The #1 Way to Be a Good Riding Student

This morning I read a post from Horse Listening (a great blog, you should definitely check it out!) that is called “Top 10 Ways to Be a Star (Horse Riding) Student.” Normally I find the articles on Horse Listening to be insightful and thought-provoking. However, I completely disagreed with much of this particular article.

Obviously I did agree with some of the points, like “be on time,” “be warmed up” and “do your homework.” These are common sense that everyone should do to be prepared for a riding lesson. However, then the article moved into points that seemed counter-productive to me, particularly “Think Later.”

I guarantee that most of us think too much while we are riding. Although thinking seems to be necessary when you are reprogramming your body to do new things, it is a hindrance when we are trying to move in tandem with a horse. Things happen too quickly for you to have the time to think, send messages back and forth through your body, and then hope for a good result.  So think as little as possible and do as much as possible. Save your thinking and questions for when you are on the ground, before or after the lesson. In the meantime, put every ounce of your energy and focus on your aids and your horse.

While I understand that the author is trying to encourage riders to get out of their own heads and feel more than think, it’s my firm opinion that thinking while you ride is paramount to success. You must understand why you are doing something in order to understand it fully. Simply reacting to what an instructor says without any critical thinking in the moment is a huge missed opportunity. If you wait until after your ride is over to think and ask questions, you have lost the immediacy of your thought and cannot apply the answers to your riding.

When riding outside of a lesson, it is critical to be able to think and make decisions for yourself. If a rider is so used to simply doing what someone tells them to do, when they are told to do it, there is no real learning or growth. Any coachable person could be put on a horse and told what to do. Being a good student – and ultimately being a good independent rider – is hinged on thinking, processing a situation quickly, and reacting appropriately. You cannot reach this level of riding by simply reacting to instructions.

This point also applies to a second section from the Horse Listening article, “Respond Quickly,” which basically asserts that you should do what your instructor says, exactly when they say it. The example in the article is that “your instructor sees a good opportunity for you to get your horse into a balanced canter, out of the trot, in just that particular corner, in that particular time frame.” Okay, sure, if you are a novice rider who is learning the feel of a balanced trot-canter transition, then yes, respond quickly to your instructions.

But instructors aren’t on the horse with you. (At least, I hope they aren’t.) They cannot feel what you can feel. Maybe you’re coming around the corner, and as you are given the instruction to canter, you feel your horse drop his shoulder to the inside. Cantering right then, simply because you are told to do so, would not accomplish the balanced transition. Instead of simply reacting, you should understand that your horse needs to re-balance by lifting his shoulder, help him do so, and then take the next opportunity to canter.

The third part of the Horse Listening post that I didn’t quite agree with was the “Make a Change” section, which said, in part:

…if she wants you to get your horse to use his hind end, then do it. If you DO do it, and your horse doesn’t respond, do it again! Or do something else. Or pop in a half-halt and then use your seat and leg again. In any case, make something happen. It might not be the right change, but do something.

In principle, this is a fairly sound point. Do what you’re asked to do. Right. Okay. But what if your instructor asks you to engage the hind end, and you do it, but it doesn’t work, and then you do it again, and then try something else, and it’s still not working? According to the earlier section of the article (and a fourth section that is titled “Stop Talking and RIDE!”), you should not be thinking or asking questions, you should only be reacting and feeling. You should also be saving your questions for later. So how on earth are you supposed to make a change and engage the hind end? You should probably make use of the expert who is teaching your lesson.

Ask your question. Explain what you are doing and what is not working. Explore why it might not be working, and get the strategies to try something that might work. This is the best way to expand your “toolbox” of riding skills that can be applied outside of your lessons. Perhaps your instructor will tell you to support more with the outside aids, to keep him from pushing out through the shoulder. You do so, and suddenly you can feel the horse balance and engage the hind. Next time you are struggling to engage the hind, you will remember to try supporting the outside more, and you will know precisely why this could help your horse.

Ultimately, being a student of horseback riding means learning to deeply understand how to give a horse the best possible experience while working to achieve a goal. It is about building a very solid partnership. At any level of riding, critical thinking is paramount to being able to progress and become a more effective rider both in and out of lessons. The only way to be a successful critical thinker is…to think. And ask questions when they arise, rather than waiting until later.

There are literally millions of unpredictable situations that can arise while riding a horse. If you are accustomed to reacting to instruction rather than understanding independently what to do, then you are very ill-equipped to be a good rider. Thus, the Centered in the Saddle #1 Most Important Way to Be a Good Riding Student is to ask – and understand – the “why?”

Because after all, the whole point of being a good riding student is to become a good rider.

3 thoughts on “The #1 Way to Be a Good Riding Student

  1. oh geez, I am THE WORST at talking during lessons! I am always asking questions and saying “I think my horse is doing this… or I think I’m doing this…” because I want my instructor’s feed back on whether my perception is correct or not, or why I’m doing what I’m doing, or what I’m doing wrong! I always think it annoys the crap out of them though… but it’s how I learn best… It also helps to hear myself talk it through, then I can apply it. Or, after I do it correctly, I say ‘oh this and this and this happened!?’ and if the instructor says “yes” then it’s a way to confirm what I thought I did was the right thing to do. anyway, it may annoy instructors, but I totally agree with you… sometimes I just explain to them that I am in no way trying to be disrespectful, it’s just truly how I learn!


  2. I’m definitely the same way! My instructor does encourage that, though. She tells her students (including me!) to “ride the horse you’re on” – meaning that we are expected to be present while we ride and understand what is needed to properly complete an exercise on a happy, relaxed, balanced horse. Sometimes that means taking a bit longer to prepare our horses mentally or physically before completing an instruction from her. It’s just a different style of instruction, and I might be biased but she does turn out some very talented horsepeople! 🙂


  3. I also love the Horse listening blog and like you was suprised to find myself disagreeing with this post. If I don’t think about my ride during the lesson I do ride really well (for me), which is great, but I can’t remember any of it the next day when I come to apply it on my own. To learn to ride well when my instructor isn’t spoon feeding me I have to be mentally questioning things during the lesson, even if that means I don’t ride as well during the lesson.


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