I’ve heard the best way to break bad riding habits is to never get them in the first place.
Most of us mere mortals battle bad habits each time we ride. I know I do. Look down? Check. Fail to keep horse straight? Um, guilty. Let rhythm lapse? Double check. Transmit fear of floating plastic bag (he’ll spook!) to horse? Of course! Allow focus to drift from riding onto next meal?
Well, if they paid win money for wandering minds, I?d be a millionaire. But bad habits not only negatively affect performance?they can also compromise safety. So when I catch myself doing something wrong, I’ll imagine the voice of a top trainer I?ve worked with for H&R telling me how to do it right. It’s as though I have a self-help tape rolling in my head, a loop of ?greatest tips? I?ve gleaned over the years. In this article, I’ll share 17 of those tips. They?re things I?ve implemented myself, in my never-ending quest to be a better rider. They could help you in your quest to improve, too.
Bad Habits Be Gone!
1. Look ahead. Your head is one of the heaviest parts of your body. When you look down, the action harms your balance, by tilting it forward. Balance is key to your effectiveness as a rider, not to mention control and safety. Plus, when you look up in a specific direction, you subliminally cue your horse to follow the path of your sight line. To practice keeping your head and eyes up, set up cones or other markers (or even use trees or fence posts), and then ride patterns to and around them. Resist the urge to look down as you focus on each object. With time and repetition, you’ll find looking ahead becomes second nature.
2. Don?t ?dummy ride.? Get into your horse’s head (and stay there) every minute you ride him. If you zone out, you’ll give him control and an opportunity to turn a positive ride into a negative one. (Pretty soon he’ll start looking around for something more interesting than keeping his mind on you; when he finds it, it could result in a spook.) Once you mount up, establish and maintain control. Rather than walk aimlessly as a warm up, constantly change direction, keeping light contact to keep a ?conversation? going with your horse. When he’s warmed up, ride and guide him deliberately, incorporating constant changes of gait and direction rather than endless circles that?ll invite boredom?and trouble.
3. Video your rides. Watching yourself will help reinforce what you’re feeling, or highlight any problem spots that need work. Both will speed your progress. Have a friend or family member video your progress every few weeks or so. Then watch those tapes before your next ride, so you can pinpoint habits you need to break.
4. Be smart (and help avoid fights). Rather than rushing a ride (a common habit in time-challenged lives), keep small problems from turning into big ones by not hopping on a fresh horse. If your horse hasn?t worked for a couple of days, or is a youngster or energetic oldster, turn out or longe him before riding, until he gets the fresh out and can focus on you.
5. Reward, don’t drill. If you ask your horse for something and get it, reward him by moving on to something else. Don?t drill him on the maneuver or pick at him until you turn a willing attitude into an aggravated one (and a potential conflict). The point is not how long or how many times he does something, but rather that he’s tried to do it for you.
6. Practice the ?two Ps??patience and progress. Impatience is a hard habit to break. But different horses progress at different rates. Be patient and avoid training by the clock or calendar. Instead, gauge your horse’s progress in increments: Is he even slightly better than he was yesterday (or last week, or last month)? If so, you’re succeeding. If not, perhaps you need to try a different approach, or consult a reputable pro. (Yes, you’ll pay, but occasional help from a good pro can accelerate any program. Even trainers seek out other trainers on occasion!)
7. Change things up. Every couple of rides, change the direction in which you first start your trot and lope, rather than falling in the habit of, say, always starting to the left. This will keep your horse guessing?which will help keep him focused on you for direction, rather than trying to take control. The more creative you can be about keeping rides from being routine, the more attentive your horse will be.
8. ?Ride? even when you can’t. Perform riding-specific exercises and visualization techniques when you can’t get to the barn. Doing so will improve your in-the-saddle time by working riding- specific muscles and by preparing you mentally for your next ride. When you visualize, focus on a specific new habit you wish to create (such as keeping your shoulders back), then visualize yourself riding in perfect form.
9. Use your brain. Avoid trying to outmuscle your horse. You can’t overpower him, but you can darn sure out-think him. For instance, if he wants to go fast, your reflexive habit may be to pull on his mouth or face. But rather than fight with your horse, allow him to go fast. In fact, insist that he do so, but take control and ?own? the idea by making him maintain speed well beyond the point at which he wants to slow down. Let him slow down a bit when you decide it’s okay, then ask him to accelerate again. Repeat until he figures out that it’s hard work to go fast, and will welcome the go-slow work. Bonus: You?ll have made your point without a fight.
