“This horse won’t go,” says the young camper, slouching in the saddle. My job, with the help of my wrangler assistants, is to transform young and inexperienced riders from passenger to effective horseback rider in 15-minute sessions every day for four days. “This horse is being stubborn,” campers complain, as the horse they are riding wanders to the center and stands with me.
These are the common complaints, along with horses getting stuck in the corner where the gate is, when working with young riders experiencing horseback riding through the Apela Foundation Ag Adventure Camp. Yet we have successfully converted many of these riders from passengers into effective horseback riders in 15 minutes using three techniques working mostly at the walk.
Three Steps to go from Passenger to Effective Horseback Rider in 15 Minutes
Sit Up – First Step of Becoming an Effective Horseback Rider
“Sit up!” I command the young riders. “Stretch up, pull your shoulders back and drop you heels down.” This simple and vital step literally transforms the horse from plodder to marcher as the rider’s seat bones now push the horse forward at the walk. A forward moving horse can now be directed where the rider wants it to go. Sitting up has the added bonus of making one look great on horseback too.
Sitting up will also help keep the rider in the saddle when trotting. Time after time, I watch riders round their shoulders and become turtle-like as they deal with the bouncy trot gait – causing the rider to nearly bounce right off the horse. “Sit up, stretch your heels down,” I command, and then watch the rider sit more securely in the saddle and actually ride out the bounces gracefully and cheerfully.
Look Up – The Second Step of Becoming an Effective Horseback Rider
“Look up and focus your eyes where you want your horse to go,” I instruct. This technique solves the frustration of a wandering horse who lacks direction. A horse dragging along aimlessly or pulling the rider to the gate transforms like magic into a forward moving and turning horse when the rider sits up and looks ahead with his or her eye focus. The eye focus must be maintained . . . no cheating by looking down to see what the horse is doing. A cheating eye results in a wandering horse again. Riders looking ahead send the horse in the direction their eyes are sending them.
A good rule of thumb in teaching this lesson is to suggest a rider choose a point along the fence and focus on that point regardless of what the horse is doing beneath them. It takes very little time before the rider is naturally and almost subconsciously correcting the direction of the horse with subtle body cues and a “zig-zag” or “aimless” line becomes a straight one.
Have a Plan – The Third Step of Becoming and Effective Horseback Rider
“What is your plan?” I ask, as riders get their horse stuck behind another horse, or wander into the corner of the arena, or walk directionless towards one of the wranglers. Effective horseback riders have a plan and are aware of what is happening around them so they can adjust to the ever changing environment of a group lesson, trail ride or warm-up arena. Horseback riding challenges riders to both think ahead and in the moment.
Having a plan allows any rider to navigate everything from a crowded arena to a complicated trail. Knowing what you want from your horse is the first step in learning how to “ask” the horse what you want him to do. If you don’t know what you want, your horse is going to decide for you.
Joy of Teaching as Transformation Happens
It is always a joy to watch the transformation happen when a camper goes from passenger to effective horseback rider in the 15 session we have with him or her. The transformation usually takes place on day 3 or 4, but when it happens joy spreads across the face of the camper and the wranglers exchange looks of pride in the accomplishment. Together we made magic happen. The horses are much happier too, which is the ultimate result of being an effective rider.
Photos: Apela Foundation – Ag Adventure Camp