The problem with really good riders…

Watching other riders is a great way to learn. In fact it’s pretty much how I got started. When I was first bitten by the bug, I spent a lot more time hanging around watching my friends ride at riding schools and pony clubs than I did riding. I went to any horse show I could, and was happy to just sit and watch for hours. Even my horsey friends thought I was a bit mad… but I definitely benefited from learning some things from the ground. From the very beginning I had my heels down automatically, knew how to sit and hold the reins, and could recognise key basics such as trot diagonals and canter leads. I was told I was “a natural”, but I think my physical ability was strongly related to a strong mental preparation.

These days when I watch other riders I notice a lot more than I did back then. I notice a lot more of the fine technical details, I notice more of the many different types of unsoundness and most of all I think I notice the relationship between the rider and horse.

The thing is though, that the vast majority of my learning has been from picking up mistakes made by others. You can learn many variations on how not to sit by seeing other riders falling off or just looking unbalanced. You can learn how not to use your hands by seeing (too many) horses with unhappy mouths. You can learn how not to behave around a horse by seeing the sorts of people horses aren’t keen on.

Mark Todd was one of my childhood heroes, for his lower leg that never moves... Here he is riding Regent Lad in 2010. Photo: Henry Bucklow/Lazy Photography

And this brings me to the problem with really good riders… They’re the role models we all look up to. They effortlessly achieve things with their horses that we wish we could do. Or at least it looks effortless. And that’s the thing – if they’re really good, you may not even notice why they’re so good. Everything is smooth and harmonious. The rider’s position is near faultless, hardly seeming to do a thing. The horse is at ease, with all the submission (although I prefer to call it acceptance) that you could wish for.

You just sit, and stare, and think “How do they do it?” or “I wish I could ride like that” or ” I wish my horse went like that “.

Or maybe… “I wish I had long legs”, “I wish I could afford lessons with better coaches” or “I wish I could afford to buy a better horse”.

The thing is though, that in some cases you may not even notice the really good riders at all. They’re so good that they know better than to try and push the horse beyond what it can mentally and physically cope with. So they accept what the horse gives them, even if it means being overshadowed by flashier combinations. The somewhat unfair result being that many people won’t even notice what a great thing that is, and how that calm, “boring” rider really knows their horse.

The riders on the naughty horses may draw your eye. They may look like good riders – and they may well be in some cases – but what can you learn from the way they’re interacting with their horse? Is the horse calming down and becoming more accepting? Or is the rider a key contributor to a vicious cycle?

Here’s a suggestion: Next time you watch a group of riders, don’t just watch what they do,  keep a careful eye out for the things they don’t do.

Here’s a checklist to get you started. Things you won’t see the really good riders doing:

  • Asking for more than the horse can give
  • Confusing the horse with conflicting aids
  • Using larger aids than necessary
  • Blaming the horse for rider errors
  • Blaming the horse for horse errors
  • Having temper tantrums

Once you get started you’ll realise this is not just about being an elite rider. If you take another look at the above list, these are all things that any rider can aim for. By this checklist, you can have a “really good beginner rider” at one end of the scale, right through to a “really good elite level rider” at the other.

I really like this new way of looking at things, even just for the fact that by this definition there are “really good average riders” out there! 😀

PS. If you’re a Mark Tood fan, take a look at this video of him riding Charisma in the 1980s and compare it with this video of him riding at Burghley in 2010. The most obvious change being that he has much quieter hands, which I hope is due to him improving his skills rather than just a difference in approach to different mounts. One thing that really good riders do that you can watch out for, is that they never stop learning and trying to improve, no matter where they start off from.

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