Grounded in the Saddle

Part 1: Introduction

Some basic exercises and tips for riding with your horse.

Rule #1 is relax and slow down!

Your horse reads you like a book, through both your body language and your energy. The two can’t really be separated. When you are calm and relaxed in the saddle you will give your horse confidence in tricky situations: "If the boss isn’t worried, then neither am I". Here are some tips on how to stay relaxed, or at least how to fool your horse into believing you are.

Breathe: When you are nervous or fearful, your natural reaction is to take in a quick breath and hold it. Your horse feels this, and knows at once that there is something to be worried about, so keep breathing. Talk to your horse, recite poetry or the preamble to the Constitution, or – my personal favorite – sing. I can’t tell you how often I've gotten through a tense situation by singing ‘Walk On By’.  While you’re engaged in any of these activities it is simply impossible to hold your breath. Just be sure that, if you are talking, you use a nice deep relaxed tone, and if you choose to sing, keep it soft and soothing. Not only will this keep you breathing and more relaxed, but your horse will also find comfort in your gentle, familiar voice.

Pay attention to how you breathe, too. Breathe in through your nose and deep into your belly. Breathe out through your mouth, like a sigh. Yawn occasionally; it is a great relaxer.

Sit Heavy in the Saddle: When you feel you're riding into trouble, you naturally tense up. Unfortunately, this immediately telegraphs to your horse, and he will tense up as well, preparing to flee. Riding with tension in the muscles of your back, seat, and legs also pushes you out of the saddle, raising your center of balance, making it much more likely that you will end up on the ground. Next time you feel yourself tensing up in the saddle, try this: think of yourself as being a sack filled with sand. Take a nice relaxing breath and, as you exhale, feel the sand flowing from your head, neck and chest down into your heels. Consciously relax the small of your back and sit deep into your saddle. Your hips should be loose and your lower back and seat should be moving freely with the motion of the horse. While you're at it, pull your shoulders down from around your ears. Riding in this relaxed manner, you will find it much easier to move with your horse should he get it into his head that he needs to be somewhere else in a hurry. And your relaxation will transmit to your horse as well. He is so sensitive that he can feel the difference when you tense just one muscle, so for his sake try to stay relaxed.

Slow Down! We all have a tendency to cue hard and fast (especially when we're anxious), but when we do so our horses don’t have a chance to respond on the lightest of cues. Slow down, and see what happens.

Hands: You want your mount to respond to your slightest cue on the reins. Horses are extremely sensitive; they can feel you start to pick up on the reins before you ever make contact on their mouths. However, they need time to respond. If you pick up on the reins quickly, you'll be in his mouth before he can react to your request. The faster you are with you hands, the less time your horse has to give you what you want before the pressure of your cue escalates. Give him a chance to do it right with little or no contact. Slow down those hands.

Seat and Legs: The same goes for the cues you give with your seat and legs. Your horse can feel it as soon as you begin to move your leg to cue him. If you're too quick with the leg, he can’t respond before your leg is full on him. Ditto your seat. You want him to stop off of your seat so you won’t need your reins. Give him a chance to do so. The cue to use for this is a rocking forward of your seat bones, falling deeper into the saddle, all performed slowly and smoothly. Just think of yourself as moving in slow motion. You will be surprised at how much more responsive your horse will be.

Now that you have yourself in hand, you can start getting your partner tuned up, too. Practice the exercises discussed in following sections of this article regularly.