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  • Writer's pictureFiona Tothill

Learning to ride

Learning to ride is complex!   In this blog I will lay out the many steps along the way and I will try to unpick some of the challenges and look at how you may address them!

We are often asked how many lessons will it take to learn to ride? To answer this we first have to unravel what “learning to ride” actually means.  I know I have been taking lessons for nearly 60 years and have had more lessons than I can to recall and yet I am still learning to ride ( just better).


When you consider that learning to ride is a practical skill applied to a complex relationship ( with a being who speaks a totally different language) it is amazing that we can learn to do it at all.  

Children as young as three ( or less) can learn to ride and those skills are still relevant in a nonagenarian (90 year old).  I honestly don’t know many other skills that can bridge a life time; skills that can be as exciting, challenging and rewarding now as they were then.


Riding is the coming together of two very different individuals ( the horse and the rider), individuals who move and think in totally different ways.  In this partnership you will learn to recognise who is actually teaching ( or helping) who.   When setting out on this journey the rider most definitely needs a horse who can help them and then overtime the rider can develop so they can help the horse.   As you can imagine life can be fraught with challenges if both horse and rider are inexperienced as they would struggle to support each other.


People new to the sport will often ask, “when can I trot / canter / jump / hack “ or any other goal.  Unfortunately these aims can often lead us to chase a goal without the foundations.  It can be frustrating when your coaches say they want to work on your trot, for example, when you want to canter.  The good news is the foundation work your coach is doing will help in the long run.   


Those of you who have regular lessons will likely have been introduced to the “scales of training” for horses.  Scales of training are building blocks used by riders to “school” (educate their horse and improve their way of going).  You will notice, that within these scales,  there is no mention of pace or speed, this in part of because once you have the building blocks in place the horse will be able to go faster and higher without losing the essential components. 


Pushing for faster paces before the horse ( or rider) is ready can undo months of training and can lead to a loss of confidence or even injury; and rarely enhances their experience.  Building slowly and progressively is the key to success.


I believe that riders also benefit from similar building block approach- things you need establish before you are ready to progress to the next level.  By establish I mean skills we need to learn, develop and then maintain.  


With horses, as with most things in life, there is little or no point learning something and then rushing on and losing what you learnt or worse still doing it badly to the detriment of your horse ( or your own safety).


It goes without saying that every rider is different and will face different struggles whether they be physical, emotional or psychological.  If you then add in the fact that every rider and horse pairing is different and we start to understand just how complex the art of horse riding is.  There will be some components that come easy and some that will really challenge you ( and dare I say some you may never fully grasp!).  The best approach is to know your strengths and work on them so they can help you overcome your weaknesses.  Striving to be better without acknowledging what you are doing well enough can be very demotivating.


Back to our riders building block or qualities that make a rider (which appear below in no particular order)…


Balance - when riding we need to balance in various dimensions ( forward / back, side to side and up and down).  Riders will need to develop core strength to manage these physical forces which increase by 10 with each increase in pace - (one reason we improve your walk to prepare you to trot, and your trot to prepare you to canter).  We could also introduce a “balanced mind”.


Develop a feel for your horse starts with good hands.  Coaches will talk about developing independent hands; what this means is riders can maintain their own balance without pulling on the reins ( and the horses mouth).  When riders start out you will often see them grab the reins for balance and security.  Horses are incredibly tolerant especially if you consider the real purpose of the rein in communication; understandably when learning to ride we find ourselves ‘shouting’ mixed messages.  Learning to give with the hands without letting go is so important.  It can help to consider the weight rather than the length of rein; you and your horse should equally carry the weight of the bit and reins.  


Having said all this “feel” is a lot more than what is going on in our hands.  As a rider you will not only sense ( or feel ) what’s happening in their body but in their mind be as well.  Trusting what you feel is an important development in your riders journey.


Congruent communication and a good connection (both physical and emotional) - horses are sensitive they feel slight movement as well as emotions; they are reading us on many levels.  Riders need to understand how horses think!

As a species horses are excellent at reading our intention.  They pick up on our mixed messages (even when we think we are being clear), they usually show immense restraint as we ( for example) ask for canter whilst pulling back so the horse doesn’t go too fast. 


As riders  we owe it to our horses to have clear ( and reasonable) intentions.  We should not be riding horses and just expecting them to ‘do it’; it’s our duty, as our equine partner to support, guide and encourage ( as well as protect them).  


We need to be a positive influence, the sort of person the horse feels safe with and trusts (after all these are the very same qualities you seek in your horse).  


Horses feed off energy whether it’s positive or negative.  What you horse is hoping for is a consistent positive energy.  You just have to watch some horses who seem so slow literally come to life with another rider.  Why? Quite simply some riders bring an energy, that the horse is comfortable with, which essentially encourages the horse to try harder.  Nervous riders bring an inconsistent energy that can sometimes get in the way.


It is important to teach riders to think and to become self-sufficient.

A more advanced rider has to learn not only HOW to ride an exercise, but they also need to know WHY these exercises are ridden and how to teach them to a horse. Equally they need the ability to recognise when something won’t work or the horse is doing his best today. 


At Kingsmead we have a range of horses, those who can help us and we also have horses who need our help.  Interestingly some horses can help us when learning the fundamentals (walk and trot) yet the need us to help them when doing more.  For example Patch is one of the best horses to learn to ride on, he is safe, tolerates rider errors and confused aids and yet when progressing to canter he needs riders who can balance themselves and give clear effective instructions.  This is one reason why our coaches will encourage you to ride different horses in your lessons.


Finally, learning to ride is cyclic ( as opposed to linear); this can leave you feeling that you aren’t getting anywhere or worst still feel like you are going backwards.  Rest assured over the learning to ride journey you will come back to each element of riding many times, each time you revisit you will be more accomplished and able to move to the next dimension.  It is important to try to understand each element or component of riding, learn where it fits and how you can develop.


Speak to our coaches if you are interested in mapping your learning or if you wish to learn more about horses as your riding partners!

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