The best way to get off to a good start is to start at home! It sounds like a broken record, but the best performances originate at home with proper preparation ahead of the performance. With that in mind, here are some steps to get you off to a good start at the first cone beginning from home ending with good starts in the show pen.
Begin by paying attention to the exact steps you take after mounting, from the moment you get on your horse and ask him to move off each and every time you ride or stop. What is the first thing you do? Do you tap your leg? Take up on the reins? Move your seat to encourage your horse to walk? Really concentrate on each change you make as you ask your horse to take his first forward steps.
My guess is that you start with a loose rein, establish a walk then slowly start to draw up any slack in your rein, regardless of which seat, Western or hunt, you are riding in. Your horse probably willingly walks off, ready to move under the weight of your seat. Ears up, tail relaxed your horse is interested, happy and perhaps even enthusiastic.
As you warm up, stay alert to changes you make in your leg, seat and hand and how the horse responds. Ideally, as you warm up, you should slowly start to ask for more collection by closing the gap between your hand and leg bringing your horse’s attention to the work at hand. Your goal is to teach the horse the obvious difference between when he has done well, is free to relax and when you need his full attention.
Again, regardless of whether you are riding Western and need your horse to respond with only a slight change in the slack of your rein or you are riding in a hunt saddle and are preparing for a rollback in an Equitation pattern, your goal is to have the horse respond by collecting from imperceptible aids.
If the first thing you do after swinging your leg over the saddle is to check the reins, bumping the horse’s mouth, your horse is not going to be overly motivated to perform. In fact, he will probably start out with a chip on his shoulder ultimately becoming ear pinning, tail swishing and resentful.
Paying attention to how you and your horse collectively come together during each ride is a key step in putting together a winning start at cone one. You cannot rush ahead to the start cone without first understanding how to collect your horse and then knowing how your horse responds to being asked to collect.
After you have warmed up and have your horse collected as you ride around the arena, through the center or in circles, stop and stand. Stand for 15 or 20 seconds keeping a loose connection with your horse’s mouth. Do not let him raise his head and look off, but do not hold him in a confined position either, we are not yet ready for that. If he immediately becomes distracted and looks off, he is not ready for this exercise. Go back to the rail, ride through the center or circles before giving it another try.
Hold your reins at a length where your arms and elbows are slightly pressed forward to keep the proper slack, just a loosening, in your grip. You want to be able to bend your elbow and come the exact amount of pressure you want to place on your horse’s mouth with your arm in the ideal position, elbow alongside your rib cage.
This will be slightly different for each horse, however, continual over-flexing will lead to the loss of feel in your horse’s mouth, bullying, requiring more pressure to make a change. Overly long reins leaves your horse too much freedom to distractions. You will end up making dramatic moves with your hands to come into contact with the horse’s mouth. This will result in wildly drastic reactions from your horse as he is “surprised” by the sudden change in contact – again with the potential for misunderstanding and resentment.
As you close your legs to move forward from your 20 second break, you want to push your horse to your hand. Your hand acts like a block, preventing the horse’s head and nose from going any further, up, down or looking off. Once you feel the horse’s mouth making contact with your hand, tap your leg repeatedly and softly encouraging the horse to move into your hand by rounding his back. This is the beginning of your collection. Your elbows should now be bent and you should have your horse’s full attention. Ready to move on….
The key here is to not have to make big sea-sawing, checking or jerking motions with your hands. If you have to bump or check hard to get your horse to collect here, he is not paying attention. Again, take him back to work, figure eight, gallop around and make him work. This should be easy, not something that brings about drama. If your horse is young or easily distracted, immediately after engaging in the walk, ask for the trot or jog and use a circle to keep the horse focused on you.
Initially, ask the horse to move off at a walk then ask for the jog, trot or lope. Your job is to pay very close attention to exactly how your horse responds and encourage the response to come from your seat and leg to your hand.
It may only take only once or twice during your first attempt or it could take one lesson or ten lessons, to accomplish a seamless pattern of stopping an moving off after a 10 to 20 second stop. Once your horse moves off willingly and your hand can maintain a correct position without repeated correction it is time to increase the amount of attention you ask for during your period of standing.
Next time you stop, again for 15 to 20 seconds, keep your horse’s attention by holding your hand with the slack out of the reins. Do not ask the horse to stand with his head behind the vertical, this is counterproductive. Just keep him poised. As you complete your stop, release only the amount necessary to prevent the horse from taking steps backwards. Reinforce your collection with leg to hold the position.
Don’t expect to keep it long, just 10 to 15 seconds. Count to 10. It seems like forever when you are at home, but at the horse show, it could be as long as a minute that you are expected to be ready at the cone waiting for the judge’s to look up. That is exactly what we are building up to. But this is enough for now. Play around with this for a week. Your goal: determine and feel the contact necessary to start with collection from a standstill.
Remember you are always becoming a skilled rider. It is not something that you hang on your wall. Riding is evolutionary. Each horse, each day, each ride is an opportunity to become a better horseman. Next week we tighten things up and recreate the horse show scene.
Good Luck and Happy Riding!