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5 Simple Habits of Good Riders – with Kelly McDowall, Carey Nowacek and Johnna Letchworth Clark


A question often asked in the horse show world is, “What are the most important habits of good riders?” To answer, a good rider develops habits that focus on success with their horse every day and not just show day. So what then, you might ask, are the five top practices of good riders? GoHorseShow interviewed a top AQHA trainer and two successful amateurs for their thoughts on the topic. 

#1. Good Riders…ride as much as they can.

The first habit of good riders is to be in the saddle as much as possible, as often as possible. Riding as much as you can helps you develop the strength of body needed to compete effectively and help you form that essential connection between horse and rider.

AQHA Congress Champion Johnna Letchworth Clark emphasizes that good riders spend enough time in the saddle to know their horse better than anyone else. And that includes both your horse’s strong suits, and its limitations.

My mom always says, do not go faster than your angel’s wings can fly,” Johnna says. “Sometimes your horse may have limitations, and that’s okay, as long as you know them. However, pushing your horse to do something that a competitor’s horse can do will most likely backfire.”

AQHA World Champion trainer Kelly McDowall agrees that constant practice is a top habit of good riders. However, he also cautions that it is important to practice correctly and under appropriate supervision.

“The most important habit of good riders to me is that they schedule lots of practice time in the saddle with a good eye watching them,” McDowall states. “It’s very hard to get good unless you practice a lot. Good riders also know that it is hard to practice correctly unless they have someone with a good eye for the event(s) they are practicing for, watching and helping them.” 

#2. Good Riders…are consistent.

In a sport that hinges on competition against oneself almost more than against others, consistency in all areas (particularly practice) is essential.

AQHA World and Congress Champion Carey Nowacek notes, “Consistency is huge for our sport. You have to trust the process and continue to work towards goals every ride. Good riders push through the ‘bad rides’ and work to see the progress.”

Letchworth Clark also recognizes that consistency is an essential habit of a good rider, especially when understanding how to prepare your horse effectively for the show pen. “If you prepare outside of the arena a certain way, that’s the way you need to show your horse. That’s what your horse knows, and that’s what you both know as a team.” 

#3. Good Riders…are mentally tough.

Showing horses, especially at the top level of competition, is just as much a mental game as physical. It requires a certain level of mental toughness to handle the stress of competing against others and yourself. Good riders understand the importance of being mentally prepared to maturely handle analysis and critique and accept and apply it to improve performance.

Nowacek notes, “Good riders can control their mental game. I think that’s huge for any athlete. Being able to brush off a mistake and move on to the next ride or maneuver is what separates the great riders.”

In addition, good riders are mentally able to handle the unplanned. Therefore, they do not let unexpected events prevent them from performing to the best of their ability.

Johnna agrees, “Things will not always go as planned – that’s what you get when you pick a horse with its thoughts as a teammate. But, once you are in the show pen and maybe your horse zigged when you wanted to zag – the only thing you can control is how you handle it.”

#4. Good Riders…stay out of their own way.

Unfortunately, just like in any other sport, it is far too easy to get caught up in the stress of competition when showing horses. Good riders remember not to take themselves too seriously and forget why they began showing in the first place – because it is supposed to be fun.

Letchworth Clark adds, “We are all crazy competitive, and that’s okay. We need more competitive people in the world. But don’t let winning get in the way of enjoying the sport itself. Try to enjoy the process, it’s a long one, and if you step back and look how far you’ve come every time you show, it will be a positive experience.”

Additionally, it is essential to realize that no one is immune from making mistakes. Letchworth Clark notes, “good riders do not assume they are the only ones that get nervous or the only one who has a little bobble. If you sit and watch your peers, you will see people make mistakes and trainers make mistakes. One of the best habits a good rider can have is learning from a mistake.”

#5. Good Riders…are a good teammate. 

Finally, one of the most important habits of good riders is to be an excellent teammate to their show partner. Expecting a horse to perform at its best when upset or uncomfortable is a recipe for disaster. Good riders know their horses well enough to immediately recognize the signs that their partner is scared or isn’t feeling well.

Johnna agrees with the importance of taking good care of your teammate. “Spend enough time with your horse to know the things they may not like. We all know horses like treats, but I think it’s more important to know that a certain noise or shadow might scare your horse. You will be able to build trust with your horse if they know you are there to tell them it’s okay.”


About the Author – A native of Northwest Pennsylvania, Kelli Hardy has been a lover of horses and all things AQHA for as long as she can remember. She graduated from Edinboro University with a BA in English literature and a writing minor and is currently a high school English teacher at Erie First Christian Academy in Erie, PA. In her spare time, she shows with the American Quarter Horse Association in amateur all-around events with her mare, The Pretty Committee.

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