Avoiding Habit Pitfalls

Recently, I was riding a horse who is building stamina after an injury. Part of his regimen includes trotting for 15 minutes in each direction. Because he’s not asked to collect or bend right now, I decided to work on my own position. I focused on feeling my weight evenly in my heels, keeping my shoulders back, my chin up and eyes forward.

Eventually I kind of zoned out, and I suddenly realized I was trotting along, clucking my tongue. The tongue cluck is pretty ubiquitous. It generally means, “go faster,” however I realized that I was clucking away and absolutely nothing was happening.

And so I started thinking about habits. When you do something so often, like riding, you build up muscle memory and reactions that are immediate and habitual. That is obviously a necessary part of being a good rider, so that we don’t have to think about posting, using our legs, our position during jumping, and so on.

But I realized that there are pitfalls to habits, too. Ineffectual tongue clucking just undermined the message of my legs and seat because I didn’t enforce a change when I cued for more speed. I let my horse continue along, totally ignoring me.

With that in mind, here are some tips for avoiding the pitfalls of habits:

  1. Be mindful. For the first five minutes of your warm-up, be present in your ride. Give yourself enough time to warm up your own mind. Quietly focus on your position, and let go of any distractions that may be bumping around in your mind. You can pick them back up later.
  2. Make your cues count. This may be an obvious one, but every cue should get a change – even if it’s not necessarily the right change. If you cue for a action and nothing happens, cue again more firmly. If, again, nothing happens, then it may be time to “get big” and enforce a change. Then, of course, the next time you ask for the same action, you should be able to get the change with a much quieter cue.
  3. Check in with yourself. Periodically during your ride, try to do a habit check. Quickly ask yourself if you’re falling into any habit pitfalls. If you are, correct yourself and try to be more aware throughout the rest of your ride.

By being more mindful and ensuring each cue is meaningful, we can all provide a more enjoyable ride for our horses. Clarity in our cues and focus in our minds can only build a better relationship and lead to more productive riding.

What are some of your habit pitfalls, and how do you avoid them?

5 thoughts on “Avoiding Habit Pitfalls

  1. The pitfall that creeps up on me: sloppy transitions! and the coinciding thought ‘eh it was good enough’. I have to remind myself that: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, PERFECT practice makes perfect.”


  2. And there you put your finger on the pitfall of spending four hours a day in the saddle. Even though I take weekly lessons, I can acquire a bad habit in days. And they always take so long to break!
    The habits I’m working on right now are looking down, turning my thumbs in, turning my toes out and dropping the inside hip and shoulder. I think I’m on top of the bad habits of letting my lower legs swing forward and I’m starting to get the hang of keeping a supple lower back and tightened stomach muscles. Oh, and I need to fix my hip angle over jumps and keeping my back flat in midair.
    There’s just so much to work on – no matter what level you ride at!


      1. It’s such a tough habit to get rid of! I resorted to the old crop-behind-the-elbows trick in an effort to stretch my shoulders back today… painful!


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