“Fame is a handsome palomino quarter horse of a creamy color with a white mane and tail, and he belongs to my mom. When I entered his corral this morning, his big head—with the big white blaze running down his face—was lowered down to my height. His lips almost touched the ground as he stared at me, then he nudged me gently and almost knocked me down.” –An excerpt from The Last Crabtree Girl
He was wishing me a good morning, peanut! I am as sure today as I was all those years ago that Fame had nicknamed me peanut along with all the other trainers and riders at the barn. I was only three. That sounds crazy, but true! I learned to do everything on Fame and only needed help with his bridle. I rode him bareback, so lifting a saddle onto his back wasn’t an issue. I rode him for hours and hours every day. I felt his muscles under my legs, and when his ears perked up, I knew he was looking and listening in the direction he was pointing them. I learned to jog, trot, and canter him before my fourth birthday because my parents had challenged me.
You’ll have to read my book, The Last Crabtree Girl to find out what happened. But I wanted to tell you how I started riding and how important it was for me to feel and notice every part of Fame as I progressed from being a little peanut sitting on him into a rider. My first and biggest goal was to stay on—I didn’t have a saddle to hold onto or stirrups to help balance me. I had to learn how to balance way up on top of this 15’2 hand horse, and the consequences of not learning to balance was hitting the dirt. His jog was smooth, but as I watched the trainers riding their horses, I knew I was being pokey. So, I asked him for a trot and found myself bouncing like a mad pogo stick. I held onto his mane to help steady my hands/reins and this helped me balance. I found his rhythm, copied the trainers, and learned to post.
By the third time you have ridden a specific horse, a rapport should have been made between you and the horse. This is something to celebrate!
Be sure to land softly, in control, onto your saddle. You want to land as soft as a butterfly so you won’t hurt his back. Even a little thirty pound person can hurt a horse’s spine.
• Checklist: Body placement and control; feet, leg, seat, body, arm, hand (reins), head (eyes forward).
• Keep mindful of your horse’s every muscle movement at all times.
• Control doesn’t always mean over the horse but rather of your own body movements too.
Take a minute to memorize how your body feels in the saddle and keep that memory in the bank. You will have to reflect on that memory several times per lesson to get it right and keep it right.
At a standstill, you should practice shortening and lengthening the reins several times. The attainment of rein dexterity cannot be stressed too much. This should be effortless and done smoothly and swiftly. The horse shouldn’t even know you did it.
Remember, the rider who can address their reins (pick them up) the fastest/smoothest and properly get their mental checklist done are the first to go ride.
Legs & Posting Lesson
Take a minute to review even if you already know how to post the trot.
This is an interesting fact: If you learned how to post quickly, it doesn’t mean you are the better rider. Sometimes the rider who put more effort and diligence into their riding lessons comes out on top, learning quickly to post or not.
Before asking your horse to move into the trot, remember your checklist:
• Heels down
• Knees forward
• Shorten reins.
• Horse’s head up
• Head up
Posting is an up-down movement, finding the rhythm of the horse’s shoulders, and takes coordination while keeping your body, especially your hands, still. So, at the walk watch the right (or left) shoulder go forward and back. This is your rhythm, forward and back, is at the trot up-down. Letting the horse’s stride lift you from the saddle slightly. If you need extra help with the rhythm, ask your instructor to say; up-down, up-down while you feel yourself rising through your stirrups. If you feel you need assistance, ask your instructor to guide you by saying up-down-up-down. This might be needed, especially if your horse has an exceptionally smooth trot. Beware—bouncing is not posting. To steady your hands, one can hold a little mane or use a neck tie (leg wrap tied around the horse’s neck) if needed. This is only to help guide and give you more confidence for a short period of time. It will in no way keep you on the horse. If your hands and legs are in the proper position, then your torso will generally follow. A proper foot and leg position are one and the same. If you want to double check, stand up in the stirrups and look at leg positioning, hands and arms at a standstill or walk. When all is set, feel the horse’s shoulder move forward and back at the walk. This will be your up-down rhythm. When you ask your horse to move into the trot, the shoulder movement will quicken, but you will already be in sync. Coordination of motion between horse and rider. A team effort.
Lunging and pumping (posting) comes from posting a head of the horse’s motion. It’s entirely from the efforts of the rider, not the combined movement of horse and rider. Generally, it is caused by feet thrusted too far forward, which calls for a strenuous bounding to get your body above your feet. To help fix this, try to point your knee forward and draw your lower leg back. Use your body checklist. You should see only your toe below your knee. This leaves your posting weight over the base support of your stirrup. Ambitious riders who tend to overdo things make a conscious effort to show the posting. To slow the posting (tempo) should correct the lunging and high post. To trot a post, instead of posting the trot. Posting should be a slight movement. Remember, don’t post to the moon. Your horse is on Earth! If you still feel off, not balanced, adjusting stirrup lengths may force you, the rider, over your feet. The literal foundation of the foot in the stirrup is the key position of riding.
Walk – Trot Lesson
When I was starting out riding on Fame, I probably walked and jogged him around the arena for hours following the horses in training. I guided him around jumps in the middle of the arena, circled from one end to the other, finding a place on the rail, and then would move back to the middle to stay away from the others. I had no idea I was learning balance, control of my body, and how to adjust my rein length. So, if you get “tired” of walking around the arena, try adding guiding to the walk. Guide your horse in a circle, both reins even, and return to the exact spot from which he left the rail. Guiding the horse is not pulling the horse around. Pulling the horse around causes both horse and rider to be out of balance.
Remember your checklist: Body placement and control—feet, leg, seat, body, arm, hand (reins), head (eyes forward). If you pull your horse to make a turn, your arm is way out of form. To successfully make turns, both reins should be fairly snug, pull more with the direct rein (in the directions you want to go), and never stick your hand out to the side to guide. Pull straight back and make simple turns with wrist movements only. If your wrist seems to bend more than you think it should, or if your hand is too close to your body, shorten your reins. Riding should never get tiresome because there is always a challenge to be had!
If you would like another challenge, add how to properly reverse directions, into the rail. Halt on rail. Draw outside leg (rail leg) back and push the horse into a pivot. At the same time you turn the horse toward the rail, keep the horse’s neck straight! Reverse is done at a standstill so it will not be confused with a canter signal.
For the younger kids: Riding instructions for kids should be twice a week because of memory retention. Correction of foot and leg position should start at the very beginning of every lesson and continue until the rider has established a good basic position habit. Smaller kids might not be able to remember the checklists so should be reminded by the instructor before and during each lesson.
Another important thing to remember is that the reins are attached to bits in a horse’s mouth and he must be very careful to keep steady. Remember I asked for you to pretend you were holding a glass of water balanced on each hand and not to spill a drop? This comes from the question: Do you have nice hands? The rein is the connection from your hand to his mouth. Being steady and having constant (light) contact with his mouth is the best way to have his confidence, and this should give you, the rider, confidence that you have control. Be mindful, the bit and reins is the equivalent of you having a string tied to your braces—now wouldn’t that be awful if someone took hold of that string and you were not sure if they were going to pull hard, jerk it, or what they might do with that string? You might trust them a little more if they kept an even, steady hold. I had to hold my breath even as I wrote that example down!
“No foot, no rider!” Mrs. Crabtree.