I was so thrilled to be asked to do a guest post for their blog launch with StreamhorseTV! If you hadn’t heard, StreamhorseTV is being overhauled to not just include the English show disciplines in their live-streams, but also now including racing, reining, polo, horseball, barrel racing, polocrosse and more! So next time you are looking for some horse entertainment or learning, go check out the new and improved StreamhorseTV!
First off…I’m not a trainer. I am a rider of slightly above average talent and ability. I’m just a lowly adult ammy dressage rider that has shown to PSG, but I haven’t earned my silver medal. I did manage to go from first dressage lesson to my Bronze medal in 3 years, and to PSG in just a year more, so I know all about making quick improvements. I have limited time in the saddle, have never owned my own horse, and have thrown the little money I could spare into my sport to improve. I’m certainly not the most knowledgeable or experienced horse person out there, but I am extremely observant. In my many years working with horses, I have come across a lot of things that can be tweaked with minimal effort/time that can majorly improve your riding without that 10,000 hours in the saddle.
1. Stretch. This is especially important if you’re new to riding, you’re a little older (ahem…like me), or if you have a day job where you do a lot of sitting. Stretch your hip flexors, hamstrings, calves, glutes, obliques, triceps and shoulders before you hop on. It’s a quick and easy way to make you ride with better alignment and suppleness.
2. Relax. Sure. Your trainer tells you this…but are you really doing it? I like to think of riding like yoga. You need enough positive tension to hold your body in place, but also enough relaxation to be able to stretch into the pose a little deeper. Stiff arms, tight shoulders, gripping legs and a hunched/leaned forward posture due to an over-tight core (caused by nervousness) is a sure way to have a bad ride. Your horse doesn’t like the way it feels any more than you do! Better to be a sack of potatoes, at least at first. Get on, take your feet out of the stirrups, take a deep breath and be a sack of potatoes. Really go for it. Then take another deep breath and lift your head up towards the ceiling with you core and stretch your legs down towards the ground. Keep that stretching feeling and pick up your stirrups. Keep enough positive tension in your muscles that you wouldn’t fall over standing in a brisk moving stream…but not so much that you start to feel everything tighten again. Feel tight? Go back to potatoes and start again.
3. Look Up. Before you walk off, look up. I mean…I’m sure your trainer yells this at you all the time too. Mine does at me. You want to know the difference between looking up and looking down at your horse’s neck? Well for me at my last show, it was 3% on my test (I made the exact same mistakes in both tests AND had no horse for my second test due to 110 degree temps). My trainer yelled “look up!” as I trotted into the arena with no warm up. I followed instructions. Just the difference of raising my eyes up made my riding improve enough for a 3% bump. That’s huge. Also…it makes you a better arena companion as you’re not almost accidentally running into other riders all the time.
4. Write Stuff Down. When I can remember to do this…I make improvements so much faster. Keep a riding diary and write down anything notable you learned during your ride today. Writing down what you worked on and the results during your lessons and clinics (and shows!) is extremely important. You can’t improve if you don’t remember what you did and why you did it last week.
5. Visualize. “Channel” the riding of someone you admire (and someone with a similar body composition/style as you for best results). Really get into it and feel in your body as if that person you and that person were the same rider in that moment. This is one of my favorite things I’ve learned from my trainer. I used to imagine myself as Charlotte Dujardin…but I got yelled at too many times (my trainer didn’t want me holding my hands so high…and Ms. Dujardin and I have completely different body types so what works for her doesn’t really work for me). When I start thinking about Isabell Werth…things really start getting on well. She’s not the most elegant rider in the world (and neither am I), but our riding styles and proportions are more similar.
6. Spend Some Money. Don’t buy crap equipment and make friends with a saddle fitter. If you can’t afford a decent saddle, take out a loan. Or go bareback for a while while you save money…your seat will improve from that quickly. The same goes for bits, saddle pads, pants, underwear, bras…etc. Everyone’s riding improves immensely when they’re comfortable. Your horse will also go better for you when they are comfortable.
Money spent on a comfortable, well fitting saddle is never money wasted. Money spent on a decent bra that keeps you from getting black eyes when you sit the trot is worth the investment. If you and your horse aren’t comfortable, you aren’t improving your riding as fast as you could because you’re fighting against pain and irritation. Buy the good stuff, it will save you time and money in the end reaching your riding goals. Promise.
7. Be Friends. Bond with your horse on the ground and take the pressure off. Spend more time grooming. Spend some time trick training. Spend some time hand walking and working on ground manners, trailer loading, or in the round pen. Sometimes, all you need to do to become a better rider is to simply improve your relationship and communication with the horse you are riding. That works wonders.
8. Have a Goal. Sometimes you just need a goal to improve. If you’re having lessons and rides with no real goals in mind except to get better…you’re going to take forever to get better. If you have a goal to be able to adjust the number of strides needed for a certain combinations, or to ride the perfect shoulder-in, or to go to the next show…your riding is going to get better much faster. The slowest learners I’ve encountered are the ones that say “I might show one day.” The fastest learners are the ones that say, “I’m going to do this show in a 2 months.” Get yourself a goal. Set SMART goals (Google it) and you’re going to improve so much faster!
9. Watch Other Riders. There isn’t much more valuable out of the saddle than watching other riders, especially other lessons/clinics. It doesn’t have to be riders better than you. It can be beginners. If you listen to what the trainer is saying and observe, there is going to be much applicable for your riding too. Even listening to other coaching works if you’re riding and can’t stop and watch. When I’m having a ride on my own and my trainer is teaching a lesson within earshot, much of the time I find myself dialing in on her voice and doing what she’s telling her other student to do. It’s a way to get a free lesson (even without the personalized feedback…). Especially with dressage/flat work, there’s absolutely nothing bad about focusing on the basics. That’s what makes you win at the shows…solid basics.
10. Watch Videos! Sitting on your couch with nothing to watch on Netflix? Well why not tune into watch some other riding. There are numerous sources for watching other riders online, no matter your sport. I’m always looking for new education videos to watch and live streams of big shows to tune into. Try the new StreamHorseTV! A ton of horse sports, shows, and education videos and they’ll be adding more regularly. What a fabulous resource!
I could go on of course! There are plenty of other tips and tricks for getting better, but these 10 things are the simplest ways to up your riding game without spending 6 hours in the saddle every day (or even 6 hours in the saddle every week). These tips aren’t going to send you to the Olympics next year, but they will help you feel more confident, more comfortable and more content with your riding journey (and they may help you win a few extra blue ribbons!).