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Get started by understanding the basics

This is an excerpt from Gentle Art of Horseback Riding, The by Gincy Self Bucklin.

Learn more about the basics of riding and getting to know your horse in
The Gentle Art of Horseback Riding.

Riding is a sport that differs in many ways from most other sports, both in our understanding of it and in how it is performed.

To begin with, riding is not one sport, but many, each with its own levels of competition. For example the two major disciplines in the United States, English and Western, are further subdivided into many categories. Dressage, hunter, and saddle seat are English categories; reining, cutting, and barrel racing are Western. The enormous field of pleasure riding, with all its variations, rounds out the myriad activities that fall under the general term riding. Almost unique in the sport world, in nearly all disciplines women compete on an equal basis with men, and age is not a factor. In fact, being older can be an advantage.

The most important way in which riding differs from other sports is rarely considered. If you take up kayaking and paddle so badly that you drift all over, the kayak doesn't care. If you play golf badly, slicing the ball into the water hazard, it doesn't hurt the ball. But if you ride even a little bit badly, you make the horse uncomfortable. If you ride very badly, you damage the horse both emotionally and physically, often for life.

Although horses, taken separately, are every bit as individual as humans, they all share certain characteristics. By understanding the horse and how to relate to him physically, mentally, and emotionally, you will find that learning the fundamentals of riding can be relatively simple, confidence inspiring, and fun.

On the assumption that you care about horses, the goal of this book is to help you to ride well, not just after years of training, but right from the start. Or if you have been riding and are not satisfied with your skills, this book will help you to improve as quickly as possible. Instructors, especially of novice riders, will find that following this method not only is horse friendly but also produces a good rider in the shortest possible time. (This does not mean 6 months, but less than 5 years, as opposed to the 25 years that tradition says is the time needed.)

Before we go on, we need a definition of a good rider, one who is riding correctly. It simply means that the rider can ride in a way that is comfortable for both rider and horse and do all the basic movements—walk, trot, canter, and make turns and transitions—plus anything that both have been trained to do, without difficulty or resistance by the horse. In current mainstream riding of any discipline, the first few lessons for a novice student go something like this: She is introduced to the horse in the somewhat threatening confinement of the stall, then to grooming, tacking, and leading. Next she is mounted in the saddle and given stirrups and reins. She is shown how to ask the horse to go, stop, and turn and often how to trot and post. Occasionally she is put on the longe (the horse is on a long line held by the instructor, around whom he circles) so that she does not have to try to control the horse. But often, especially in camps and similar programs, several beginners are turned loose together to struggle with all this new information.

Attempting to take in such a tremendous amount of material in a short period is a bit like learning your numbers and how to add and subtract, all in the same one-hour lesson. Add in the psychological aspect of working with an extremely large and strange animal, which you are expected to control, and on whom you are trapped like a cat in a tree, 6 or 7 feet above the ground. It speaks volumes for the kindness of horses that so many people, after this sort of experience, continue to ride.

I learned to teach many years ago using this method, along with the accompanying maxims like “Horses are stupid,” “Don't be a passenger; show him who's boss!” and “You have to fall off three times before you can call yourself a good rider!” (This last statement is like saying you have to be in three fender benders before you can call yourself a good driver!) Then about 35 years ago I started to realize that there had to be a better way, and I've been working to develop a better system ever since.

"There is only one kind of mistake, that is, the fundamental mistake. Regardless of how advanced the exercise, if the performance is defective, one can directly trace that fault to a lack in the fundamental training of either the horse or the rider."—Erik Herbermann

Taking a Different Approach

My approach is called “How Horses Want You to Teach.” In this system, the horse is the real teacher. Only he knows whether what the rider or handler is doing is correct, that is, whether she is making it easy for him to perform the desired action. The corollary to this is that if the horse doesn't perform the desired action, or performs it incorrectly, that means that the rider is asking incorrectly.

