When is a rider a rider?

When is a rider a rider?

One of the questions I am frequently asked is about expected progression when learning to ride and when will a rider be off the lead rein/trotting/cantering or reaching another milestone.  The way I view riding is as a journey, not a destination, so although goals can be set and worked towards it is as much about getting there as it is about achieving them. To me, riding is not just about ‘I want to…’ where often success is measured by the ability of a rider to achieve something, regardless of how they actually do it and frequently ignoring the other side of the partnership – the horse! Making decisions, planning ahead, correct timing, correct pressure (with every different part of the body), co-ordination, balance, sense of rhythm, feeling the horse underneath, understanding the horse underneath, listening to the horse underneath…  the list of skills required by a rider is extensive. Every individual person is on a scale for each one, with everyone being different in what they find easy or difficult and some skills just take time to acquire.  Children do not learn to walk, read, write or spell over night and they do these things every day.  Yet often there is an expectation that they should be capable of controlling a very strong animal with it’s own brain when they only ride for half an hour every week or less.  Similarly with adults, they don’t learn to drive safely and in control of a car without hours of regular driving, yet many consider it acceptable to trot or canter on a horse with little or no tuition or practice.  Madness! Even madder when a riding school or other instructor confirms that this is acceptable by encouraging beginners/novices/children/those out of practice to ‘have a go’. There is far more to being a rider than being a passenger or a bully, both of these are undesirable characteristics for anyone involved in riding a horse and it is important to assess whether these methods are being used.

It is not fantastic when a child comes off the lead rein, it is fantastic when a child is off the lead rein and they have the skill and knowledge so they can communicate with the pony correctly, stay safe and keep the pony happy.  This difference is often ignored (or worse unseen) by both instructors and riders or in the case of children, their parents.  Is a person riding at a canter or are they sitting on a cantering horse? There is a BIG difference.  Personally I find it unacceptable to encourage the hold on and hope for the best approach, it is dangerous and very punishing for the horse.  Even a small child can cause extensive damage to a pony’s mouth or back by hanging on a rein or bouncing in the saddle.  Why should a pony be hurt just so a child doesn’t have to practice, so they can achieve a goal that they are not yet skilled enough for?

I recently watched a video of a child continually falling off some ponies that were labelled as naughty.  The reality was that the ponies were confused, a lot of the time they were actually trying to help the rider out but they were mentally and physically incapable of performing because the rider was insufficiently skilled and didn’t give them a chance, they weren’t being naughty.  This ignorance is sadly very common and demonstrates very weak horsemanship, which I would argue is nothing to celebrate by putting together a video to music and sharing it with the world.

The horse has a difficult job, they do not know the riders plan and they speak a totally different language, they also have strong natural instincts that the rider often doesn’t want them to follow.  It is important to remember this when a horse ‘won’t do something’, is ‘being naughty’ or ‘isn’t listening’.  Learning to ride properly takes time, even for an adult and anyone willing to say otherwise is creating an illusion with potentially dangerous consequences.  So yes, goals are worthwhile and lovely to achieve but remember that the journey is just as important for a rider to truly become a rider.  And why not just enjoy the journey too?


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Natalie has owned horses for over 30 years and owned East Devon Riding Academy near Sidmouth. She has previously lectured in Equine Science to degree level and produced research for preparing Great Britains' equestrian teams for the Olympics. Natalie provides consultations in all aspects of Equine Science, and has fitted saddles for competitors at Badminton International Horse Trials.