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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.

Once the rider masters the open rein, we move to the direct rein.

The direct rein takes a little more skill to master. Unlike the open rein, the direct rein uses both hands and both legs to cue the horse to turn.

In this article, we will focus on the hands and reins, but remember, the legs play an important part so we will discuss that as well.

direct rein 1

We start by asking the rider to take the hand in the direction of the turn and move it to their back pocket and look toward the horse’s tail. This is very effective for our young riders because their legs hardly reach down to the horse! What this does is stabilize their leg at the girth and as they turn, their outer leg moves behind the girth. The horse moves in the direction of the rein movement.

The hardest part of this, is the release that is needed from the outside hand. If you move your inside hand in the direction that you want to turn the horse, and pull back with the outside rein, the horse will not turn and will stop. So, the outside hand needs to move forward slightly to give the horse the freedom to turn.

direct rein 2

As the riders progress, they can use less effort in the direct rein and presses back to the outer thigh. Notice that the outside hand and rein are released and, in this case, the rein is supporting the horse’s outer neck and shoulder.

When the rider starts to move her weight to the appropriate seat bone in the saddle, the horse will make the turn with less and less rein movement. At some point, the movement to turn the horse may only need a squeeze back from the rein and the shift in weight in the saddle.

In any case, the inner leg is always at the girth and the outside leg is just behind the girth.

One of the biggest errors that I see is when the horse responds with only slight pressure from the rider and the rider starts to move the rein toward the pommel of the saddle. This movement must be performed with coordinated leg aids. We’ll discuss this in the post about indirect reins.

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.

One of the first skills we teach a young rider is how to control the horse by turning left or right, making circles, and serpentining the arena.

The easiest way to understand how the horse moves in a new direction is by teaching the open or leading rein.

Leading the horse

When we lead the horse from the ground, our hand is on the lead line near the horse’s halter. When we want the horse to turn, we move the horse’s head to the left or right by moving the lead line in our right hand to the left or right. The horse moves in the direction of the lead line.

Scouts learning how to lead a horse at Hooked on Horses Day Cap

Scout learning how to lead a horse at Hooked on Horses session

The thing to remember is that we are not “pulling” to horse left or right. We aren’t pushing the horse either. The horse is moving away from the pressure.

Huh? What does that mean? Think about it. If you are moving the lead line to the left and the horse moves her head to the right, there will be tension or pressure on the horse’s face. To eliminate the pressure, the horse moves in the direction of the lead line.

Open or leading rein

Now let’s transfer the concept to the saddle.

Adia is demonstrating how to use the leading or open rein

This rider is demonstrating how to use the leading or open rein

This rider is asking Leslie to turn to the left. Notice, the rider’s left hand is moving the rein to the left. She is NOT pulling the rein to the left, she is opening the area between Leslie’s neck and the rein by moving the rein away from the neck. Leslie’s nose is moving in the direction of the rein, to the left.

This is exactly what the rider in the first picture did on the ground. Move the rein in the direction you want your horse to go in.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit, I will say “Pull right!” to a young rider as the horse is moving in toward me. That’s quicker, the rider understands it, and I don’t get run over! But once the rider is old enough to understand the concept of opening and closing the reins as if they were doors, we stop say “pull” and start saying “move.”

It isn’t long before the rider is ready for the next step – using the direct rein.

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

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Nearly every Therapeutic and beginner riding class at our facility ends with a game. Sometimes even the more experienced riders want to play games on horseback.

I find games are an excellent way to reinforce skills that would be “boring” if we practiced them as part of a riding lesson. And once the rider gets the concept, we can advance to the next level.

Here’s a sample of some games and the expected results:

Red light green light. Played on horseback the same way we play it on the ground. Reinforces asking the horse to walk on and stop.

Egg and spoon is a classic. The rider holds a long handles spoon with an egg or golf ball in the bowl part of the spoon. The object is to get from point A to point B without dropping the egg. Skill learned – soft, steady hands.

Chaos is a favorite in our barn for all riders. We play it with the holiday pictures on the arena wall or with objects on the barrels. The rider tries to be the first one to take the horse to the item called and stopping the horse at that item. Skill – focus!

Ring game. The rider moves a ring from one cone to another. We start by stopping the horse at the cone to retrieve or place the ring and advance to doing it without stopping the horse. This game improves motor skills and special relations as well as stopping and walking the horse.

Focus, following patterns, spatial relations are all essential to good riding. Why make a lesson boring when games can be the way to learn!

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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Dreamcatcher Farm

Any teacher/instructor/trainer will encounter the resistance in students;  saying “I can’t do that” or “well . . . I’ll try . . ” with with fake belief, is not uncommon when pushing the boundaries of learning and confidence.  Although it can be a tricky undertaking – pushing students past their comfort level when you know they can accomplish more must be balanced with making sure they don’t fail miserably at the task and lose confidence.  This can be especially tricky with horses as they can have their own agenda during a lesson.

Today, proposing the activity of a “figure 8” pattern using two cones gave me the response “You want me do do WHAT? But the cones are so close together, I can’t do that!”.  Of course, I say “you certainly CAN do it! and you’re not getting off until you do…”, jokingly (sort of).   😉

So what started as “can’t” slowly melted…

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