Structure is an absolute necessity when it comes to having success in training your horse. I have always been an advocate of riding with clear, simple aids, but this blossomed to a whole new level during my time with the Bartels.
There are several reasons that maintaining structure during training is so important. The biggest reason for me is just how far apart our idea of a great ride is from what our horses would rather be doing. Now I am a firm believer that there a lot of horses out there that genuinely enjoy being ridden and love the partnership they have with their rider, but I also know that when your horse is out in the pasture on a sunny day, there is not a big empty space in their heart that can only be filled by twenty seven canter transitions… right? So as soon as we stop riding with structure, they begin filling in our “holes” with what they feel is right.
What is your horses idea of the perfect day? Grass, sunshine, no bugs, freedom and being naked is probably pretty high on the list too. Is traveling uphill on that list? Maintaining jaw softness? Tracking straight? Being focused on a humans requests above all of the other incredibly interesting things in their surroundings? Most likely not…. so when you think about it in this way, it is very easy to see why so many riders tell me that as soon as they stop riding “well”, their horse “falls apart”. The reason I put these words in quotes is because I want to replace the word “well” in that idea with the word “structure” and “falls apart” with “returns to their natural tendency”. To me, the idea that every time I stop riding with structure, my horse returns to his or her natural tendencies is not very confusing or frustrating at all. Yes some elements may continue for a bit thanks to muscle memory or training good habits in the past, but its only a matter of time that your horse will fall out of auto-pilot.
I like to think that the reason we train positive repetitions, good muscle memory and strive to create good habits in our horses is not so one day we can stop riding so well, but it is kind of like insurance for the moments when we make a mistake. I have no desire to stop riding the best I can (that would not be fair to my horse), but I do know that I will make mistakes in the future and if I do have a lapse in good judgement or forget to give my horse clear structure, hopefully the hours in the saddle that I did ride well, will help my horse to help me during those times. I think there are too many trainers with the goal of creating a machine beneath them that knows what they have to do and what will happen if they don’t. Is this a training partnership? Not in my book. The reason that I want to ride my best as consistently as I can is that I want my riding to matter to my horse. If I am riding fabulously, I want my horse to go fabulously and when I am not riding so great, I shouldn’t feel upset when my horse mirrors this.
So how do we avoid losing the structure of our ride? As I type this question out, I feel like I need to say that it is completely normal for mistakes to happen. Mistakes are the way that we learn how to do things better the next time. Today is not about trying to be the perfect rider, it is about forming a structured goal for every ride that helps you to make the most out of your time with your horse. So, in answer to the question, the best way to avoid losing the structure of your ride is to begin every ride with a goal.
There is something heavy about a goal. For some reason, riders tend to lump goals and potential failure together in the same category. For myself and for my students, a goal is simply something to ride towards. If you reach that goal today, wonderful! If you didn’t quite get there, you already have a goal for tomorrows ride. A great rider doesn’t look at a goal in the context of winning or losing, but as a way to maintain your focus and gauge your progress. Imke Schellekens-Bartels says that the time you spent riding without a goal is time wasted in the saddle. I loved this when I first heard it and loved it even more as I thought more about its application. She didn’t mean that every day has to be spent learning something new and difficult, she simply wanted purpose to what a rider is doing in the saddle. It is pretty easy to understand why this is so important on the days where something new or more advanced is being introduced, but it is truly just as important during day to day schooling, on the trails or through a set of cavalettis.
Becoming a structured rider will improve the relationship between you and your horse in two different ways…
Our main goal as a rider is to try to convey what we want to our horses so that they will do it, right? That sounds way easier than it actually is. Unfortunately, our horses do not speak English and we do not speak horse. In human to human communication, we can describe exactly what we want with a few simple words, but between horses, body language is the way to go. In addition to our vastly different communication methods, I believe that communication in general is much more important to our horses than it is to us. How many times have you heard someone say, “Well thats not what I meant.” or “I mean no offense.”? Well to a prey animal that lives or dies by their ability to read the communication given off by other animals and humans, what you communicate is very important.
Tips for riding with structure:
Horses, in general, are lovely creatures. Yeah there are some bad seeds in the bunch, but I have found them to be very few and far between. Something handy about the great majority of horses is that they warn you when something is about to happen. So many riders talk about how their particular horse does something naughty “out of the clear blue sky” and I am not saying this is impossible, but I do believe that it is unlikely. This is kind of like the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one was around to hear it, did it make a sound?”. Allow me to explain… Just because we were not aware of the warning signs, does not mean that they were not given.
I remember watching a friend of mine ride a very cheeky young horse and someone behind me said, “Its funny how she is so full of herself, but she doesn’t run away.” Well, this horse was not deciding not to run away, this talented rider was adapting her warning signs and preventing disaster by doing so. This particular rider is very good at what he does, but he is not a magician (although I have had my doubts at times). Every one of us can ride this way, but it requires a structured awareness of not only what your horse is actually doing physically, but what they are communicating about their future plans. Some small, but important signs that often are ignored are small rhythm changes, habitual drifting in a particular area (even the tiniest amount), a shift in sensitivity to your aids (either becoming more sensitive or less), a change in breathing patterns… and there are many more signs that can be added to this list and you do not need to be clairvoyant to recognize them. I often ask my riders, “Where are his ears?” during a lesson. A horse cannot be fully focused on you with both ears pointing out of the arena. This is certainly not a guarantee that something horrible is about to happen, but it is an early warning sign that you either have lost or are losing their focus. When you are on a nice relaxing and your horses walk begins to speed up, don’t wait until things make a big change, correct the change when it is small.
Just being aware of the signs your horse is giving you helps to keep you aware of what their plan is and the earlier you become aware of changes in their plan, the better position you are in to react successfully.
I hope this helps motivate you to begin making structure a very important element of the time spent with your horse. Remember, structure doesn’t mean rigid and goals are your friend. Happy riding everyone!!