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5 Ways to Become a More Effective Rider

We would all like to climb the success ladder as quickly as possible, but the truth is, there is no race in perfecting an art form. That is especially the case when that art happens between a horse and rider – two, free-willed beings with the ability to make mistakes and lacking communication. That’s what makes success so sweet in this industry. All of the pieces have to come together to make it happen.

Although nobody has a magic recipe to become a great rider overnight, we will share some tips on becoming a more effective rider with the help of AQHA Professional Horseman, Jodi Mallette. Jodi is located in Ontario, Canada, and specializes in creating lasting partnerships with youth and amateur all-around riders. Jodi has coached clients to Congress champion and reserve champion titles.

To be successful, you have to be more than a pretty passenger. Being effective means that communication, both verbal and physical, to your horse is clear and correct. This means you are doing your job. If you’re doing yours, it is then fair to expect the same from your horse.

Proper body position 

You have to be able to engage your hands, legs, feet, and core correctly and simultaneously to get an appropriate response from the horse. The position of each could affect the way a horse performs even the simplest maneuver. You can use online sources, association rule books with guidelines, or ask a professional about proper riding position.

Jodi (pictured right) agreed that being able to “effectively communicate while maintaining body position alignment with subtle cues is an art.”

This is where a ground person, be that a coach or a friend with a video camera, is beneficial. The instant feedback a coach can provide is ideal, and that coach will likely have a wealth of experience to offer more creative fixes to help you improve your position and muscle memory. In between lessons, watch videos of your rides, you can review them and commit the desired improvements to memory, allowing you time to process away from your horse.”

Jodi also explained that her clients spend many miles practicing without reins and stirrups and doing exercises on the lunge line to deepen their connection and communication with the horse. She also pointed out that a showmanship handler’s muscle memory can be done without the horse – training yourself to run with a quiet upper body and elevated eyes takes practice, especially in arena dirt and cowboy boots.

Understanding your equipment 

First, it’s important to remember that tack (bridles, bits, spurs, and saddles) are tools for communicating and not means for instilling fear and control. You have to find what works for the horse you are riding.

For example, a more significant bit doesn’t mean more response if it’s not necessary. Some horses will require more than others. Using a bit to its actual function is the next thing to think about once you have chosen one based on your horse’s needs.

With a ported bit, a rider will have to move less in their hands to get a response from the horse as well as extra assistance in elevating the shoulder. These bits are not useful when paired with a short, jerking movement of the hands.

In that scenario, a horse will usually try and move their neck and mouth away from the blunt force of the bit, which can put their body in an incorrect position for ideal movement. A softer style bit, like a snaffle, can be an incredible tool for horses that need encouragement to move forward and lean out on the bit – something we want to see our horses do willingly.

Your saddle could be a massive factor in how effective your body language is. Ensuring that the fit is correct for you and your horse could be the difference between success and not. Get professional assistance from a trainer or the saddle manufacturer when purchasing a saddle.

Ride often and exercise more often 

Our bodies get comfortable. Even though riding is always an active and muscle engaging activity, those muscles have memory. If used correctly, Jodi calls muscle memory advantageous.

Being cardio fit enough to run laps for showmanship, post without stirrups and gallop in 2- point will get the heart rate soaring. If you have a good cardio baseline, this will help you be able to go longer and recover quicker. I’ve also found that core strength and balance are helpful to riders, so a mix of cardio with yoga and core focus are ideal things you can work on when you are away from the barn.”

Targeting muscles in exercise, even ones you don’t think you use when riding, is a great way to ensure you are ready to use your body most effectively in the saddle. Jodi also reminded us that self-care is essential. We make sure our equine partners are comfortable, but we don’t always prioritize ourselves. As she says, “Both horse and rider need to be well looked after to be the best team they can be.”

Understanding that you are being scored

Make the rule book your friend. If you know what is expected of you in the arena, you will see where the priorities lie with an emphasis on scoring and penalties.

This knowledge will help you determine the strengths and weaknesses of both you and your horse. Your job is to be aware and honest with yourself about what needs to be practiced the most. The people who readily accept that they are not perfect are often the ones who reach perfection first.

Building trust with your horse

This requires spending time together and, as Jodi told us, a self-awareness that allows you to analyze responses. Trust comes from being consistent with your cue and response release. 

I encourage my students to try to communicate with their horse on a scale of 1-10 with our goal of response on a cue at a 1 or 2. We gradually increase the cue in volume until there is a desired response.  A lazy horse might need a wake up with the occasional 8-10 cue, but we immediately go back to the soft cue and reward for a light response. To achieve that silent (nearly invisible) communication, you and your horse need to be conversing in whispers softly and subtlety so that it’s a pleasure to watch, like an impressive dance or figure skating pair,” Jodi explained.

She went on to say that horses are generally looking for the path of least resistance. “If you can apply a cue and release for incremental improvement, they will quickly learn the skill you are asking. Then, step-by-step, you can increase the technical demands of that skill, including things like perfecting frame and adding speed. The riders need to be thinking horsemen with a plan and reasonable expectations for the learning curve.”

Becoming a competent rider starts with awareness of you and your horse. One thing stands true for all of the advice listed above – you have control over each. That doesn’t happen much in life, which means it comes down to choice.

GoHorseShow Contributing Writer, Morgan Jennings grew up actively competing on the AQHA circuit from leadline to her now amateur years and is a past Michigan Quarter Horse Association Queen. She balances her time between showing her all-around gelding Finely Asleep, writing, running Revitalized Saddles with her husband, and serving Michigan as their Wildlife Cooperatives Coordinator for Michigan United Conservation Clubs. In the future, Morgan plans to obtain a Master’s degree in Wildlife Management and continue to be an active member of AQHA.