To Ride or Not to Ride

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Several years ago a friend (also a clinician) and I were driving to dinner. On our way to the restaurant we found ourselves naturally talking about horses, training ideas and life on the road. During a slight lull in the conversation, my friend filled the void by suddenly asking “Doesn’t it bother you to go back to the same places year after year and not see a whole lot of improvement in the riders?”

There was a note of certainty in his voice, as if not only was he experiencing this lack of improvement with some of his students, but that he was sure I was too. Well, the truth was, had he asked me that same question a few years earlier I would have been able to join him in a lament concerning the same complaint. But as it was, I just shrugged and told him that I didn’t really see that problem much anymore. Not since I stopped riding everybody’s horses for them during clinics, that is.

When I first began doing clinics years ago, any time a participant asked me to ride their horse for them, I did. Also, there were times I found I struggled somewhat with trying to explain certain concepts to riders, and so instead of working on my communication skills, I would just get on the rider’s horse and sort out whatever issue they were having at the time. After the horse would feel better, I’d give it back to the rider. It didn’t take very long, however, to see that even though I may have been able to help the horse, I wasn’t really helping the rider much. In other words, by me riding the horse through the issue, the rider wasn’t developing the skills they needed in order to help the horse should the issue ever arise again, which it almost always would.

As a result, quite often whenever I’d see one of those riders at another clinic, they’d be struggling with the same or similar issues that they had been struggling with the last time I’d seen them. It took a couple years, but I finally figured out that the problem wasn’t with how these students were learning – it was with how I was teaching.

It was then that I decided to stop riding student’s horses for them during clinics unless it was absolutely necessary. I have to admit, initially it was very difficult to see a rider struggling with a horse and still resist the urge to just get on and take care of the issue for them. In fact, the first year or so after having made my decision, I did still ride quite a few students’ horses. But over time, and as I developed different, effective ways of explaining things, and different, effective ways to show a rider how to make an adjustment without having to get on the horse for them, things started getting easier.

When I say things got easier, what I mean is it began to be less difficult for me to not get on a student’s horse at the first sign of trouble. It does not mean, however, that things necessarily got easier (at least initially) for the student. Admittedly, some of my long time or returning students who had become used to the idea of me riding their horses found this change uncomfortably difficult. So difficult, in fact, that within a fairly short period of time we found we weren’t really seeing some of them much anymore.

But for the majority of those that stuck around and committed themselves to improving their skills by way of doing their own work, the growth in their riding abilities and skill level began to jump dramatically – as did the improvement in their horse’s attitude, behavior and skill level. It was a testament to the old saying that if you give a man a fish he can eat for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, he can eat for the rest of his life. But more importantly, it was a testament to the students themselves, and how committed they were to working on their skills at home (once they had been allowed to develop those skills in the first place) and not just in the clinic environment.

Back when I was still riding horses for people, some of the most common comments I would hear as I gave the horse back after having worked through an issue, was the rider saying “Now if I can only maintain this.” Or, “I hope I don’t ruin everything you just did.” Or, “What do I do if he goes back to the way he was once I’m at home?” Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, but what these folks were really saying was that they lacked confidence in themselves to be able to replicate what they had seen. The reason for that was, as I mentioned before, they hadn’t actually done the work.

Even though the majority of those same folks had insisted that they “learn better by watching,” the truth is, it is really only a very small percentage of the population that is actually able to immediately and expertly replicate something they’ve only seen someone else do. Not only that, but the more complicated or involved the task is, the more difficult it becomes for the human mind to keep up with all of the nuances of what is actually going on, which makes clear replication even more difficult.

This point was driven home for me during my early years in martial arts training. Prior to actually getting in the dojo, I spent a couple years watching videos and reading books about the art of aikido. I studied the techniques and movements as often as I could, and when my travel schedule opened up enough to where I could actually get into a dojo and begin to physically train, I was sure I would be able to just slip in and be at least marginally proficient. After all, I’ve been a pretty good athlete all my life, was in fairly good shape, and felt I had better than average balance. Plus, I had all those hours of reading books and watching videos.

