction, and an unbalanced horse that would lean like a motorcycle and make me carry his head. Take another look at the canter pirouette video if you really aren’t sure that pushing is better than pulling.
10. That the only way to stop my horse from hanging on me, or being heavy in my hands was to not give him anything to hang on. The more I pulled on my young horse, the more leverage I gave him to pull right back. He’d eventually either pull the reins out of my hands, or pull my arms forward, or pull me right out of the tack. But just like the trainer will tell you in the video below, it takes TWO to pull. Which means, if you don’t pull back, he’s got nothing to continue to pull against. So instead of engaging in a tug of war, where you exhaust your arms trying to hold your horse’s head in place, you half-halt, drive with your leg as you’re giving with the reins so the horse has nothing to hold on to. That by giving him a series of half-halts, while driving him forward into the bit and releasing, almost dropping his head, would give him nothing to lean against. It may even require a series of sharp half-halts that sort of make things uncomfortable for your horse that he realizes it’s not worth pulling. As my trainer likes to say, “Be rude about it.”
It would also explain to him that if he wanted the half-halts to stop, he needed to get off my own hands and carry his own head. That if he was going to start to pull again, that he was going to get another quick, sharp and obnoxious reminder. If I had just continued to hang on him and pull his head into place, we would continue to stay in a stalemate pulling match in which he’d become dull to and ignore my rein aids and more persistent to continue pulling. The half-halt and release says to the horse, “wrong answer, try again”. When you do it a bit more sharply, and abruptly it can even say, “You’re being RUDE, knock it off…” You’re not looking to rip your horse’s face of or hurt him, but sometimes to initially get it through to him you are going to have to be a little “rude” back. He answers right, I leave him alone. He answers wrong, do it again and say “wrong answer, I told you to hold your own head”. By just trying to pull back on him with a steady pull, no release and no leg, all I’m saying is “you’re wroooooonnnnnnnggggggggggg (and I’m not going to give you an opportunity to be right, change his mind about his behavior or give me a new answer). You need to give your horse a brief moment to respond to your aid and give you an answer, AND nothing for him to pull against. If not, you ask again. Just like your kids… sometimes you’ve got to ask them more than once, and even get a little mad before they respect you. This video does a good job of demonstrating it.
11. That I could not expect my horse to balanced himself, if I could not balance myself. And that “balance” was actually something that horses struggle with. First off, a person would think, “What would be more balanced and stable than an animal with four legs?” Unfortunately, your horse is not a table. Horses struggle to balance themselves for many reasons, and by making yourself a more difficult passenger, you’re simply not helping. If you could hear your horse’s internal dialog when you first were learning how to ride and where to put your body parts, your horse would have said something like this, “What the heck are you doing back there???!?” Whether you’re a hunt seat rider, a jumper, an eventer, a western pleasure rider, or a dressage rider, this will always apply… if you are unable to find balance and stability of your own position, if you are unable to carry your own hands and maintain an upright upper body, and use them independently of your seat and legs, you cannot expect your horse to be balanced.
Additionally each saddle you put on your horse balances the rider differently. Even though you are only 10% of your horse’s weight or less, whatever you do in that saddle affects your horse’s movement and balance. Learning to cross-train dressage from hunt seat was a tremendous challenge. Different center of gravity, different body position, different use of the legs and core, different contact with the saddle, longer stirrups… It was actually painful because it used an entirely different group of muscles. I felt like I was sitting in bucket, it may have been a western saddle it was so deep. Not until I found harmony and balance in both saddles could I be as effective in both disciplines. My horse was green and young and barely knew how to balance himself. In fact, he still needed me to do it for him. There was no chance in the world he could have balanced both of us, and he quickly learned that he didn’t have to, that there were advantages to be taken from an unbalanced rider.