If a rider continues to incorrectly ask the horse to perform an action, she is practicing her mistakes, which is confirming her bad habits. This is the primary reason most people take so long to learn to ride well. The second reason is that there is an element of fear in riding for all novices, often unrecognized by both the student and the instructor.

Upon meeting the horse, the rider has fear of the horse himself—a large, unfamiliar animal. The instructor knows that old Buddy is a gentle, safe creature, so it doesn't occur to her that anyone could be afraid of him. But to the novice, Buddy is more like a bear—a tame bear, but nonetheless a bear—and scary. Often the first thing the rider is told is that she must never go behind him, because he might kick! Once she is mounted, the rider now has the fear of being trapped up there, with no safe way to get back to the ground. A psychologist friend tells me that it is a kind of claustrophobia. This creates a physical reaction of clutching to hang on, especially with the seat and legs. The innate fear of the animal and of being trapped or falling leads to the typical tense, awkward beginner seat, which, if not dealt with at the very start, can be extremely difficult to change. Just as being able to move while remaining grounded and in good balance is a necessary skill for most sports, so a good seat, which allows the rider to be centered and grounded, is the foundation of correct riding. Conversely, everything that is built on an incorrect beginner seat will be wrong!

In the excitement of the moment, the rider might not be consciously aware of her fear. But her body senses it and doesn't like it. I call it the roller-coaster mentality. People are often smiling or laughing as they board a roller coaster, but their bodies are screaming and clutching the handrails in sheer terror during the ride. When the ride is over, boosted by the adrenaline rush, they go back and do it again. But, no matter how much fun they are having, they can't stop their bodies from going into panic mode. You sometimes see riders doing quite advanced things, such as barrel racing or fox hunting, from very tense positions. Their bodies have never gotten over the initial fear, and their minds have never recognized it. But you can be sure the horse is aware of the fear!

Obviously, then, a student's early experiences on the horse have a major impact on how long she will take to learn to ride well. This book gives you a proper foundation and helps you advance more quickly through the process.

If you can sit up, you can learn to ride a quiet horse correctly and safely. To do so, your body must be able to follow the movements of the horse's body. You have all the tools you need preprogrammed into your body and brain. The action of the horse's back under your seat bones duplicates the movements that are created by your own legs while walking or running on your own, so following the horse's movements when riding is as natural to humans as walking and running.

In addition to following the horse's movements, you must be able to relate to and understand other beings and be willing to learn. We use these skills all the time to function in human society. In fact, one advantage of learning to ride, especially when young, is that it is excellent training in executive skills and parenting. Because of the horse's size, it is impossible to totally control him physically. You can use force, but if your demands are too great or you cause too much pain, he can react in ways that can severely injure or even kill you. You can only truly control a horse to the extent and in the same way you control other people (that is, by earning his affection, trust, and respect so that he wants to please you).

Laying a Proper Foundation

In my program, the basics are a major departure from common admonitions to sit up straight, keep the heels down, and so on. Correct position comes as a result of correct basics and arises from a centered, grounded seat. The path to becoming a good rider, as defined previously, begins with the three basics of riding and a series of exercises called the seven steps.

My three basics are to develop a good relationship with the horse based on mutual affection, trust, and respect; learn to move around on the ground and to sit on the horse in a way that is comfortable for you both; and learn to communicate with the horse, including and especially understanding what he is saying to you.

The seven steps are a series of exercises based on yoga and similar disciplines. They are a proven method of dealing with stress resulting from fear. The seven steps help you quickly center and ground in case of trouble. Among the keys to the success of my riding program, these steps are introduced in the first lesson and rehearsed until they become second nature.

The three basics and the seven steps are explained in detail in chapter 2 and are explored and applied throughout the book. If you dedicate yourself to using these tools, following the order of instructions in the chapters, and following the guidance of experienced horses and instructors, you will almost surely become a good rider and enjoy the process as well.

Read more from The Gentle Art of Horseback Riding by Gincy Self Bucklin.

More Excerpts From Gentle Art of Horseback Riding