It only took one two-hour class of actually getting on the mat and working on the techniques for real for me to realize that I had been fooling myself. Sure, the videos and books helped in that I was familiar with terms, hand and feet positions and etiquette. But when it came to making contact with a partner, moving effectively and being efficient and productive, I wasn’t a whole lot farther along than any of the other new students that began their training at the same time I did.

It was also during those early years of aikido training that one of my instructors said something that really drove home the importance of doing the work, rather than just sitting back and watching it being done. It was something he said during a class in which, after demonstrating a certain technique; one of the students (who had only been training for a few months) respectfully asked him to repeat the demonstration, which he did. After the second demonstration, the same student asked him for a third demonstration. Sensei obliged. After that demonstration, the student asked for one more. It was then he stopped. “You need to learn how to do your aikido,” he had said. “Not just watch me do mine.”

“Yes,” the student replied. “But I’m a visual learner.”

“Watching is good,” The instructor replied. “But doing is better.”

Of course watching is an important part of the learning process for many of us. It gives us a road map as to where we are trying to go. But as with any map, looking at it will only get us so far. If we’re going to get closer to our destination, at some point we have to get behind the wheel and start driving. What I was finding with some of my students back when I was still riding horses for people was that while some of the students really enjoyed looking at the map, it seemed they’d much rather leave the actual driving to someone else.

These days, I do ride the occasional horse for a student during a clinic, but they are far and few between. Usually the only time I do is if it appears as if the pair are struggling so much that neither are benefiting from what is going on. Even then, I usually only get on the horse long enough to calm things down a little before giving it right back. It’s sort of like hitting a reset button for both the horse and rider. After doing so, both are often in a little different frame of mind and things can often progress in a positive way from there.

Most training problems that we see in our clinics boil down to simple miscommunication between horse and rider through the feel in the reins. Because the miscommunication is between the horse and rider, it only makes sense that the rider stays on the horse as the two work the issue out. Because of that, I am now more apt to stay on the ground and, using the reins, first help the horse develop a better understanding of how to soften to pressure (from the bit, for instance) while the rider stays in the saddle. This way, the rider can feel how the horse’s body changes when its understanding of the concept starts to come through.

Then, after the horse has a better understanding of what we are looking for, I help the rider develop that same feel in their hands, this time using the reins between the rider and myself. When the rider has developed a better understanding of what they are looking for, I remove myself from the equation. From there, progress between the two is often fairly substantial and lasting.

At a recent clinic a woman who was auditing came up and asked if I remembered her. She said her name was Julie, and she had ridden in one of our clinics five years earlier on a horse that she was considering selling because they just couldn’t seem to get along with one another. Unfortunately, as is often the case, her face was familiar, but I couldn’t really remember her or her horse, or having worked with her.

She said that on the first day of the clinic, after only a few minutes into her session and already frustrated with her horse, she had asked if I would ride her horse for her, and I had declined. She said it had been the first time a clinician had refused her request and it made her even more upset than she already was. But then, as the session went on, and the subsequent days of the clinic followed, she found herself not only understanding what the problems were between her and her horse, but also how to deal with them in a positive and productive way.

After she went home, she found the things she picked up during the clinic had stuck with her and the improvements between her and her horse continued. Now, five years later, she said she was doing things with her horse that she had only dreamed of before, such as riding on trails without other horses having to be along, working cattle and even jumping and doing some dressage.

She then thanked me for having the confidence in her and her abilities that, at the time, she didn’t even have in herself. I had to think about that for a minute. I had never really thought if it that way before, not consciously anyway. I just always assume a rider and their horse will be okay together, unless and until circumstances prove otherwise, which actually very seldom happens. The key to success is simply finding a way to get horse and rider on the same page, and once that happens, improvement is bound to come through.

It’s been my experience that the only times improvement is hard to come by is usually either when the horse is physically unable to do what is being asked, or the rider simply gives up on themselves. In either case, there is only so much I (or any trainer/clinician) can really do to help out.

In the end, I think everybody eventually gets whatever he or she is looking for when they go to a clinic, whether it’s just gathering new or different information, improvement of skills, or just social interaction. But for me, my overriding goal whenever I work with folks and their horses has always been to help them find a way to be able to do their horsemanship better. And to this day, that goal hasn’t changed.

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