It always sounds so obvious, but lack of preparation is one of the biggest faults I see in the show ring. Riders often show up late to the cone, reins uneven, with hair tumbling out of their hats, mud on their boots rushing into the pen. Sometimes it is their horse that is unprepared, unsure of the circumstances with sweat marks from a previous work or thrown into circumstances for which they have no basis of understanding.
Being prepared starts at home with time in the saddle training, planning and making yourself ready for a great ride. It also means having the proper equipment for the task at hand. This includes wearing appropriate footwear and clothing perhaps even a safety helmet. I had an instructor that couldn’t stand it when I wore sunglasses to school over the jumps. She knew that I did not need glasses to see. The instructor perceived the sunglasses as my attempt to look cool. She literally would chastise me for wearing them because she felt they inhibited my ability to see clearly. The same goes for head phones, chewing gum and anything else that distracts you from your job – directing and protecting your horse.
Get your heels down. You have heard those words a thousand times before and will continue to hear them as long as you are a student of horsemanship. Your heel is your base, the lowest point of your foundation – that upon which everything else is built. When your horse comes to a screeching halt in fear of the flapping flags, better have your heels down. If you want to create inertia, when your horse needs a little extra oomph in his step; better have your heels dug deep in your stirrup. And similar to the idiom discussed last week, digging in means more than just getting your heels down.
Just as Tiger Woods practices his swing on the driving range for 2 or more hours per day, you must practice drills to keep your base strong. That means a lot of time in the saddle standing in your stirrups, in a two-point or forward position stretching and strengthening your lower leg. The flexibility and strength in your ankle and lower leg is the key to a good connection with your horse. You cannot be a great rider without being connected – at all times – to your horse. All good connections start at the bottom, with your base. When times get tough, it is this base that will keep you anchored on a successful path.
Keep your chin up! Literally and figuratively riders need to keep their chin up. Judges can tell an exhibitor’s demeanor from the slant of the rider’s head. Confident riders look ahead. Insecure riders often look down frequently or focus on the horse’s head. The eyes forewarn the judge of corrections just made or convey the concern for danger ahead. None the less, downcast eyes tip your hand and alert the judge to your apprehension. Judges will look elsewhere for their winner.
Showing up often sounds self explanatory – the more you do something the better you get. It sounds both easy and obvious, but how many of us actually do it? I am new to writing. If I do not write often, as in every day, I cannot expect to get better. If you are trying to establish a new habit, as in holding your hands closer to the horse’s neck for the equitation, you will need to practice often.
Research varies on how long it takes to break an old habit replacing it with new behavior. One thing all science confirms is that the more complex the behavior, the more time it will take to replace the old habit. If you are new to riding, it is easy to learn to ride with good fundamental position. That is why it is so important to find a good instructor early. But it is very difficult to change a position that has become natural but is incorrect!