Falling Off . My approach to rebuilding rider confidence. Part 1

I heard some riders joking that their barn policy is that anyone who falls off during a lesson buys their instructor a Coke. Cute, but does reveal and underlying assumption:  Falling off is a necessary evil of learning to ride… but is it?  Memories of my early days at the local riding school include eager young equestrians dropping like flies. “It takes seven falls to make a rider!” the teacher would assert as she brushed us off and legged us back up.

Falling off hurts!  It can shake a rider’s confidence so much that many choose to abandon riding altogether.

When I’m judging a show, I hate to see a competitor fall off.  I hate to fall off myself. I believe many of the falls I witness at horse shows could be prevented.  So as a coach, I do everything I can to minimize risks and systematically layer horse and rider skills-each skill thoroughly understood before progressing.

Risk Taking

The process of becoming a competent rider is like climbing a staircase. We take a risk each time we  stretch beyond the comfort zone. We step into the unknown the first time we climb aboard a new horse, try new tack,  jump a bigger fence, or venture off-property to  the first show. We sense the caution signal of self-preservation, and push through it. As a coach and trainer it’s my job to measure each risk and determine when and how much to progress.

Progressing sensibly: the science of “shaping”.

It’s my goal in each schooling session to slightly stretch the rider or horse with a new skill, or “shaping” a variation of the skill (faster, slower, more steps, more consistency etc.) but only as they master the step before. Admittedly,  not appealing to thrill seekers! Nevertheless, in following this system, I find I rarely have totravel back down the staircase. Anxiety rises and riders fall when they try to skip steps. Horses don’t learn when they’re stressed or confused. Either do riders.

For example, we wouldn’t move up to the canter until the aids and rider technique was mastered at the trot. I’d never use a new bit until I’d tested it from the ground – flexing and backing the horse until he knows the language of that bit.  I wouldn’t trailer a horse on a field trip to a show or clinic until the cues are working in my home arena – every time.  As an airplane’s controls are methodically tested before  take off,  I make sure students have an understanding of the “four P’s” before we fly up to the next level.

Pace, Path, Package and Position

1. Pace is the gait, stride length and cadence of your horse.  Pace control is picking the rate and having the slow and go skills to adjust your horse to match it exactly. If a rider is having trouble coordinating his hands and leg aids to sit a slow trot with a steady drumbeat, he’ll be out of control at the canter.

Can you adjust the stride within the walk and trot? Transition smoothly between gaits? How are your brakes? Can you stop and rein back without resistance? Slow a horses legs and slow his thinking. Riders like to lope! But building skills at a slower pace is ultimately faster!

2.Path. As the pilot of your horse, you’re the decision maker. Are you able to guide your horse on the exact path you choose?  If horse’s body is a train, path is the track, and lateral control describes a rider’s ability, through use of distinct aids, to keep each car on the track.

How can you direct your 1000 lb. horse to the center of a jump with only “head steering” installed? I see so many riders jumping before they’re ready. Most “run outs” could easily have been prevented if a rider had lateral control before starting over fences. Leg yielding, bending, turns on the forehand and haunches. Tools to eliminate “bulges” toward the gate or “ducks” into the centre of the arena.

3.Package  While path refers to side-to-side suppleness, package is my “P” term for back-to-front suppleness. Packaging, connecting or rounding a horse, similar to a coiled spring, begins with having him yield and flex to your hand as you keep the rhythm of his legs marching with your leg and seat aids. If your horse braces against the bit, feels like a board when you ask him to give to your hands, or falls out the back door into a walk when you attempt to slow his trot, you likely haven’t established connection. Stepping up into a canter transition(without running into it through the trot), tighter, accurate turns and collecting the canter all require a measure of packaging your horse from front to back.

4.Position  applies the rider’s form and security on the horse.  A rider who isn’t firmly anchored in the tack with independent use of her hands and legs is heading for a fall if she tries to do more than she’s ready for. The principles of centrifugal force and inertia from high school physics class come to life in falls off the side and over the horse’s head when riders skip important steps of horsemanship!

Next month: After a fall or equally scary incident – what now? I have a special interest in helping riders rebuild their confidence. Knowledge inspires confidence. By explaining the HOWS (technical skills) and the WHYs (horse behavior and the science of learning) my students have the tools and understanding to stretch to the next level at their own pace. They enjoy the process as much as the result!