max-on-poppie

We probably get a call or email a month from someone who wants to place their horse with us because we do therapeutic riding and they feel their horse would/could serve a noble purpose here.

The call usually starts with “I have a wonderful horse that would be great with kids. Mine are no longer interested.” Or “I really don’t want to put Buddy down, he’s only 26 and would love to give kids pony rides.” Or “She’s a great horse, she does have some lameness issues. We give her meds and she’s fine to do some light work.”

We feel for these callers. They do love their horses, but, they do not understand how demanding the work of a therapeutic horse could be.

No spooking allowed

That simple, no spooking. Yes, your horse may be great on trail rides with other horses. Can have bikes or cars pass without flinching, but what about the kid that belongs to the wiggle club? The rider that screams out for no apparent reason, other than displaying happiness? Or tosses the reins, pulls the reins, or tries acrobatic tricks while riding?

A horse in the therapeutic riding program has to be solid. Oh, a flinch, a quick head lift, or other similar response is fine. These are animals, they still have their sense of flight, but, they have to be trusting and calm regardless of the situation on their back.

No movement at all

Conversely, we have riders who do not move – at all. They are dead weight on the horse’s back. I sometimes equate it to a bag of potatoes, but, it’s more like a boulder. After all, the potatoes may shift in the bag, but a boulder? No movement unless it falls off!

That also means that we have to add 20% to the rider’s weight. So a hundred pound rider is now one hundred and twenty pounds. Okay, that’s not too bad, but, most of these riders are adults. So, even if you say your horse can carry two hundred pounds, as dead weight that becomes two hundred and forty pounds. And is that with or without the saddle?

No movement of the rider can also make the horse’s back muscles sore. The horse moves best when the rider’s movement is in sync with the horse. Will your horse be comfortable with dead weight?

People, offside, nearside, and other issues

Many of our riders require two side walkers as well as the person leading the horse. Some horses are very sensitive to being touched on the rump or hind quarters. When a person walks alongside a rider, sometimes they have to hold onto the rider’s gait belt. Their elbow rests on the area behind the saddle. Will the horse allow that or be uncomfortable?

We also have riders who require multiple boppy pillows to keep them upright. Or the rider who, even with the boppy pillows, falls forward on the horse’s neck.

Mounting the horse can also be an issue. We have one rider who has to back up to the horse, then, be lifted onto the horse and pull his right leg over the horse’s neck while the person on the ramp and another on the ground balances the rider so he doesn’t fall backwards. Very tolerant horse to put up with that.

We also have riders who, for various reasons, have to mount the horse from the offside. This takes training, as most people follow tradition and always mount from the nearside. Similarly, we train our horses to have the rider dismount on either side. More training is required for this task.

Consistency

The riders love their mount. They come in looking forward to riding their horse. If we have a horse who is not in good health, then the rider must switch to another horse. We all know the gait of each horse is different, so most of the lesson is spent adjusting to the new mount. Some of the riders will show concern that “their” horse is sick and that discussion encompasses the entire lesson.

Yes, horses do get sick and on occasion we have to switch horses for the rider, but, accepting a horse that may not be able to be ridden every week is not good for the rider.

Yes, being in a therapeutic riding program is a great job for some horses, but our experience has been that not every horse, no matter how great s/he is, has the capability and the stamina to work in our program. But those who do are worth their weight in gold!

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.

Ella trots Leslie 2

I remember my first canter where I felt like the horse and I were moving totally in sync with each other. I can’t tell you how many previous canters felt like I was going to fly off the saddle because the rhythm and movement just wasn’t there.

Later I found out that there was an element missing – the feel. I had no idea what the canter should feel like – or the realization that although every horse performs the canter the same way, their movement, their swing, their lift, could be so different.

If wasn’t until I learned to listen to my horse through my body that I was able to ask for the canter, and get it on the correct lead, every time.

Learning to ride a horse is different from learning to read, or write, or even play the piano. But, is some ways it is very similar.

Most of our learning is based on our perception – what the marks on the paper mean, how to make marks that other people can read, how to press the keys in a way that makes a recognizable tune. But, with horseback riding, we are also learning how to interpret the movements and responses of another living being.

Each horse has its own way of moving. Yes, the walk is always a four-beat gait, but some horses may swing more from side to side where others rock from back to front. Some may even move one leg slower or faster than the other three. Some horses keep an even tempo; others speed up, slow down, or even stop.

