I Threw Out Everything I Thought I Knew and Rebuilt My Riding

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By Karen Kreider

This article was an honorable mention in the 2018 GMO Newsletter Award in first person experience for GMOs with 500 or more members. It first appeared in the May 2018
Georgia Dressage and Combined Training Association newsletter, Collected Remarks.

I come from a middle-class family – horses were never an option other than the occasional rented pony. My background in sports was high school stuff – field hockey, track, basketball, etc. 

I finally got a horse when I got out of graduate school and got a job to pay for it.  And the lessons began.  Yes, I learned some technical things and showed a bit.  Skip ahead twenty-five years – 

When I turned 50 I had been pretty much horseless for 13 of the last 15 years.  I moved to Atlanta for a job and was not looking to get back into riding…..and then I met an old friend who had started taking lessons… and then I found an eventing trainer and learned to  jump and thought – now or never, I  am just getting older, I want to jump.  Jumping is great fun!

I leased a green horse in 2013 and then bought him – Merlin, aka Wapz Voodoo.  He was very sensitive and upside down, but had a great mind and wanted to please.  I took more lessons, dressage and jumping.  We competed and won GDCTA annual first place awards for Novice and Training level.  Now, it was on to Prelim, where all our holes showed up.  Merlin needed help in gaining confidence in XC, so I took him to a trainer who fixed that – boy that was easy.  Just pay a good rider to ride the horse correctly.  She gave him the jumping experience and training he needed.  She helped me by letting me know I was doing a lot of things wrong, but I honestly wasn’t able to understand how to fix them.

So now what? The harder I tried, the worse I got.  If I could shoot basketball, run track, high jump,  etc., why did I struggle with riding?

In retrospect, the high school athlete experience was not helpful in trying to ride a horse.  Back then it was try harder, run faster, make it happen.  Be intense and be tense.  Focus on yourself and what is going on in your mind.  That worked for me then, so I took that approach to riding.  Lessons were – do this, do that with your body. And the horse will try his best.  Do this and the horse will then do that.  Cause and delayed-by-default horse response.

Read that last one again – cause (rider action) and then the response – effect (horse’s reaction).  This is bad thinking, in my opinion.  Let me tell you why. 

Last summer I was very frustrated with myself; I can’t keep riding this way, it doesn’t work and my horse is not happy with me!  So I started over with my riding. Really started over.       

That means I threw out what I thought I knew, I assumed 99% of what I was doing was not right, and I needed to re-examine and re-learn how to ride.  I assumed that 100% of what my horse did that was not what I wanted was my fault.

I picked up Sally Swift’s books, and then others’. I watched good riders – closed hands, forward hands, uplifted ribs and self-carriage in the torso, shoulders down and back, relaxed seat and legs. Eyes up. How were they doing this?

I tried to mimic them.  And I stopped listening to the voice in my head and instead listened to my horse and what I felt under my seat and in my hand.  Every ride; Every stride; Soft eye; I changed from thinking “cause and effect” to thinking “we are doing this together.”  How lightly could I sit on him if I held myself up with my abs? Wow, look at him use his back more!  How did he change if I relaxed my thighs? What if I shifted my weight to the outside seat bone?  Wow, does he talk to me?  

Riding is not playing basketball or running.  It is being part of another being and performing together.  A horse’s back is his primary connection to his rider. The rider needs to focus on communicating with the horse through his back, with the leg and hand playing supporting roles. As observers we can’t see this communication between the rider’s seat and horse’s back.   If you think about the square inches of physical connection, though, this is where all the action is!

Merlin is making me a better rider and a better partner to him.  I balance myself with my abs, I help him stay balanced with me, and our movements flow together.  I think of the two of us as a single being – sounds a little sappy, I know, but now I finally get it. I have much appreciated the help of my trainers, but there are limits to what trainers can see.  I have learned that self-discovery, feeling and listening to my horse are the best ways to improve my riding position, aids, and influence. Teaching myself to focus and listen every stride. My horse’s back can “see” everything there is to know about my seat and balance.  He is much happier now that I focus my mind on listening to him!

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