Editor’s Note: Best Horse Practices Summit presenter Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years and is a regular guest columnist for Cayuse Communications. She lives in New Mexico where she works with dressage and Western clients. Visit her blog here.
Stay tuned for her upcoming book, “Dressage for the Rest of Us: How to help any horse become a happier, more responsive riding partner”
I’ve been taking riding lessons since I was seven years old. I’ve learned a lot in the last 40-plus years, but I’ve realized that the learning process is more complicated than doing what my teachers tell me to do.
Most of my lightbulb moments happen when I’m riding on my own, in between lessons, when the concept my instructor was trying to explain suddenly makes sense – not just in my thinking, rational mind, but on a much deeper level.
I used to believe more was better when it came to instruction. I audited every clinic within a 50-mile radius. I spent every spare dollar on lessons from those competing at higher levels. I used visual feedback, riding past big mirrors, obsessed with what I saw there:
- Were my heels down?
- My hands in the right place?
- Was my horse’s neck arched enough?
- His nose close enough to the vertical?
My position was never correct enough. My horse’s trot never engaged enough. After I got off my last horse for the day, I would beat myself up about my flawed and sloppy riding. The next morning, that process would start over again.
What did I learn by doing all this?
A lot. I worked with a few excellent mentors who helped me become a more effective, correct, educated, and compassionate rider and trainer. These teachers also helped me understand that dressage is more than the movements required in tests, more than a sport with ribbons and prizes, but a way of helping horses become the best versions of themselves physically and mentally. I am forever grateful for these lessons.
Other habits I acquired were counterproductive:
- I learned to hold my breath while riding because I was trying so hard to keep all my body parts under tight control.
- I learned to worry all the time about not doing the movements right, about my horse not bending enough in the shoulder-in, or not crossing his legs over far enough in the half pass.
- I learned to worry about not looking like a competent dressage rider.
None of this made me a better rider.
Now, the older and wiser me works out of a barn without arena mirrors. I use video feedback as often as I can get it, but I wait until I’m done riding for the day to watch them. I still take lessons, but only from teachers I respect, trust, and like. No one else, no exceptions.
I still believe that working with a good instructor is essential for good riding. There is no substitute for regular lessons. And while outside feedback is a wonderful thing, too much or the wrong kind can become ineffective. Riding on my own is just as important because it allows me to hear the feedback from the horse.
Our goal is to become good riders, not horseback passengers who know how to follow instruction. Ultimately, we want to develop feel, timing, and wisdom. We can’t develop these qualities without the chance to listen to our horses and to experiment with the information we get from mentors.
Most of us need time and an anxiety-free space to process the knowledge gleaned from others. We need to make their insights our own, to transform them from a string of words we understand intellectually to something we absorb on a deeper level in our bodies, in our hearts, in our gut.
Learning how to ride is a process that happens in layers. It’s easy to memorize and repeat phrases we read in books or overhear at clinics. It’s harder to translate theoretical concepts into some degree of effective communication with our horses. And by far the hardest thing is to understand how good horse-human relationships work on an intuitive level, to reach a place where we know exactly why we do what we do, to know without thinking when to do it, and when it’s time to stop.
Feel and timing don’t get better when you try harder. The absorption of these elusive concepts sneak up on you when you listen to your horse, when you’re not really thinking at all.
Read the books. Attend the clinics. Take the lessons. Do all of these things. But don’t forget to open yourself to the most valuable feedback: the feedback you hear from your horse.