One of my teachers used to say that you can’t teach anybody how to ride. The student either gets it, or they don’t. Another one said that you can’t teach feel. If somebody isn’t born with it, they will never acquire it. Those are very widely held beliefs.
It’s true that the teacher cannot tell the student precisely how much pressure to apply at any given moment with a calf, a rein, a knee, or a seat bone, because the teacher is not sitting on the horse at that moment. Even if the teacher could tell the student all the specific technical details, it would take so much time for the teacher to formulate them and for the student to hear them, interpret them, and apply them, that the right moment would be long gone. The aid would come too late.
Another problem is that if the teacher could describe to the student exactly how they themselves apply the aids, it still may not work, if the teacher and student have different body heights, weights, and different ratios of torso length to arm length to leg length, etc. The intensity of the aids and the composition of the aids may have to be adjusted from one rider to another. And one rider may have to apply an aid with his knee, whereas another rider may have to apply the same aid with the lower calf, in order to get the same result. One rider may have to make himself light in the saddle, whereas another may have to sit down on his seat bones more on the same horse.
Many riders are searching for a kind of “operating instructions” or “owner’s manual” for their horse. They go from teacher to teacher in the hopes of finding someone who can tell them which button to push in order to get the same result every time. They seriously think that’s the main difference between themselves as 1st/2nd level riders and a Grand Prix rider. When the teacher finally has to tell them that they need to sit on their rear end and learn to ride, they move on and seek out the next trainer.
Unfortunately, riding is not that simple. Horses are not computers that respond exactly the same way to the same push of a “button,” every time, no matter what time of day it is, no matter what the temperature is, and no matter how long they have been working that day. Horses change all the time, depending on how they feel that day, depending on what was done with them the previous day, and many other factors.
“A good riding teacher teaches not only how to handle a horse, as well as equestrian technique with the necessary corrections, but he will point out to his students over and over that the best teachers for gaining equestrian tact are only the horses. Listening to them, learning to understand their language is the most important and also the longest part in the training of the rider.”
“However, the best teachers, human or equine, are powerless if the students do not possess a certain mental attitude, especially the necessary understanding to recognize and correct their own mistakes quickly, in other words to learn self monitoring, self criticism, and self control. Consistent, diligent practice and the acquisition of equestrian tact on the one hand, and perseverance on the other hand, are of the utmost importance. False ambition at the horse’s expense, however, must never arise.”
Dorothee Faltejsek (1998, translation: TR).
Another difference between horses and computers is that you can install a program on a computer, and from that moment on, it will always be there, until it is deleted. When a horse learns a new skill, on the other hand, it takes a while before it is confirmed. For instance, after the rider is able to ride a flying change for the first time with a new horse, it doesn’t mean that the horse has now mastered the flying changes and can do them perfectly and consistently from now on at any time and in any context. That requires some time and practice. There may come a time when the horse seems to have forgotten temporarily how to do them, and has to be reminded by repeating the introductory work for a while. And things like straightness, balance, and suppleness are even more ephemeral. They can be lost from one stride to the next, and have to be recreated every time that happens.
So, in a strictly mechanical sense, it’s impossible to teach somebody how to ride, because there are too many unique individual cases and unique individual situations to describe all of them. That’s also the reason why many of the greatest masters refused to write anything down. They were often afraid that people would mechanically copy a technique or apply a recommendation by rote without any sensitivity for the individual horse and the circumstances of the situation.
Teaching How to Learn
However, over the years I have found that the teacher can help students to learn how to learn. While the number of individual scenarios is infinite, they can be broken down into principles and parameters. There is a finite number of general operating principles that apply to all horses, regardless of their breed, type, age, gender, or training level. There is also a finite number of basic operations that the rider can carry out. But the combination of the principles that govern each situation with the basic operations leads to an infinite number of possibilities.
It is the teacher’s task to explain the principles to the students, and to teach the basic operations, such as bending, turning, stopping, going forward, sideways, and backward. With the help of specific case studies, he can demonstrate how the principles have to be applied to the individual horse. During this process, the teacher has to explain how to arrive at a diagnosis, how and why to choose a particular course of action, how to execute the intended exercise, and what to expect as a result. After the exercise has been completed, the teacher then has to evaluate and explain the result. In other words, the teacher has to teach the student how to think, so that the student learns how to trouble shoot, how to diagnose what needs to be worked on, how to choose the right exercise for the horse, and so on. That is perhaps the most valuable gift the teacher can give to the student, “for without that knowledge a Man but gropes in the Dark, and if he succeed in any Thing, he is beholden more to a lucky Chance than solid Judgment.” (Jacques de Solleysel, 1717).
