Lightbulb Moments: Riding Coach Tips for Horseback Riding

Eight things trainers said that fixed one rider’s brain.

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Heading to a Jump - Tips from Horseback Riding Coach
Photo by Daniele Russo/Shutterstock

We riders are bright creatures. We memorize long courses, process multi-part instructions, and generally do the whole patting-your-head-and-rubbing-your-stomach routine from the back of a thousand-pound animal with a mind of its own. Except when we can’t. Occasionally, your mental computer gets gummed up with saddle soap. You lean at the jump. You twist for a lead change. You cut the corners. Your horse riding coach or trainer offers tips and explains what you need to do. You screw up again. You’ve hit a wall.

But sometimes, out of nowhere, your horse riding coach pulls magic words or tips out of their hat that hit that mental barrier like a wrecking ball. And poof! You, your horse, and Miley Cyrus are crashing through the wall.

Sure, when in doubt, add leg. But here are a few more mind-blowing quips from my trainers that suddenly made it all make sense.

“Use the pressure you want to use.” This is so logical it makes me want to scream. If you like a horse with an electric response, more pressure won’t do it; a whisper-soft leg with corrections is the way to go. If you prefer a firmer feel, you’re not going to get there anxiously holding your leg off your thin-skinned mount.

Use the pressure you want to use. It’s scary, it’s counterintuitive to me, and it works.

“You have to go to work. So does your horse.” This came after I explained to a visiting trainer that my sassy, tantrum-y horse wasn’t in a “good mood.” Rule No. 1: always check whether the source of resistance is pain. But barring that, even great horses (especially certain mares) have grumpy days. I’ll make any excuse for my baby: It’s hot out! She doesn’t like the flowers! But this trainer helped me realize we still must do our jobs.

Even when I’m not “feeling the vibe,” I must go to work. And I may cut her some slack, but so does my grouchy mare.

“I’m raising the jump, but ride it exactly the same.” I know this is going to be as big a shock to you as it was to me, but the fact you hear the jump cups sliding up the standards does not mean you have to get as nervous as if you just entered the Grand Prix ring for a $100,000 jump-off.

It turns out if you’re already doing OK, you don’t need to lose your entire mind over the jump going up 3 inches. Who knew?

“Don’t forget to let the air out.” When you feel the anxiety rising, slowly blow air out of your mouth like you’re blowing bubbles. Whenever I do this, I realize how long I’ve been holding it in, and I feel active relaxation from all parties. Whoops.

“Don’t ask until you’re ready.” Your trainer’s looking at you. Your lesson mates are looking at you. IT’S TIME TO CANTER. LIKE, RIGHT NOW. Relaaaaax. Are you ready to canter? Or has your horse been walking around half asleep, waiting for his turn through the grid? Is his white-rimmed eyeball trained on the lawnmower buzzing past? Are you discombobulated? Need some water?

Take a beat, friend. Gather yourself before rushing toward chaos and wrongness. You can afford a few moments.

“Don’t make the distance work; make the distance happen.” A positive mantra from my jumping trainer to remind me this is not entirely a game of chance. My pace, rein length, and body position are all up to me. But also …

“The last few strides are for your horse.” Whatever canter you have coming out of the corner, that’s your canter. The day before your wedding is not the time to be experimenting with tanning, and the strides before the jump are not the time to be experimenting with adding or subtracting a step.

If you’re blessed with an obvious distance, look up. Your job is done. Like pores in a magnifying mirror, the more you stare at the spot you chose, the worse it’s going to get.

If you see nothing, keep your pace, and 99 percent of the time, the spot will materialize out of thin air. It feels like a trust fall, but unless you’re jumping huge jumps, you’re going to be just fine.

“Just sit there.” Truly the seed from which all these comments grow, and by far the hardest instruction to swallow. Riders are perfectionists; we can always be rounder, straighter, and pushing harder from behind.

But “sitting there” is an art form. When everyone is getting frustrated, don’t fret, don’t pick, just sit there. Shut the amoeba brain off for a moment and enjoy the ride.

Now get on your wrecking ball and start making some breakthroughs!

This article that offers riding coach tips for horseback riders appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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