Sometimes a riding lesson is just what you need. Your trainer pinpoints what you’re missing to pick up a lead or master a pattern, and it’s mission accomplished.
Sometimes, though, what you really need is just “quiet time” with your horse–a little leeway to work something through on your own. After the insights such work can bring, you’re able to return to your lessons and surprise your trainer with a quantum leap forward.
I experienced this effect when I first learned to ride Western, years ago. I was 15 then and had been riding since the age of 8. Though reasonably accomplished in my equitation, I’d ridden only hunt seat. The vast expanse of a Western saddle was foreign territory to me and my Thoroughbred mare, Tigress.
Now, however, my good friend Teresa, an expert rider and the savviest horse person in our local “junior riders” club, was going to teach me how to ride Western. She liked my big-bodied mare and thought we could be competitive in the Western division of our club’s little horse shows.
She cinched her Western show saddle onto Tigress, gave me a leg up, and began a running commentary that lasted about 20 minutes.
“Sit up straight. Straighter! No more leaning forward. Relax your shoulders, though. Don’t be so stiff! Keep your seat in the saddle—no posting. Relax your lower back…follow the motion.
“Don’t lift your rein hand! Keep it over the horn. Other hand on your leg. Heels down! Don’t let your legs swing—keep them quiet.
“And for Pete’s sake, sit down, Jennifer!”
Twenty minutes’ worth. As my friend drilled me, Tigress expressed her disapproval of the unfamiliar saddle by bunching her muscles and crow hopping now and then.
“Just ride through those,” Teresa directed.
I did my best.
Eventually, Teresa called me to the center of our club’s arena, where this lesson was taking place.
“That’s enough for now,” she said. “Go on home and take the saddle with you. For the next week, ride your mare wherever you want around home and forget about what I’ve been telling you. Just relax and get used to the feel of the saddle. Get in sync with your mare. Then we’ll see where you are at your next lesson.”
I did as she told me. Of course, I couldn’t completely forget her equitation tips—they still rang in my head—but her parting words gave me permission not to obsess over them. So I didn’t. I just relaxed and approached my trail rides as I normally did, and discovered something interesting. My mare still moved the same as she ever had. Surprisingly, I could indeed keep my fanny in the saddle by using the same following motion I’d always used, even though my posture was now more upright and the saddle itself felt so different under me.
Almost magically, what I’d been unable to do in my first Western riding lesson—“Just sit <i>down</i>, darn it!”—was now effortless.
“Much better!” Teresa called out at my next lesson. She continued to coach me, and Tigress and I made good progress. At the end of that year, 1970, I was the El Dorado Junior Horseman’s Association Champion Western Equitation Rider, 14-17. (I still have the little wood-and-brass plaque up on my wall.)
The turning point leading to that success came during a quiet, get-it-together trail ride, and I never forgot that concept.
Neither should you. Always listen to your trainer or riding coach, of course. But don’t ignore the progress you can make by dialing back the pressure and working something out on your own. When you’re up against a riding challenge, give yourself some space to digest your trainer’s instructions and to let your body—and your horse, too, for that matter–figure things out.
You won’t regret it.
Thanks to Nancy McCurdy for the use of her lovely photo.