Monday, October 23rd, 2017


Horseback riding is a very physical sport that requires both mind and body coordination. And although many young children learn to ride, like many sports, the progress is slower than we’d like. But each lesson shows improvement even if it is barely noticeable. I’ll admit, watching the same repetitive movements every week can be less than thrilling, but, watching is important to the rider.

I can predict a rider’s progress by the interest of the parent.

Oh, wow!

One parent thought every step her child made on horseback was wonderful. She sat on the edge of her chair and cheered because her daughter kept the horse between the cones and the wall all the way around the arena. A little overboard? Maybe, but, this child progress quickly from controlling the horse at a walk to controlling the horse at a trot, and soon left to pursue jumping. Successful rider, yes. But, more importantly, interested parent.

No he won’t

Another rider had a great dad. He’d come in with her and help with the grooming and saddling. My thought was they had a great bond. They did – for the ten minutes that it took to get the horse ready. Once she was ready to take her horse to the mounting block, he’d say, “Have a great ride. I’ll be back right after this phone call.”

She looked up at me with puppy-dog eyes and said, “No he won’t.” And she was right. Her progress? Barely there. She says she enjoys riding, and I think she does, but she’d enjoy it more if dad would watch.

Did you see that?

Another rider was learning to trot. She could trot a few steps before the horse would break to a walk. She kept trying to keep her horse trotting. The goal was to trot the long arena wall. One lesson she made it half-way down the wall. She was ecstatic! She looked at mom for a reaction, but mom was staring at her phone. “Did you see? I went farther”, she cried out. Mom looked up and smiled and went back to her phone.

We worked on trotting the long wall for months. We never got further than half-way. Then a grandparent came to a lesson and watched her groom the horse. Watch her warm up the horse. Told her she was quite the rider. Then came the trot. And trot she did – all the way around the arena! Not once, but twice so the grandparent could video it. She was so proud of her accomplishment and so was the grandparent.

At the next lesson Mom said that she understood her daughter trotted the previous week. I was hopeful for a repeat performance. But mom stared at her phone and the daughter barely trotted to the half-way mark.

Over the years I have seen that giving your child genuine attention and encouragement, whether is horseback riding or playing checkers, is what they need to become successful at “their” sport. SO, put down the phone, don’t make calls or text, and watch. Boring? Sometimes. Encouraging for the child? Always!

Linda Watson-Call is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

Did you ever wonder why a horse responds perfectly, or close to it, for one person and not another? It’s all in the way they ask.

When I’m teaching the young riders, I will say, “Ask the horse to ___________.” You can fill that in with walk, stop, trot, or canter. And the rider will usually respond with the aids I have taught and the verbal command. But, a funny thing happens as they are learning. The horse sometimes does what she is asked, and sometimes doesn’t. So I coach the rider on how they are giving the cues and how they are sitting on the horse. But then, I hear the parent coach – you didn’t say it LOUD enough. So, the lesson progresses from trot to TROT! Wrong!

Now, you will hear me say to a rider to repeat the command so the horse can hear it. Often, in one of my therapeutic classes where we are working a speaking as well as riding. But never in one of my regular riding classes.

Ears_forward_listening_3cThink about it. The horse’s hearing is very unique. Did you ever watch her ears? One ear will swivel, then the other. They are very sensitive to sound. After all they are prey animals and they need to hear if a predator is nearby. They can hear a wider frequency of sounds – like the ultrasonic squeaks of a bat. They can also hear a greater distance. It is estimated that horses can hear another horse 3 MILES away!

So why the need to shout at your horse when you want her to move?

Horse respond readily best to low, confident tones but not high pitch shrills. They also respond to the “way” the command is given. When we want the horse to go faster, we make our voice go up. When we want the horse to go slower, we keep the tone low and drawn out. Even a simple command like “walk” can be said too different ways. Walk! Said quickly with the voice going up in pitch is very different from waaaaalk, with the voice dragging the word out and the pitch going down.

Now, look at your body when you say these words. With a quick “walk” not only does your pitch go up, but so does your entire upper torso. And that’s the language your horse is responding to. Drag out the word “walk” and your body sinks down as well.

So the next time you ask your horse to do something, think – am I asking my horse with my whole body or am I yelling at my horse and expecting her to listen.

Your horse will thank you for the softer voice and the louder body language.

Linda Watson is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

Buttercup_Becca_framedThere’s an old horseperson’s saying that goes, “Every time you do something with your horse, you are training him.”

So, how does this fit in with a riding lesson where you are the student, you have an instructor who is coaching you and you are on a horse.

The Instructor

Your riding instructor should know the horse you are riding. If not, the instructor should know how horses react to different cues. Horses don’t have push buttons, although some would disagree with me. But most o react the same way when they feel pressure, when they are startled, when the rider is off-balance, when they are having a bad day. (Yes, horses can have bad days, too.)

Your instructor’s primary responsibility is to transfer that knowledge to you, the rider. If you have a good instructor, you will be told the “why” along with the “what” when you receive an instruction. Heels down – secures your seat in the saddle. Hands together – keeps the reins alongside the horse’s neck to go straight. Each cue is given for a particular reason and the horse, if properly trained, will respond accordingly. Or at least, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen.

The Horse

Yes, the horse can teach you how to ride, too. Did you ever notice that you think you are doing everything the instructor is telling you to do, but the horse isn’t responding? Our first impulse is to blame the horse! Old Red just doesn’t feel like trotting today. Goldie must be in a bad mood, she doesn’t want to go over the poles. But wait! The rider in the next class has Old Red trotting around the arena and you never saw Goldie jump so high before! What changed? Well, the rider.

