Any one who has ever taken a riding lesson has heard about fundamentals: sit up straight; eyes ahead; heels down; and so on. But those are not really the fundamentals, rather, they are the end results of correct fundamentals. So then, what is fundamental to correct riding?

I always ask my first-time pupils, “What is the most important thing to be able to do on a horse?” I get lots of different answers, but the correct one is, “To be able to stay on! And, to be able to stay on—to be on the horse—in a way that doesn’t interfere with his or your function.” It is also called, being one with, or part of, the horse. Most of us think that this is only possible for someone who has ‘spent his life on a horse.’ Not true. Of course it takes time and practice, but mostly it takes the right kind of practice. Not ‘practicing your mistakes.’

Sally Swift points out that a child too young to feel fear of horses will sit correctly on the horse. In other words, the correct position on the horse is natural; it is fear, and its resulting tension, which causes incorrect position. So the first fundamental is no fear.

I hear all you timid riders out there saying, “I wish!” You think you can’t help being afraid. And that’s true if you do things that scare you. But let’s start from the very beginning, as the song goes. If you are standing at the fence watching horses loose in the field, a hundred yards away, you aren’t afraid. But perhaps if you’re trying to groom a horse in his stall, and the horse is fidgeting around and has his ears back, you are afraid. And well you should be. The horse is telling you he isn’t happy with what’s going on, and he is a lot bigger than you are. Some one more experienced than you needs to help you by changing the game plan until you no longer feel afraid.

At a much more advanced level, perhaps you are very comfortable jumping two-foot-six, but not comfortable at all jumping three-foot-six. Somebody—in this case your own body—is trying to tell you something! Like, there is something wrong with the way either you, or your horse, handles jumping which isn’t obvious over the smaller fence, but shows up over the bigger ones. So, if we apply our first fundamental of ‘No Fear’, we will stop trying to jump the higher fence until we have figured out what’s wrong and fixed it. If we don’t, we are dealing with a self-defeating situation—the more you do it wrong, the more scared you get, so the more tense you get and the more you do it wrong.

I should point out here that a naturally brave rider or horse will sometimes be able to solve the problem without going back. In this case, each time they jump the higher fence, things will get a little better, and the fear will go away. If you can do that, great, but if things get worse rather than better, that’s the time to quit. You may not be ‘quitting while you’re ahead’, but if you keep going you will only get further behind.

Fear in riding is also a little different from fear in any other sport, because fear is contagious, and there are two of you. Therefore if either one of you feels unsure the other one is going to pick up on it. If the other one is very brave it won’t bother him—that’s why good horses jump with timid riders and vice versa—but if you are in a situation where both you and the horse are unsure, it will take very little to get you into what could be serious trouble. I was once watching a Horse Trial where the competitors had to jump a small coop, land on a down hill slope and continue down the hill. All went well until a young rider approached, out of control and terrified. Her fear had communicated itself to the horse who, because of her tension and poor riding was also out of control and terrified. They came over the jump much too fast and ended up in a very nasty fall down the hill. I think if the young rider had not been afraid to say she was afraid, the accident could have been avoided. I also question the trainer’s judgement since I can’t believe this was the first time the rider had been frightened!

Sometimes one sees a rider who rides tensely and awkwardly, but yet seems to be fearless. This is often the result of what I call ‘body fear.’ The rider, for whatever reasons, is willing to try things for which her body has not had sufficient training and preparation. The body shows its insecurity in tension, which its owner ignores. Even if the rider ‘gets away with it’ that is, completes the task without disaster, the horse suffers from the bad riding. He also may cope but it doesn’t help his confidence any. And of course, the rider is not riding in a way that ‘doesn’t interfere with the horse’s function.

Fear is nature’s way of telling you that things are not safe. For reasons of physique, coordination and mental emotional and physical training the level of fear varies immensely from person to person and situation to situation. However, if the fear is there it should be noticed, allowed for and dealt with by both rider and trainer. If it is ignored the very least that will happen is the development of bad habits that are difficult to eliminate and which will interfere with both student’s and horse’s progress. The worst is a major interference with the horse’s function which results in an accident.

The most successful and confident riders are those who are able and willing to recognize when a situation is more than they can deal with. You can call it ‘fear,’ or just ‘caution’, but they don’t go looking for trouble! And when they do ride, they are able to ride correctly and well because they always ride with confidence.

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