10. Be proactive, not reactive. If your horse locks in on a spooky object (say, a stray plastic grocery bag or approaching cyclist), resist the urge to freeze and lock onto it, too. Instead, immediately turn your horse’s head? and his attention?away from it, and urge him forward onto a circle. Forward is your friend: When you control a horse’s feet, you control his brain; he can’t obsess about something scary when he has to focus on where he’s going.
11. Drop your stirrups. Stay with me here! Did you know that riding without stirrups not only strengthens your legs, but also helps to fix poor upper-body position? That’s because dropping your stirrups takes away your ability to brace in them. You?re forced to deepen your seat, stretching and wrapping your legs around your horse’s sides. When you do, you balance from the waist down, rather than trying to use your shoulders. This, in turn, enables you to relax your shoulders and chest.
12. Speaking of stirrups–do you ride with yours too long? Too short? You can’t achieve proper leg position (or fix bad leg-position habits) unless your stirrups are the proper length. Adjust them such that they hit at or just below your ankles, so that when you put your feet in them, you can easily push your heels down. Your stirrups are too long if you have to reach for them with the balls of your feet, making your heels higher than your toes. They?re too short if you have more than just-slightly closed hip and knee angles.
13. Think elbows. Stiff hands can be caused by stiff elbows. If your elbows are habitually tight, your hands can’t follow your horse’s mouth, meaning you can’t effectively converse with him through the reins. Here’s a fix: Establish light contact with your horse’s mouth, such that an increase in elbow bend is all that’s needed to increase contact. At a cadenced walk, focus on allowing your elbows to freely open and close with your horse’s head motion, like a well-oiled hinge, while maintaining the same degree of contact and forward motion. It may take a few strides, so don’t get frustrated. Once you?ve mastered it at the walk, practice at the lope, until following arms become second nature. 14. Pick one thing. Have a plan when you ride. But keep it simple, so your horse has the best chance at success, by picking just one thing t
o work on. Too many requests at one time, especially with an inexperienced horse, is a bad riding habit itself, and one that can cultivate resentment in your horse. For instance, if you want to work on walk-to-lope transitions, don’t worry if your horse lopes off on the incorrect lead at first. Just ask him to lope off immediately, with no trot steps. Once he gets what you’re asking for and does so consistently, you can ask him to lope off on the correct lead.
15. Get rhythm. If your horse is constantly speeding up and slowing down, he’s calling the shots, not you (and he’s likely unbalanced as well). For safety?s sake, you need to get out of the habit of letting him pick his own rhythm. At the jog, count ?one, two, one, two? in rhythm with a stride that you find comfortable. If you feel your count falling out of sync, adjust your aids as needed to bring his stride back in sync with your timing. When you’re consistent at the jog, practice at the lope. Use this counting technique whenever you need to reestablish cadence. Over time, this good riding habit will replace your bad one.
16. Get it straight. Are you in the habit of allowing your horse to meander along in whatever alignment he chooses? A crooked horse is an unbalanced horse. An unbalanced horse can’t perform well (or safely), whether you’re asking for clean transitions, simple circles, flying lead changes, or crossing obstacles on the trail. To get a feel for straightness, walk your horse toward a specific tree or fence post about 30 feet away. Keep your eyes up, and feel whether he’s able to maintain a straight track, using your aids as necessary to correct him if he bows, wanders, or leans away from it. Practice this simple drill as part of your everyday warm up, then graduate to the jog, and eventually the lope. And know this: Straightness requires balance in both horse and rider. To me, that makes it a worthy goal. If you lack the skills to set your horse straight, invest in help from a top pro. It?ll be worth it, because on the path to straightness, you’ll find yourself fixing other bad habits, and accelerating your overall ability.
17. Slay your fear demons. Is fearfulness your toughest habit to break? Does the mere thought of riding in wind or at a lope or outside an arena set the butterflies on a line dance in your stomach? Make it your goal to send your demons packing, even if it requires major changes. Maybe you need a new (quiet, trustworthy) horse. Perhaps you need a good pro to improve your skills?and confidence. Or maybe working with a sports psychologist or a hypnotist would help. (I?ve known pros who?ve slain their fear demons with the help of a hypnotist.) In my own case, I?ve ponied up the bucks for a session or two with a sports psychologist to get over my show nerves, and have also found showspecific CDs helpful. (Search ?help with show nerves? or ?fear of riding? to find online resources.) Books and articles are also good. Ignoring fear is not. Don?t be proud. Fear is a common enemy in riding, and it’s a tough one to conquer. But unless you break its hold, it’ll zap all the fun out of riding. And one of the most important things I?ve learned from working with top trainers all these years is that first and foremost, riding is supposed to be fun.