It’s been more than 20 years since my first riding lesson, but I still remember parts of it like it was yesterday. Mostly, I remember the parts I screwed up: facing the back, not the front of the horse when picking up feet; leading and getting on from the left, not the right; currying in a circular motion, not up and down…
How to have a thick skin when making mistakes. That’s another thing I learned.
My first trainer was a master of basics training, and years later, I have to believe those early lessons have saved me from countless hours of tack malfunctions, fighting with my horses, and probably injuries—to my animals and to myself. Horseback riding has been around for centuries, so I have to believe they’ve had some time to work out the kinks. If there’s a “proper” way to do something today, it’s probably the result of previous testing.
The thing is, if you start as a kid and go on to ride regularly and/or competitively for 10 or 20 years, it’s easy to forget these crucial, early lessons. You switch trainers, move up a few divisions at horse shows, and suddenly you realize things have started to slip. So, for amateurs like myself who deal with a bit of selective memory when it comes to the basics, here’s a brief refresher course.
1. Mount the right way.
If you haven't seen a slow motion video of what your horse goes through when mounting, Google it now. There's a reason why you should use a mounting block, hold onto your reins, point your toe away from the belly, and swing gently into the saddle like your pony camp instructor taught you. Not only will you save your horse's back, you'll probably save yourself an accidental dismount (or ten).
2. Shorten your reins.
No matter how much experience you have, this, for some riders, is a never-ending struggle. When you're just starting out, short reins help you steer away from other horses and stay in the ring. Years later, you'll be glad for the practice when you're fine-tuning your contact in the ring.
3. Look where you're going.
Sounds simple, right? Not always. The better you get, the more distractions you're likely to take on. Chatting with a pal, riding with headphones, or talking on the phone may seem like a simple excercise—right up until you ride in front of the beginner on her way to a jump, or cut your trainer off on a green horse. It's all fun and games until someone gets bucked off.
4. Pass touching left hands.
Once you practiced by high-fiving the other lesson kids in the ring. Today you put this knowledge to more practical use in a crowded horse show schooling ring. Whatever the case, following the "rules of the road" is critical at any level.
5. Keep enough space between you and the other horses.
Horses may be herd animals, but they all have their own particular likes and dislikes. The more horses you ride, the easier this can be to forget. Giving your horse enough space to work and think won't just keep him happy, it will keep you both safe.
6. Be a horseman.
Hopefully, when you were learning to ride, your lesson didn't end the moment you stepped out of the stirrups. It shouldn't as a more experienced rider either. Knowing the ins and outs of your horse's care and continuing your education outside the barn by reading, watching videos, fitness training, and going to clinics will only help to make you a better athlete.
7. Expect the unexpected.
Your trainer probably told you to have eyes in the back of your head, and it was good advice. The longer you're in this business, the greater your odds of knowing someone who's been seriously injured in a "freak" accident with horses, and experience level often has nothing to do with it. Accidents can happen mounted or unmounted, in any place, and with any horse. It's easy to become complacent over time. Don't.
8. Pat your horse.
When you were just a young gun you patted your horse for simple things: halting straight, not running away with you when you landed on his neck after a crossrail... Years later, your demands are probably greater, which is why it's even more important to remember this early lesson. Whether you're in the pony ring or the Grand Prix annex, don't forget to thank your horse for doing his job and keeping you both safe.