Get Out and Ride

John, 67, has a horse that his daughter, Kathy, used to show. Now that Kathy has left for college, John wants to go from being the go-fer and the groom to learning how to ride and, possibly, compete. The trouble is, now he’s embarrassed that even though he has been around horses for 15 years, he can’t actually walk the walk.

Journal photo

He’s not alone.

There are a variety of factors that can cause you to lose or lack confidence, regardless of your age. I run into a lot of 40 and older people who want a horse, but are scared they’re going to get hurt. I tell these horse lovers that if they go to a riding facility that has the proper animals and good instruction, their chances of getting hurt on a bicycle are higher than getting hurt on a horse.
Lack of confidence is what holds them back.

Build Confidence

Confidence is built with small steps. Reading about the proper way to adjust your stirrups, hold the reins and mount the horse is a good place to start.

Second, take riding lessons from a reputable instructor that you feel comfortable with and who uses good, sound schooling horses. Find an AQHA Professional Horseman or a Certified Horsemanship Association instructor near you.

Third, get to know your horse’s personality.

I use a lot of word pictures with beginning riders. For example, when it comes to horses, are you working with a Jack Russell Terrier–a horse with a lot of energy? Or do you have a laid-back Basset Hound? If you’re working with a Jack Russell Terrier –a Dash For Cash-bred horse, for example–you’re over-mounted if you’re a beginner. There are other bloodlines–Zippo Pine Bar, for example–better-suited for beginners.

If you start out on Zippo you can make some mistakes; he’s a lot more forgiving. So, when you go to a lesson facility, you need to ask questions and talk about the lesson horses’ breeding backgrounds.

Learn how to pick up your horse’s feet, how to walk with him and how to handle and control him.

Then start filling your mind full of good information about horses. That will give you the confidence that you’re capable of selecting the right horse when it comes time to buy one, and that you’re not going to make the mistake of buying one because of his color; his big, brown eyes; or because he puts his head on your shoulder.

Feel the Love

Megan, 17, has a brand-new horse, who is far more sensitive–that Jack Russell disposition–than her previous horse. As a result, she’s having trouble bonding with him and is starting to lose interest in riding.

Megan has to realize that this horse has got to be like a best friend. She can’t blame him for his reactionary, sensitive attitude. She needs to find a way to make him a good friend–someone she’d like to be around all the time.

She needs to establish a routine with her horse. For example, when she goes to get him from his stall or run every day, she needs to follow a routine like this:

  • Catch his eye
  • Release endorphins– the “feel good” hormones in every animal; in a horse, you can rub his ears, poll and cheeks
  • Halter him

If he has a tendency to be a little quick, then do just the opposite with him, be slow: walk slow, turn slow. That brings his energy level down.

Next, Megan needs to get her horse into what I call “herd mode”–when he becomes a follower. That Jack Russell Terrier horse needs leadership bad. She can establish herself as the leader by practicing ground work–haunch and forehand turns–with him.

If you study horses in the wild, the one way the leader of the herd sets up the pecking order is by moving the other horses’ spaces. So when you move your horse’s shoulder or hip, you’re basically telling him to trust you and that you’ll take care of him.

Give Her the Gate

Donna has inherited her daughter’s show horse and loves the challenge of trail obstacles. Except gates. Every time Donna and Dolly get close to a gate, Dolly shies away from it.

What’s happening is that when Donna reaches out for the gate latch, she is actually leaning out with her upper body. This causes her inside leg to press against the mare’s side, which is telling the horse to move away. To fix this, Donna needs to practice keeping her upper body in the middle of the horse and practice reaching out with her arm–essentially training herself to move those parts of her body independently from one another.

One exercise that you can do is to put your hands under your seat bones while sitting in a chair. Then tip your upper body to the left. The second you feel your right seat bone come off of your hand means you’re losing the softness in your back, that independent movement. But do that until you can lean 8 to 10 inches either way without taking the seat bone pressure off your hand.

Something for Everyone

The one thing that truly gets a rider to connect with his or her horse is breathing. Say a horse starts to get a little excited. What happens to the rider? She gets tight and inhales, and her seat bones jab the horse in the back, which startles the horse. It’s a vicious circle. If your horse gets excited, you need to exhale. What happens when you exhale? Your body relaxes.

Equally important are your eyes, the computer to your body that continually says, “There’s a tree up there” or “There’s a little hill.” While you’re riding, the second you drop your eyes, that computer shuts off.

I encourage what I call an “open eye,” which teaches a rider that if she feels herself getting tight, she needs to look around, look where she’s going. So then she doesn’t make any quick moves. Quick moves startle horses.

It’s like a skier. If a skier looks at the tips of his skis, he’s going to have a wreck. A skier needs to look ahead down the slope to see what’s coming.

Last, but not least, learn pre-signals that tell your horse what you want him to do before you do it.

If you look at reiners or dressage riders, they don’t over-pull or drag on their horses for direction. They prepare the horse by using their bodies–by slowly turning their upper body in the direction they want to go when getting ready to turn or by putting more weight in their seat before they say “Whoa” to stop.

So if you put all three parts of this puzzle together–the breathing, eyes and pre-signals–the connection to your horse is there. Then you also need to prepare yourself mentally and think positively, and look at riding your horse as something that’s going to be fun.

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