Your fitness level also has so much to do with your ability to stay balanced while you ride. Some people think, “well, I need more practice” and yes, that may be the case, but to get more to the point, you need more practice so you can build more fitness. If you do not have the experience or physical conditioning to maintain proper form, you can’t get upset if your horse gets upset because things are more difficult for him than they should be. Now don’t get me wrong, some experienced horses are able to do this. In fact, my childhood horse was fantastic at it. He was tolerant and un-phased by most of what I did in the saddle, and he could balance both of us. But not everyone is that lucky. Younger, greener horses and even well trained ones cannot. They won’t because they know they don’t have to. If you throw your upper body at your horse when you ask him to canter instead of sitting tall, and he will struggle to lift up into the transition. Then he’ll learn by getting you off balance, he can just avoid it. If you cannot prevent yourself from hanging on your horse’s mouth at all times, and need to use his face to balance yourself, you definitely cannot expect him to stay balanced. If you throw your reins at your horse during a transition, you can’t get upset if he learns how to take advantage of your imbalance, and use it against you. It takes practice and conditioning to develop a stable and independent seat. Tons of transitions, repetition, lunge work, no stirrup work… If you can’t walk, trot, canter your horse, on a lunge line, without stirrups, or reins, (without holding onto your saddle) and maintain a good seat/position, your weaknesses can and will carry over to your horse.
12. That the use of my leg aid at times was not to send the horse’s energy forward, but laterally, and sometimes diagonally. I’m not talking about your standard lateral movements, such as a leg yield, but they do apply here as well. The more I incorporated dressage into my training, the more it became clear to me through execution that there was a way to both send my horse’s energy forward, and to send it laterally, and to even send it both forward and over at the same time. When you want your horse to become round and balanced, some riders think that the horse’s headset is the deciding factor on whether or not your horse is actually round. However, your horse can hold or pose his head where you want it, and still not be balanced, using his back, or moving out from and engaging his hind end. So yes, to make your horse round you need to drive his back end up under him, but you don’t necessarily want him to go faster. You need to drive the back legs forward and at the same time drive the energy up so the horse gets off the forehand, carries himself, lifts up and uses his back. So to do this you actually use your inside leg to drive the horse laterally, if not diagonally into your outside rein. Then you use your outside rein to catch that energy and drive it up and back instead of forward.
Imagine the motion of your horse almost like what happens when you lean back on a rocking horse. The back end of the rocking horse gets lower, the legs of the rocking horse become more centered under the horse’s body, bearing more weight and driving force, the front of the horse lifts up and becomes lighter, and the back lifts up to support it all. If your horse is leaning on your inside leg (which he can do at any speed) you use your leg aid “laterally” to get him to take his weight off your leg and redistribute his balance evenly. Pushing him forward could just make him become more unbalanced or strung out, but pushing his balance across his body, toward the outside and getting him to respect and move laterally away from your inside leg will force him to get his weight off it and become lighter. The same concept was applied as I went around turns by controlling my horse’s shoulders. It was by asking his shoulders to move over and around the turn with my outside thigh, that a balanced and connected turn was created.
13. That straightness in a horse, actually means that they are slightly crooked. Sometimes this still feels wrong at times only because it goes against the laws of sheer geometry… but here goes. So when we think of a horse being “straight” we think of the symmetry of a horse’s body. That your horse’s head would be centered, and that his body would move in a way that the tracks from his back feet would directly pass over the hoof tracks from his back feet. But when you learn more about how your horse moves, and how to control his shoulders, and how to keep your horse light and connected someone will eventually come to you (most likely your dressage trainer) and tell you that when your horse is truly straight, his inside leg is actually moving and reaching diagonally underneath him toward his opposite front leg. Don’t believe me? Take a quick look at this video. You’ll very clearly see (I cued it up to the 32 second mark) that Shannon Peters is trotting her horse straight on the rail, but that his inside hind leg is reaching gloriously underneath him. Shannon goes on to do a lot of other fancy dressage moves, but even some of those even illustrate how the rider needs to get that reach to have full control of the shoulders.
