rider responsibilities

There are some rider responsibilities that are pretty clear cut: a rider needs to ensure that their horse is clean, healthy, well fed, well watered, and well cared for.  Whether you take care of this by doing it yourself or by employing or paying someone to do it, this is indisputably a rider’s responsibility.  The Boy Scouts’ campsite rule is a good baseline: you should aspire to leave a horse in better condition than when you found it.  Of course, there are different levels of responsibility for different levels of riding — a weekly rider on a lesson pony might only pay attention to their horse’s cleanliness, legs, feet, feed, and water for the hours they are at the barn, but the more you ride the more responsibility you take on.  For someone who rides two or more times a week, especially the same horse, you start to have some responsibilities in terms of correctness* of training.  But what about a rider’s responsibility to themselves in terms of understanding their training?

2015-01-21 21.23.00 * Whatever your definition of “correctness” is, which we can discuss ad infinitum, and probably will later.  Correct like desensitizing your horse with a hipster panda scarf.

I’ve always been very interested in the theory behind training, and I know that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  There’s even more than one correct way to skin a cat.  And since cat skinning is actually a really gross analogy, let’s just go back to talking about horses, and dressage specifically (though perhaps I will pepper this with some jumping examples as well).  I think that anyone who has a basic understanding of the theory and history of dressage understands that we train horses in dressage not only to achieve beautiful, fancy, borderline-ridiculous horsey dance routines, but also to get them to use their bodies more evenly, develop flexibility and strength, and carry themselves well.  And there isn’t just one way to train a horse to do those things, there are lots of methods that have successfully trained horses to carry themselves uphill, and become more symmetrical, supple, and strong.  All of these training techniques involve a long-term commitment, but there are lots of gimmicks, tricks, and cheats that people can use to make a horse look or feel like they are working correctly even if they are not.  We can use tricks or cheats to cover up holes in the short term — for example, I have a show coming up and Murray struggles to stay connected down the long sides, so I put him into a bit of a shoulder-fore to help him stay connected — but in the long term, these things just leave holes in training.

holes like this doggy hellmouth!

So when does it become a rider’s responsibility to understand differences such as these in the way they are being trained and how they are training their horse?  As someone who thinks pretty deeply about these things — as do, in my opinion, most bloggers (and therefore most of the people reading this?) — I obviously think that a rider should aspire to understand as much as they possibly can about their riding and training program.  Why does your trainer have you ride like that to fences?  Why do you want to push your horse up into the bridle, instead of pulling his head down towards his chest?  Why did your horse cram an extra stride in before that fence, and what can you do to help him get a better spot?  What bit are you using, and why?

As a blogger, and one who is extremely interested in theory and training, I obviously take this responsibility upon my self whenever I’m with any trainer.  I ask a lot of questions, I try to get a lot of feedback while I’m riding, and I want to know if what I’m feeling is what I’m supposed to be feeling.  Sometimes this makes my lessons pretty chatty, but I’m also good at asking questions while I’m riding* , so I don’t think I lose out on too much riding.  I like to know exactly why I am doing things, and whether what I’m doing makes sense or not.  I want to understand why pushing like this or holding like that achieves the end goal, and I want my trainer to know what I’m feeling if I’m not getting it right away.  If I’m questioned by a trainer or even a fellow rider I want to be able to explain exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, beyond the basic “because it works.”  I am all about the rider understanding.14627101506_4b0c8518f2_o

* When I was a kid I used to play piano and have conversations with my mom, so apparently I developed the ability to multitask early on.

But on the other hand, I also think that riders should be able to have a reasonable expectation that they can trust their trainer to do the right thing by both rider and the horse.  Trainers should not be teaching gimmicks or tricks as long-term solutions*, and they should be engaging their riders and encouraging them to understand things beyond “I hold the outside rein and flex the inside rein because that’s what I was told to do.”  And sometimes trainers teach you to do things that are a little odd or counter-intuitive because that’s what you and your horse need at the time, and as you get stronger/more precise/more knowledgeable/more developed you can transition to something that is more intuitive and precise.  For example, grabbing mane is not a release — but it is a good trick that taught me both how to get out of my horse’s way and how to get out of his way quickly if I need to.  Plus, now if I get in a sticky spot the muscle memory is already there to just grab some fucking mane, quick.

IMG_3151* This doesn’t mean that there are no trainers who teach gimmicks as a long term strategy, or who are more interested in scores/flashy movement/jumping huge than in long term physical health of the horse.  But for the most part, I believe that people are good and at least think that what they are doing has the best interests of their charges in mind.

Obviously horsemanship is a process, but I find myself bothered when I hear riders saying things like “my trainer taught me wrong,” or “well, I was told to hold onto the right rein so I’m hanging on for dear life!” or “I don’t know why I was told to do that, so I just don’t do it*”.  Sometimes it makes me want to slap people!  Following someone’s instructions completely without understanding why you are supposed to be following those instructions is just as bad as discarding good advice because you don’t know why you’re supposed to be doing that either!  They both suggest that the person saying them is not being a responsible student.

* Oh my god, the number of times I’ve heard people tell me they have never grabbed mane when instructed to….

IMG_7297So what is the responsibility of the rider, and to what level should a rider reasonably be able to just totally trust what their trainer is teaching them?  A good rule of thumb seems like anything you are willing to school on your own without your trainer you should have a pretty good idea of a) how to do that thing with some semblance of correctness, b) why you’re doing that thing, and b-part-two) why you’re doing it the way you are.  Talk to me about it.  Tell me your thoughts. GIVE ME YOUR IDEAS!  I WANT TO LEARN.