As an instructor, I can see when a horse, let’s say if taking a stroll through the park instead of marching in a parade. I can explain to you how to wake your horse up using your aids, but it is up to the rider to be able to feel if the horse is responding and how quickly you are getting a response. It is up to the rider to feel the horse’s energy drop and keep the horse moving before he decided to slow down or stop completely.

Once one of my students understands how to use aids for riding, I may not even offer a suggestion if the horse is not following the cues. This is the point where the rider needs to figure out what to do so the horses responds appropriately.

Knowing the cues and using the aids is important, knowing how to apply them to a particular horse, that is knowing how to ride!

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.

Copper Boy_Sean gets mail 520If I had a dollar for every time one of our students was surprised that the lesson was over, our horses would never be out of carrots!

Especially with the therapeutic riders, I try to keep the same rhythm or structure for every lesson: groom, lead, warm-up, lesson, game and cool-down.

Now, admittedly, there are very few times that I’ve had an over-heated horse at the end of a class, but, the cool-down is as important as the warm-up for both the horses and the riders.

It gives them both a time to relax and get ready to complete the class. Most of the time we end the class with a game. It could be a ring-toss, bean-bag throw, scavenger hunt, or just a stop/start game like red-light, green-light.

Why games?

When I took lessons, our cool-down was just walking the horse. In circles, or down the path after cantering around the field. Five or ten minutes of slowing down and, if we were really running the horses, cooling them off. Boring!

Games, to me, is when everything comes together. It gives the rider a chance to relax after learning and practicing a new skill. Gives the horse time to regroup before the next riders come in. But, more importantly, it distracts the rider from the task of riding.

This is not counter-productive. This is often when everything comes together for the rider.

The game is now the focus, not the horse, not the skill. Even if the game practices the new skill, it is still not the same as the “lesson” itself.

Horse-rider skills

So one week I notice that the riders are having a hard time stopping their horses. Another time, the riders need to work on keeping their horses going straight. It’s game time! Nothing like ending with red-light/green light to get the riders to focus on stopping their horse. And yes, there is a three-step backward penalty if you can’t stop your horse! Funny thing, every rider can stop their horse within two steps of the call. A relay-type game of taking an object to the other end of the arena and returning is great for practicing keeping the horse on a straight line. The focus is on the target, not the skill.

Rider self-improvement

The riders improve their hand-eye coordination with a ring or bean bag toss game. Not to mention motor skills when they pick up an object and move it to another part of the arena. One of the attributes we look for in a rider is fluidity. Can the rider move one part of the body without moving the rest of the body, or move the body in a manner that would cause the rider to loose balance? We teach this with games where they have to grab something like a flag without stopping the horse and placing it in the target area.

So, in a sense, it’s all fun and games, and the lesson is over quickly. And the rider is gaining skills without even realizing the learning that is happening!

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.


When most equestrians hear the phrase “on the bit” they think of the horse’s headset. But at our farm, it means that the rider has demonstrated soft hands and good control of the horse. The rider can now ride with a bit in the horse’s mouth! For most of our riders, this is like graduation day for them. And, in a way, it is.

Our riders, regardless of the class – therapeutic, pony pal, or beginner – start riding without a bit in the horse’s mouth. The focus is on how to steer the horse and focus on control. This is not control like the horse is going to try to run and the rider needs to keep the horse at a walk, but in precision. Can the rider weave the cones or turn corners without knocking over the cone. We might put up a pattern, like the one in this picture and expect the rider to steer the horse through it without stepping over the poles. It sounds easy, but it really requires focusing on the task for the rider.

Next the riders learn how to trot. Balance is important here. If they pull on the reins as they post or bobble back and forth, they don’t have the balance they need. Once they can trot the horse keeping their hands soft and still, they have made it to the next level. Riding with the bit!

Morgan_Buttercup_ontheBitEvery rider is different. Some riders have good balance when they start learning how to ride; others don’t. Some can focus; others are easily distracted. There are a lot of skills involved in getting to this level. Most riders are able to steer their horse confidently within six months. It’s getting the balance to trot with soft and still hands that can take a lot longer. But eventually, every rider who has the determination does end up “on the bit.”

If you have a child that is interested in horseback riding, but you don’t know where to start, download our free ebook A Parent’s Guide to Horseback Riding

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