The Thinking Rider
The old masters always emphasized the importance of the thinking rider, because a rider who doesn’t think, will never be a good trainer, either. A rider who is not a thinking rider will never get very far with his horses. Feldmarschalleutnant v.Holbein (1898) considered this to be so important that he included it in the Directives of the Spanish Riding School, which are otherwise exceedingly sparse: “The rider must not only be able to ride, but also to think, as only a thinking rider can reach his goal with the utmost consideration for the horse in a relatively short amount of time.” And Gustav von Dreyhausen (1951) elaborates: “Above all it is necessary to make the right diagnosis as to the cause of the problem and how to overcome it. Cures of the superficial symptoms are entirely useless. A clock whose mechanism is broken will not go right, even if one brings its hands into the currently correct position. If, on the other hand, the mechanism works well, the hands will always indicate the correct time. The same thing applies to the horse. There is no point in forcing the head into a certain position before the overall posture is in order. Once that is achieved, the head is automatically in the right place, i.e. with a flexed poll.” This cannot be repeated often enough, because even today, after centuries of research and experience, people still fiddle around with superficial symptoms like the headset, instead of analyzing and eliminating the real cause of a problem.
A thinking rider is first and foremost a problem solver. In order to solve problems, the rider has to be a good observer. He has to give his undivided attention to the horse to be able to observe all the greater and lesser surface level symptoms that the horse exhibits. Focus and attentiveness are among the most important qualities of a good rider as well as a well trained horse. While he is around the horses, the rider cannot afford to think of the annoying colleague at work or what’s for dinner, or what’s on TV, but has to be completely absorbed in the conversation with the horse. In this age of the super short attention span and attention deficit disorders, this is often a problem. A rider who is distracted and unfocused cannot learn anything, because he will miss too many pieces of information and too many communications from the horse. By the same token, an unfocused and distracted horse is equally unable to learn anything, because he is unaware of the rider’s aids and intentions. That’s why attentiveness is the first thing horse and rider have to learn. It should actually be included in the training scale even before rhythm and tempo, because without it there can be no progress, no training. It’s not even safe to ride if one of the two partners is unfocused.
The rider has to observe the horse with all senses: visual, auditory, but most of all kinesthetic. This requires a good seat with a stable core and supple, relaxed surface muscles, because stiff muscles cannot feel anything. Seat bones or legs that are not in touch with the horse cannot feel anything, either; and an unbalanced, crooked seat will not be able to feel very much, either.
The surface level symptoms that the rider sees or feels have to be traced back to their underlying root causes. That is done through the application of the knowledge of the general principles of biomechanics and psychology.
As the student is learning how to ride, the teacher can tell him what questions to ask of the horse and how to interpret the answers. When a problem arises, the teacher can tell the student where to look for a possible solution. Then it’s up to the student to do the homework and to experiment with the possibilities. Much of the process is a matter of trial and error. Sometimes it’s a process of elimination. The rider has to try several different possible solutions in order to find one that works. The more experienced the rider becomes, the faster he will find the right answer.
There is a culture of fear of mistakes in dressage that comes from the quest for perfection, which paralyzes many riders. They are so afraid of making a mistake that they don’t dare to experiment. There is an old joke about government employees that if you do nothing, you make no mistakes. If you make no mistakes, you get promoted. Ergo, if you do nothing, you get promoted.
In riding, that doesn’t work. If you make no mistakes, you never learn anything. That’s why it is so important for the student to give himself permission to experiment and make mistakes. Of course, the experiments have to be conducted with common sense and a good knowledge base, so they are not totally random or dangerous. An intelligent rider should be able to recognize if whatever he just did made the horse better or worse. If the horse has become worse, the rider can change what he is doing. Making a mistake causes no lasting harm (provided common sense and a certain theoretical knowledge are applied), if the rider is smart enough to realize “that this didn’t work” and discontinues it.
