If you've read my Blog before, you know how adamant I am that riders NEED a qualified trainer to help them move forward with their riding goals. Though this is true, I also believe riders need to learn how to become better trainers themselves. Every time you set foot in the pen with your horse, you are training. You either enforce the rules or allow the horse to make his own. He either respects you or sees you as an easy mark. The more effectively you learn to create an environment where your horse can learn, the more likely you are to achieve results!
By the same token, riders must learn how to self-evaluate their riding. You won't get very far if you depend on your trainer to tell you every single thing to do. Take what your trainer teaches you and learn how to see/feel those things for yourself!
The Secret Sauce
Have you ever ridden with your Trainer and thought, "How does he/she KNOW what the problem is?!?" I'm going to tell you their secret...they know how to see What Happened Before What Happened Happened! Read that again...they recognize that the training issue is what happened right before the "Problem" occurred.
A number of years ago, I had an Adult Amateur student in my ring taking a lesson. Her horse had been trained in our program and I knew the mare well. She was one of the most honest horses you will ever come across. The student was preparing to show Training Level Dressage. She was working in the large dressage arena, and was struggling to turn onto a 20 meter circle. The mare would keep trotting straight down the track while the student struggled to turn her. I explained to the student that she was not softening her outside rein enough to ALLOW the mare to turn. The student argued and said, "Yes I AM! She is just not LISTENING!" I asked the student to bear with me and just try turning without the reins, to allow her body to turn the mare. She argued with me, saying, "If I can't turn her WITH the reins, how do you expect me to turn her WITHOUT THEM?!?!"
I could see that the student would become tense before the turn, tightening the reins, stiffening her body and blocking the sweet little mare from turning. In effect, the student was giving aids signaling the mare to continue straight ahead and not turn. I said, "I'll tell you what, step off and let me ride her. Maybe I can get her to listen." The rider gladly stepped off the mare, saying to the mare, "You are in for it now!" I quietly walked up to the mare, stroked her face and proceeded to remove the bridle. "What are you doing?!?!" The student asked. "I don't need it." I said.
I stepped on the mare and rode the entire Training Level Test 2 with no bridle. I brought the mare back to the now slack jawed student and said, "It's not the horse..."
Training horses is not as complicated as training the horse/rider combination. Learning to see what riders are doing to cause issues is equally important as evaluating what a horse does and does not understand or can't physically do. As a student of horsemanship, it is our responsibility to become brutal in our ability to dissect our riding and recognize what we may have done to CAUSE a training issue. This is where utilizing an experienced trainer is so very important. Educated eyes on the ground can be the different between figuring out an issue or causing a minor issue to become major.
Here are some tips to begin to develop "The Secret Sauce" of recognizing What Happened Before What Happened Happened!
Ride With Precision - When I walk into an arena and there are no markers of any kind, I know that rider doesn't ride with precision. Without markers, a rider is not able to judge the efficacy of aids precisely. If I ask a horse to turn at letter "B", I know within one stride if he is answering my aids or not. If he is not, I immediately ask "WHY?" and make a correction. Without points of reference, one has no hope of identifying exactly when things began to go wrong.
Learn To Self-Check Your Position - One of the hallmarks of a good rider is impeccable position. They didn't develop it overnight. It takes a combination of experienced eyes on the ground and religious checking of one's position to make positive changes in riding position and develop correct habits. When I have students working to make adjustments in their seat, I often tell them that if it feels comfortable, they are probably WRONG and falling back into their old habit!
What JUST happened??? - When something doesn't work the way you think it should, STOP. Evaluate what you did just prior to things falling apart. Did you adjust your reins? Begin sitting trot? Stop sitting trot? Adjust your leg? Shift your weight? Give aids for a maneuver? Try again and be more aware of EVERY detail of what you do. If it happens again, you should have a better idea of what caused the issue. It could be a miscommunication, improper aids, horse not recognizing a new aid or you may not be able to tell at all. This is the time to get to your trainer to identify the issue!
One of the most difficult aspects of improving your horsemanship is the ability to self-analyze. It takes years of practice and many riders (even professionals...) never really get good at it. One of my goals as a riding instructor is to train my students so well that they are able to be independent of me. A big part of that is learning to self-evaluate and be prepared to change what you are doing to achieve a different result.