14 thoughts on “rider responsibilities”

  1. For the most part, I agree with you. As a horsewoman and a rider, I want to know the how and why of what we do, and make every effort to fully educate myself to that end. It makes me a more well-rounded, well-educated person, and benefits my horses. But, I also know a lot of riders and horse owners that don’t care to learn, and do things “the way they’ve always been done” because they don’t see value in learning another way, or learning the reasoning behind what they do, or are just ignorant to the fact that there is a better way for whatever reason. I also think that there are MANY ways to enjoy this sport, and not all of them need to involve comprehensive, ever-growing knowledge of riding, training, veterinary care, etc., as much as I would like to see EVERY rider seek after a complete equestrian education. As long as the horse does not suffer for it, I think that ‘uneducated’ riders can still participate and enjoy the sport, and should not be discouraged from riding if they don’t want to make education a priority in their life. But – in those cases – an educated trainer, owner, barn manager, etc. needs to be calling the shots for the horses!


  2. I definitely like to understand why I’m doing something. I’ll stop and ask trainers to explain things more fully. If I don’t understand it, it’s unlikely I’ll be able to do it again later on my own. I’m actually pretty easily molded when the trainer is there. I’ll move my arm and legs wherever they say, but if I don’t understand the purpose of the thing I’m doing, I’ll never figure out how to do it later when they’re not there.


  3. I don’t think it’s acceptable for riders to say “I do it this way because my trainer told me to,” without understanding WHY the trainer is asking them to do it that way; even very young riders can understand basic concepts. Lifelong learning is part of being an equestrian, I think.


  4. It cannot all be questioned and/or explained from day one and only a few things can be fixed at any one time. So I think trainers may put some pieces in place for us until we are ready to address them on a conscience level when we gain competence.

    As a student constantly progressing and learning, it is our job to master step one so we can start to question and understand why we do step 2. If we don’t…why are we paying someone to help us move forward.


  5. i’m a big believer in learning by doing – and often that means i might be doing a thing without necessarily knowing why, beyond ‘my trainer told me to.’ sometimes it takes a while for the pieces to click in my head about ‘why’ a thing is working. sometimes i have to ‘feel’ it to understand it (sometimes repeatedly lol).

    actually i often feel like a puppet with one of my trainers – like she’s somehow (must be magic) riding vicariously through me, and my horse just goes absolutely beautifully. i honestly can not always explain why, and she’s had me do things that i would have never thought of on my own. and i will blindly follow any direction she gives me bc she’s already demonstrated that her methods work for us.

    but i also agree with you about rider responsibility, and that to be true students of the sport, we must try to understand why we ride a certain way and why it works. so one of my biggest litmus tests for whether a training program works for us is whether i can recreate at least some of that magic in my own schooling, as that’s impossible to do without understanding, at least in part, the meat and meaning of the lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love the process of horsemanship, and how there’s always an endless amount to be learned. Whenever I read theory posts (like this one) I’m always infinitely glad I’ll be able to ride for next 50 or so years.


  7. This is really interesting! I definitely see that the level of knowledge that a rider seeks depends on the individual. I have students where the majority of their lessons are theory based and we don’t ride for more than half the lesson. I have others who simply don’t absorb very much and just need to do it. Some people don’t care necessarily why it works, only that it does work and they want to continue doing it that way.

    I don’t have a preference in terms of teaching. I find that people who overthink things or want to fully understand something sometimes get locked in the “need to do it right” and never take chances or push themselves or their horses as much (often in fear of doing something wrong), so they progress slower. I also find that people who don’t understand why things work sometimes don’t know the logical next step and often it takes longer for them because they don’t have a clear path forward. And there’s a spectrum between the two, I think. I don’t think either side is better than the other either- you get a lot of really amazing riders who have no idea what they’re doing or why (these riders often aren’t great instructors though!).

    I think having a good support system, hands down, is a key responsibility of a rider/horse owner. A good vet who doesn’t cut corners, a good farrier who keeps the horse comfortable, a good trainer (if necessary) who works to improve the rider-horse relationship without so much of an agenda that the horse’s care takes a back seat, a safe place to live, and any other support- maybe a mentor or a more experienced friend or a body worker or what not. I think the worst thing someone can do is go about it alone or skimp on good support due to cost or ignorance.


  8. When I learn the “whys” of what my coach tells me it helps me so much more than just hearing an instruction. I rode for a lot of years just doing what I was told and I missed out on a lot of theory/information that would benefit now I’m sure!


  9. I think this ‘responsibility’ can be applied to any type of learning – I know it does not me. I am always asking my instructor why and how. Thinking back to highschool in biology I wanted to know the how and why of everything because I was truly interested in it. In math I just didn’t give a crap about the subject so I just went though the motions and did what the teacher told me to do in order to get by. So I think the level of ‘try’ is very student dependent given how serious they are about the subject (i.e. How serious they are about riding and maybe whether they have big competition or professional goals). Should every student care about the whys and hows in order to truly understand the riding and training process? Sure. But is everyone going to? Unfortunately, no.


  10. When I first started riding I definitely wasn’t like this (but I don’t think you should expect a ten year old to have that much thought process?) But as I grew up I demanded this of my trainers. The last (jump) trainer I had refused to tell me why and to just do it and I stopped working with her. My current trainer is very good at asking me if I understanding how and why whenever doing something


  11. I am so big on the care of horses – not just the riding. I think both are equally important!! You could eat off Henry’s stall and off him when I leave the barn 😛

    Oh and I think no one has your horses interest in mind as much as you do lol … I know I’m neurotic about Henry 😜


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