14. That “MORE LEG” is the holy grail and answer for EVERYTHING… well, almost everything. You want to balance your horse or prevent him from leaning in on his turns, more leg. You want him to come on the bit, more leg. You want to your horse to stop throwing his head, more leg. You want your horse to slow down or even stop???? DEFINITELY MORE LEG. This was a complete game changer and probably one of the most difficult things for me to understand. My horse was unbalanced, way too forward, and because I was barely in riding fitness, I struggled to balance myself. I’d end up hanging on his face just to keep with the motion. He’d go around the ring like a freight train with no steering, and I’d go straight to my hands to try to both slow him down, steer and balance him (but realistically, I was using them more to balance myself) at the same time, completely disregarding my leg aids. I mean, WHAT LEG AIDS? They were non-existent because the more I tried to do anything, including half-halt, without using a driving leg, the more counterproductive it was. But I didn’t think to even use my legs. In fact, the LAST thing I thought I should ever do to a very forward, green horse with little steering, was to ever add more leg. How could that ever be the right answer? I want to slow my horse down, not move him out more or encourage him to go faster. But it is. It almost will always be the right answer, or at least part of the right answer in some form. However, it is important that the “leg” I am referring to is not always added in a way that makes the horse go faster, it’s added in a way, for example, that pushes him into a steady tempo, and drives him laterally into the outside rein. By half-halting and using my inside leg to drive my forward and unbalanced horse into my outside rein, not only was his response to become round and balance himself, he also slowed down. He slowed down because he was balanced and he slowed down because he was working harder to continue to carry himself, because he was engaging his hind end. He slowed down because I had used MORE LEG to help maintain a consistent tempo, and then balance and redirect his energy upwards, off his forehand and to his back and hind legs. We throw a little give and release to get an inside bend, and supple him up, but you get the idea. Your leg is needed to drive your horse up into the bridle and into a balanced state. Not always to encourage him to go faster.
Almost think of it this way… if you trip, and become unbalanced and start falling forward with your upper body as you take a few steps, you actually move faster to try to catch your balance, not slower. Your horse does the same thing when he’s unbalanced. His weight becomes unevenly distributed throwing his upper body (in this case his shoulders, head and neck) forward and he picks up his pace to try to regain his balance. NOW… imagine yourself, as you trip and start running forward to balance, if there was someone next to you who was able to push your legs underneath you, to help you upright yourself quicker, and allow your legs and your upper body to align faster… yea you get it. By adding leg to a forward unbalanced horse you encourage him to engage his hind legs to move further underneath him and balance himself. Add a half-halt or two, and what happens? At the same time you are asking his backend to catch up, you are asking his front end to lift up, and let his back end catch up and move underneath him. Before you know it, your horse is round, using himself on the bit! Christmas miracle.
Doesn’t apply to 100% of the situations, and there definitely times where NO LEG is the right answer. But this is usually when your horse is balanced and behaving. If you’ve ever heard trainers repeat “Outside Rein, Inside Leg” 6034 times over the course of a lesson… they’re not asking you to make your horse go faster, they’re asking you to ask your horse to engage his hind end, reach his hind legs further and quicker underneath himself, and to drive your horse’s energy up into the bridle so that his head and shoulders become lighter and he becomes balanced and round. The energy is going from your leg to your outside rein, not into your horse’s speed. The “outside rein” tells the horse that the energy needs to go up, and not faster, while the leg creates an energy push.
Never Ending Road of Knowledge
Hopefully this opened your eyes up to some of the things you will eventually get to learn, or even draws light on things you may be struggling with. The road to equestrian perfection never ends and every time you take a step up, three more levels appear. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize you still have a lot to learn, but honestly, that is the exciting part. Having these “ah-ha” moments with your horse, getting over these hurdles and breaking through these barriers. Building your skill set in riding is like building a tower to the sky. Each lesson is another brick and a good trainer will never run out of bricks to give you. In fact, the best trainers continue to train with their trainers to add more bricks of their own that they can later, when you’re ready, teach to you. You’re going to struggle, you’re going to hit road blocks, you’re going to have pitfalls and then you are going to master concepts like the ones listed above and they will become game changers in your riding abilities. Part of the fun and excitement is not just learning, but learning with your horse and having unbelievable breakthroughs as you grow and develop your partnership. If you don’t understand these concepts yet remember, you’re not alone, and it wasn’t that long ago I was only learning them myself, so I know how it feels to get stuck behind them, and how unbelievably rewarding it is when you break through. Not knowing everything about riding just means you’ve got even more to look forward to. Have fun and remember practice makes perfect.
As always talk to or work with your trainer before trying anything new, including the concepts mentioned above. Its always good to have a second set of eyes, and above all, stay safe and happy learning!