Use athletic skills you already know – like golf – to help you ride your horse.
By AQHA Professional Horseman Richard Shrake | September 26, 2009
As golfers know, once you’ve got rhythm in your swing and your timing in place, you have to hit the ball precisely or it will end up in the rough. Rhythm, timing and precision are essential to becoming a better rider, too.
What Is Precision?
To me, precision is about doing things correctly. It means having every part of your body in the correct position to help the horse, from your head to your hands and from your seat to your toes.
When you watch a top golfer, his approach never changes. From the way he warms up to the way he addresses the ball, it’s the exact same thing every time. That consistency helps maintain precision, and precision is what makes champions.
When riders tell me that their horses have good days and bad days, I ask them whether their precision is on target on the bad days. How’s their body form?
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From shaping a dressage horse’s frame before a lead change to helping a barrel horse prepare to shorten his stride before hitting the pocket of a barrel, the rider’s job is to help a horse hold his frame. Your horse can’t do that if you’re off balance or you do not have precise position.
Starting from the top, your head and eyes affect your balance. It’s like a teeter-totter. If you drop your eyes, then your chin goes. If your chin follows your eyes and drops a half inch, as much as 30 percent of your body weight will fall on your horse’s front end, then he’s off balance and the teeter-totter bangs onto the ground.
Golfers keep their heads steady. Riders need to keep their hands steady, too, without dropping their eyes. Try looking at the horizon between your horse’s ears instead of the ground in front of him. You have to be able to collect your horse without moving your entire upper body. Don’t make huge, crude moves; keep everything in little half-steps.
Great golfers don’t say, “OK, my left shoulder is up, my heel is down, my leg is at a certain angle” – they practice their precision at home until they can walk up to the ball and their precision of form happens. You can do the same thing, too, if you practice keeping your body in position and your hands, legs, heels and seat where they should be.
When you’re riding western, the hand that is holding split reins should be just in front of the saddle horn, with a straight wrist and forearm, as if your hands are an extension of the bit. Your hands have a direct link to the horse’s mouth, and you can give him confidence if you use your hands slowly and quietly.
Like the old song says, the foot bone is connected to the leg bone, and a secure seat starts keeping your body in line and in balance for correct form. Your feet affect your legs, which affect your pelvis and your upper body. When your body is in line and in balance, from your heels to your ears, you then have the ability and the precision of your body position to help your horse by giving him a chance to rebalance. He’ll have an easier time changing leads or stopping or going through obstacles.
If your body isn’t in line, you have a better chance of getting in your horse’s way.
Put the ball of your foot in the stirrup. When the ball of your foot is taking the weight, your ankle can absorb the horse’s energy, giving you a better “feel.” Most of the weight should be to the inside of your foot, closer to the big toe, to help your balance. Your toes should be slightly turned out, keeping your knee and seat relaxed and soft.
Your thighs should be steady and secure. Your calves are connected to your seat position; when one changes, the other does, too. Your knees, like your ankles, should absorb the horse’s energy. They should be relaxed, so that your seat stays closer to your horse. Keeping your knees soft also helps you use your lower leg more effectively.
As you ride, you need to breathe. You’ll want to use the upper part of your body for that, so keep it relaxed as you ride. A soft back will help you maintain rhythm and timing. It will also help you adjust your position and balance, acting as yet another shock absorber. Your shoulders need to be square with the horse’s shoulders, not overcompensated toward the rein hand if you’re riding western.
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Purpose of Horsemanship
There’s no excuse for horse people today to have bad horsemanship. There are so many clinics and good instructors and DVD series available that a motivated rider can find the instruction he or she needs to improve.
Not only that, the greatest gift a rider can give a horse is to become a better rider. Learning rhythm, timing and precision opens the door for greater communication. Your horse will get better and better, and your ride will become more enjoyable for both of you.
If you need help, find it. In the meantime, may you always ride a good horse, and may your horse reach his potential.