Make A Data Base
The underlying idea is that everything the rider does, every aid, every exercise, every adjustment of the seat, will make the horse either a little better or a little worse. All the rider has to do is keep track of the horse’s reactions. He has to build a kind of data base for each horse that lists all the things that make the horse better and all the things that make the horse worse. This data base has to be updated with every new ride, because horses change over time. In this data base, the rider also has to record all the horse’s idiosyncrasies, such as how to ride a left turn, a right turn, how to bend left and right, how to ride all the possible transitions and all the movements, etc. This includes how to prepare the horse for the exercise, how to guide him through it, and what potential pitfalls to watch out for.
When the horse makes a mistake, the rider has to check what happened in his own seat and aids at that moment. When the horse suddenly gets worse, the rider has to identify what changed in the seat or the application of the aids. The question is: “What did I do to deserve this?” The same thing applies when the horse suddenly improves. There is always a correlation, even if the rider can’t see it at first. Sometimes it takes a number of repetitions before the rider sees the connection, because very small changes in the rider’s posture can trigger huge changes in the horse’s posture – for better or for worse.
One could say that each horse tries to tell his rider how he needs to be ridden. It is up to the rider to pay attention and to listen to what the horse is trying to say. The horse will then guide the rider towards the optimal seat and aids for each turn, transition, or movement. It’s a little like the children’s game where one person asks a question and the other person answers by saying “warmer” or “colder,” which gradually leads the first person to the correct solution. The horse’s way of saying “warmer” is by improving his gait and posture a little. His way of saying “colder” is through a deterioration of the gait and posture. If the rider avoids everything that makes the horse worse and tries to find all the things that make the horse better, then the seat and aids will continually improve through the horse’s guidance. The key is not to keep repeating the same aids and not to maintain the exact same seat, if the horse isn’t performing optimally. Instead, the rider has to keep modifying the seat and aids until he finds the best version for this particular horse and this particular situation. This is a slight simplification, but for most riders and most situations it works quite well.
The approach I am describing in this article places a great deal of responsibility on the student’s shoulders. To a large extent, the student essentially has to educate himself with the help of the horse’s feedback. The horse trains the rider as much as the rider trains the horse. The human teacher serves as a guide and interpreter. He explains the training principles, makes suggestions for exercises and changes to the seat and aids, gives feedback, and translates the horse’s responses for the student.
It is crucial that the student brings the right attitude to each ride, as Dorothee Faltejsek said in the introductory quote: “especially the necessary understanding to recognize and correct their own mistakes quickly, in other words to learn self monitoring, self criticism, and self control. Consistent, diligent practice and the acquisition of equestrian tact on the one hand, and perseverance on the other hand, are of the utmost importance.”
The rider has to try to see things objectively as they really are, i.e. not to make excuses, and not to shift blame for his own mistakes to the horse, or the teacher, or the saddle, or the bit, or the farrier, and on the other hand not to beat himself up for making a mistake, either. Monitoring the horse, monitoring one’s own seat and aids and the correlation between them has to become second nature. It is something that the rider has to do automatically all the time, without ever stopping.
The student has to correct his seat and aids himself, after the teacher has pointed something out once or twice, so that the teacher does not have to keep repeating the same correction. The student also has to recognize when the horse makes the same mistake in the same context a couple of times that there is a new bad habit developing that requires a change on the rider’s part. If the horse keeps repeating the same mistake over and over, it’s the same as if the teacher is repeating the same instruction over and over. The student has to pick up on it and implement it, so that the two legged and four legged teachers can move on. Otherwise, the training gets stuck.
The student has to do his homework himself, i.e. he has to be proactive in reading, observing, asking questions, self-monitoring, self-correcting, and practicing. The teacher cannot do the work for the student. It’s not possible to spoon feed the knowledge and skill to a passive recipient. It is earned.
Perseverance and consistency are critical as well. Learning to ride well takes many years of daily diligent practice, even under the best circumstances. Egon von Neindorff always used to say that it takes ten years of regular lessons just to learn to ride a horse well that somebody else has trained, and that it takes another ten years to learn to “make” a trained horse from scratch. There will be many setbacks and blows to the ego, even for the most talented riders. The only way to get better is to keep trying.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR: DR. THOMAS RITTER