Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Practice Staying On

Are Horse and Rider connected by Tack, or Trust?
The biggest concern a rider, who lacks confidence, may have is falling off. So the biggest way to build confidence is by training a student in the fine art of staying on a horse. Oddly enough, students are often expected to get good at this skill simply by osmosis, and without specific drills or exercises. People will practice all manner of techniques and movements for hours, weeks, and months, but will devote very little time to the specific skill of not falling off. By that I mean that the time spent is purely devoted to this skill and nothing else. Hoping that a student will get good while practicing other skills does not count. It does contribute, but for many, it is simply not enough.

When I started with my own students, I decided that I would develop some lessons devoted purely to the art of staying on the horse. I decided that staying on the horse would take specific training, that would require specific drills or exercises. And I decided that the exercises would have to meet the following criteria:

-Challenging. In order for people to practice staying on, they would have to have exercises that were incrementally more challenging as their skills progressed.

-Safe. To be safe, the difficulty of the exercise had to be easily controlled by the instructor or student such that it could be de-escalated as quickly and as easily as it was escalated.

-Effective. Students had to be able to notice the difference immediately. Learning to stay on a horse should not take years. It should take weeks.

-Not need an Instructor. Drills and exercises are just that; drills and exercises. It is of no use to learn a drill but only perform it once a week when the instructor is present. Students need to be able to do it daily in the absence of the instructor.

I came up with a few, but lengthy explanations would be too cumbersome for them all, so I have included two that I find to be most effective. One is very easy, and the other is very difficult.

First: Eyes closed. There is a school of Horsemanship that calls this the Blind Passenger Game. Whether or not you subscribe to that school is immaterial. This exercise is extremely effective. First pick a quiet arena where the horse is comfortable and you do not anticipate any spooking. Then ride your horse with your eyes closed. Ride the horse anywhere HE wants to go. Do not direct him. At some point he will get stuck in a corner. Do not direct him left or right, simply keep your eyes closed and drive him forward. Let him make the decision to turn left or right. When he makes decisions that you're not expecting, you will feel off balance. But you will not fall off. If it feels like you are going to fall, simply open your eyes, and you will be right back to riding like you normally do. Another way to perform this exercise is with an assistant who leads the horse. The assistant does not need to be a trainer or instructor. He just needs to be able to lead the horse around while changing directions in a random manner. To truly feel the effectiveness of this exercise, spend 10 minutes with eyes closed, and then open your eyes and have the assistant lead the horse in the same pattern again. You will feel such a remarkable difference that you will probably want to incorporate this exercise in every session.

Second: Alternating Toe Touching. With your horse standing still, take your left hand and reach over across your horse's withers and touch your right toe. Yes, I said that correctly, LEFT hand to RIGHT toe. Then switch to the other side. Right hand to Left toe. If you can do this at the halt, then do it at the walk and eventually at the trot. If you can do it at the trot, then do it with your feet out of the stirrups. If you can do it with your feet out of the stirrups, then do it bareback. Bear in mind that doing this bareback is extremely difficult. In fact so difficult that you might think that I have either made a mistake in the description or that it is simply impossible. But I assure you that it is possible and that you can do it, eventually. You may not have sufficient flexibility to do it in the beginning and an easier version would be to start by just touching the opposite knee instead of your toe and work your way down over time.

These exercises are surprisingly effective and if you do them consistently for a couple of weeks, you will definitely notice a remarkable improvement in your balance, strength, and flexibility. And of course, your horse will make improvements in these areas as well because you will be leading by example.


Horseartist said...

I've been asked to do a workshop on balance and this post has sparked my memory. I've done blind riding for fun and a variation of the toe touching exercise, but not since I was a kid.

Thanks. I've just started reading your blog and am enjoying it.

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