The horse, even if he knows the cues, may not be doing it because the rider is not asking properly. Yelling “trot” is not the correct cue. Yes, there is nothing wrong with saying “trot” or clucking, but you need to say it with your body as well. Slumping, sitting heavy, or having no energy does not give the horse incentive to move. Next lesson, you are more awake, you are sitting better and you are balanced in the saddle. The horse responds with a touch of your leg!

The horse has just become your teacher, rewarding you with the correct movement when you give the cue properly.

The Rider

You probably don’t feel like you’re a teacher, but you are. The time you took your horse on a trail ride and let him graze while you talked to your friend. The taught your horse that it’s okay to eat along the trail. Do it twice and you just reinforced that it’s okay to do it. Next time you ride, it becomes a habit and now you’re frustrated. Why won’t he go down the trail like he used to? All he wants to do is stop and eat the grass!

Or the time you were working a new pattern in the arena and the horse tried to go the opposite way. You were surprised and let him. Pretty soon he starts to test you every time you try something new. The next thing you know, you are calling him stubborn or bull-headed. But, who gave him permission to not listen the first time?

And so the circle goes, from trainer, to horse, to rider. Every time we interact with the horse, someone is learning. Let’s just hope we are all learning the proper way to do things.

Linda Watson is the owner and head riding instructor at Pretty Pony Pastures. Visit the website for details on all the lessons and activities at this facility.

Some people do things that need to be done knowing that they may not see the fruits of their labor.

And so it was at our place.

People would often ask why us why  were so dedicated to the therapeutic riding program, 15 years as volunteers, then, to start our own program when Tom retired.

Tom’s answer would typically be, “We try to do for others what we can’t do for our own.”  A mysterious sort of answer, but no one ever asked him what he meant by it.

Our grandson, Jamie, has special needs.  In 1987, Tom decided to look into therapeutic riding to see if this was a venue that would help Jamie.  He liked what he saw, and he stayed.  For reasons that I can’t/won’t go into, Jamie – who was four at that time – never did ride in the program.

In fact, when I met Tom in 1988 as a volunteer for the riding program, I didn’t know about Jamie until maybe a year later.  Not that he was keeping it a secret, but, the opportunity to say anything didn’t come up during those riding sessions.

Time past, and although Tom often felt disappointed that Jamie was unable to participate, his dedication to the program amazed me.  Then, several years later after we married and settled on our farm, he was very supportive of purchasing horses, building an arena and starting our own program.  All in hopes that Jamie would have a place to ride.  But, by that time, Jamie became fearful of horses and wouldn’t even step into the barn.

Today, Tom would have been proud!

Earlier this week, Jamie and Tom’s son, Wes, came by to do some work around the barn.  After the work was done, Jamie looked at the horses and said, “I ride.”  His dad and I looked at him and asked, “Do you want to ride a horse?”  Jamie smiled and said, “Yes.”

Jamie's first ride

I told Wes to bring him on Thursday so Jamie could ride in my adult session.

He came and even helped groom the horse.  Then I brought out Tom’s endurance saddle.  “Here, Jamie,” I said.  “This was grandpa’s saddle.  He would want you to ride in it.”  Jamie just smiled.  I’m not sure he understands that grandpa is gone…he never asks about his absence…perhaps he does understand.

Jamie mounted the horse like he’d been doing it all his life, while his dad led him around for the lesson.

Maybe it didn’t happen in his lifetime, but, Tom’s dedication to therapeutic riding has finally come to fruition for his grandson.  I’m sure Tom was looking down on him and smiling.

One thing that we insist on when we train a horse is that it learns how to stand square.  Showmanship classes require it, dressage requires it, but, we find it is more than a requirement that we need to comply with.  It is an integral part of  safety for our program.

Squaring Slick on leadlineStarting on the lead line, the young (or not so young) horse, is taught to square up whenever the leader stops.  We use the words “square up” and turn – leader’s toes to the horses left shoulder.  Then manipulate the horse until the front feet are square.  Following our tradition of slow is fast and less is more, we found that starting with only two feet was less confusing for the horses than trying to square up all four feet.  Once the horse has the habit of stopping and squaring the two front feet we move to squaring the back feet as well.  We work with the horse until he is square every time he stops.

One of the problems we see with our handlers is they pull or push too hard with the leadline when squaring a horse.  Most horses are very sensitive to the movement of the leadline and just a little movement will cause the horse to shift its weight and move a leg.  Once the leg moves, stop pulling or pushing.  Handlers and horses can get very frustated when the leg in question moves too far back, then too far forward over and over again.  Easy and light  makes it right and keeps everyone happy.

Mounting Slick ChickNext step is the mounting block.  Our horses never move when a rider mounts if they are standing square.  Why? Because when they stand square, they are balanced.  A horse moves when someone mounts because he is trying to get under and balance the rider – unless the horse has never been taught good ground manners.  But that is another topic.

With the leader in position – toes to the left shoulder, the horse squares up at the mounting block and the rider mounts.  If you look at this picture, you will see that the rider isn’t holding the reins.  Many of our riders cannot manipulate reins and mounting, so we teach our horses to stand for the mount without any pressure from the reins holding the horse back.  Any pressure, if necessary, comes from the leader.  Once mounted, the horse must stand still for any adjustments, taking up the reins, etc. until the command “walk on” is given by the rider.

Mounting a horse that is moving, is neither easy nor pleasant.  The time it takes to teach a horse to stand still with worth it…whether it takes minutes or hours.  We find it’s the safe way to mount.