horses, ponies, riding, riding lessons, Saddlebred

Lessons Learned From a Legend: Riding 101

After the publication of my book The Last Crabtree Girl, I have had several people ask if I left anything out or had I published my whole Journal. The answer: I left out some of the lessons because I felt the book would look like a “how-to book” written by an 11- to 14-year-old girl. The other question has been, did I write anything about the other girls and boys in the barn? The answer is no, I wrote about my experiences and my horses. However, it would be fun to hear from all the past Crabtree Riders (any year, any decade) to collect fun stories for another book. Now that’s an idea!

When I arrived at Crabtree Farms as a new student, Mrs. Crabtree started teaching me the basics. Yes, the basics. I was frustrated because I thought I already knew the basics by then, but after time, I realized how invaluable these lessons were. With this in mind, I decided to share my ‘checklists’ with you. I used these tools every day, with every lesson, and even when riding on my own. I feel they were important and key to my riding success. So, using my notes, journals, and with the help and guidance of Mrs. Crabtree’s book, here are some of the lessons not mentioned in The Last Crabtree Girl.

A Horse’s Respect for the Rider Doesn’t Come From a Bag of Peppermints.

Swiss Kiss and I had great respect for one another and a great show season. He was obviously happy with the way I rode, as his ears and attitude showed. We were an undefeated team for most of the show season, proving he was a very talented horse. However, as much as we respected one another, in the stall area, Swiss Kiss would pin his ears back at everyone and flip his head around, warning us he would rather take a chunk from us than be loved on. Peppermints didn’t work! Nor can you bribe a horse to do something with peppermints when you are on his back.

I believe in my heart that one of the keys to my successful equestrian career was definitely rooted in my efforts at successful relationships with all of my horses. If you ignore that these beautiful creatures have feelings and moods, each their own unique personalities, you won’t be able to create the trusting bond that is needed to get the best ride from them.

Are you aware of your horse’s movements—muscle movements, mouth (bit), ears, shoulders, and tail—during your time with them or at your lesson? Swiss Kiss would bite down and chew on his bit hard when I first got in the saddle. His ears pinned back and he swung his head around just enough to let me know he was angry but not long enough to allow time to correct him. He was so smart! Because I was taught to address my reins quickly (pick them up) and already had my feet in the stirrups as soon as I landed in the saddle, I didn’t allow him time to think of anything else bad to do. We walked off ready for our ride. He took a few steps, I patted him on his neck, and he became a whole new horse. It is a proven fact that horses can feel your mood. By patting him on the neck, he knew I was happy and glad to be riding him. This relaxed him as we took a few more steps, and he walked proud like a champion, and from that moment forward, he wore his ears pricked forward for our ride.

Following are examples of my very own questions posed to myself every day and at every lesson. These became a habit, a routine, to take in my horse’s feelings, attitude, and mood. Remember, every horse is different and reacts in their own way. Swiss Kiss might not have liked peppermints, but Shammy would about break her stall door down when she heard a peppermint wrapper crinkle!

Remember to answer honestly. They are for you, to help you achieve your goals as a rider either in a show, in a race, or for pleasure riding.

What has your (lesson) horse named you? If he/she could talk, what would his/her nickname be for you?

Ask yourself, does this nickname change every lesson or would it change over time or is it set in stone? No matter what I think Swiss Kiss’s nickname for me was in the stall, the respect he had for me riding might have been a little friendlier than I thought it was.

As you use the checklists, think back to your most recent lesson/ride and try to remember the best you can, then read these questions right before your next lesson so they are fresh in your mind. These should be completed after at least two lessons.

• Did your horse greet you with his ears forward or back?
• When you are riding, what are his ears doing?
• Where are his ears pointing during your lesson? When? Why? What was happening?

• When the bit is in his mouth, does he chew on it?
• Does he mess/fidget with the bit while you are riding?
• Does he pull on it? If so, when or what were you and your horse doing in the lesson when he pulled? Or does he pull all the time?

• Did he shake his head while you were having a lesson? If so, why?
• Did he drop his head to the ground? If so, why?
• Did he raise his head and nose in the air? If so, why?
• If he didn’t do anything with his head, why do you think he was still?

• Have you ever noticed how/if his shoulders move when you are riding?
• Do you watch this area of your horse’s body for signs?
• Do you feel them with your legs and body?
• Do you know why you might need to see or feel their shoulders?

• Does your horse swish his tail when you ride?
• Has your horse ever swished it hard, like a whip?

As you mount your horse:
• How do you land in the saddle? Soft, flop, hard, wet bag of cement? Please explain.
• Where were the reins?
• Was someone holding your horse?
• Did you hold the reins with your left hand while mounting?
• Did you leave them on his neck until you were up in the saddle?
• After you mounted, what did you do with your reins?
• How soon after you mounted did you find your stirrups?
• Did someone have to help you find your stirrups?

Horse and Rider
• Are you and your horse a team?
• While riding, do you think you are in charge or in control of your horse?
• On the ground, do you think you are in charge or in control of your horse?
• Are you the boss?
• Do you tough your way into being the boss?
• Do you have the “I will show him who’s boss” mentality?
• How do you ask him to do his tasks/job?
• Do you beg him or bribe him with treats to do his task/job?
• Are you consistent with how you ask him to walk/trot/canter/halt the same way every time?

After answering all of these questions, do you think you are aware of your horse’s movements including ears, legs, mouth, tail, head, and shoulders at all times?

The moment I sat on top of Swiss Kiss, it only took a matter of seconds before I was ready and we stepped off into a walk. However, never did I allow him to walk off before I queued him. Once you learn to pay attention to your body and the horse’s while you are in the saddle, you can feel his body before he makes his first step so you can say “whoa” when you feel his muscle flinch before he starts to move his leg. In the case that Swiss Kiss didn’t wait for my signal, I would make the quick correction by stopping him with a whoa (never with a hard rein), then I would make him stand at a full halt for a few meaningful seconds. Next, I would signal for him to walk and then pat his neck and say, “good boy.” I was letting him know that I was present (aware) and would be giving the commands of the day, but in a nice way. Of course, he already knew what I meant when I said “whoa” because I said it every single time I wanted him to stop. With a lot of repetition and consistency, horses understand words!

As I used to say: “A rider not aware may find themselves in the dirt.”

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