What’s the difference between being a good rider and a great one?

Eastern Hay 770x170-March


Timing is everything

What makes good riders great? Their sense of timing. Riding and training horses require a lot of feel, and to do it well also relies on applying the right aid at the right time. For example, a lateral leg aid must be applied when the horse can properly respond to it– when that hind leg is just leaving the ground and moving upward. If you close your leg when the horse’s hind leg is going down and weight-bearing, he won’t be able to react in the way you want. This can frustrate both of you!

How can you develop your feel for timing? There is no shortcut, it takes hours of practice and miles in the saddle. Have your instructor or a knowledgeable friend put you on a lunge line; close your eyes and try to identify the horse’s footfalls. Call out “now… now… now” in rhythm with the inside hind; then try to identify “left hind, right hind…” in time with the movement and feel the horse’s hips swing beneath you. When the hip drops, the hind limb is flexing at the hock and moving forward. At the walk, the horse’s barrel will swing away to the opposite side, to the hind leg that is grounded. So actually, the horse will TELL YOU when to use your legs at the walk, if you pay attention– his barrel will gently invite your leg to close when the appropriate hind leg can respond. This is most obvious when you ride bareback. Perfecting your timing of the aids gets more important the higher up the levels; knowing when to ask for canter from walk, or a clean flying change, for example. Unfortunately, learning to feel the horse beneath you isn’t some magical skill you can gain overnight, or from watching videos on YouTube. There’s no substitute for sitting on your horse and a good pair of eyes on the ground to help.

As it relates to timing, it is also important to note that horses do not learn from the application of pressure: they learn from the RELEASE of that pressure. Every aid we give is essentially a (small) measure of discomfort– a light touch of the leg or hand, similar to an annoying fly. The horse tries to make the pressure go away by moving his body parts around. When the pressure stops, the horse (hopefully) remembers what he did to gain relief. With consistency and repetition, the horse creates a solid association between the aid, his response, and the reward. This is basic behaviour modification.



Great riders have an excellent sense of timing and know exactly when to release pressure to reward the horse. Truly effective trainers will soften to the horse when the animal merely *thinks* about performing the correct response– this helps the horse learn faster, as if the trainer is telling him “You’re getting warmer, a lot warmer, that’s it, red hot!” instead of only rewarding the horse when it actually performs the desired action. Rewarding “the try” is essential to creating a willing partner who wants to work with you. This is true for everything from trailer loading, to getting a green horse in the water jump the first time.

Here’s an example: you have a horse that speeds up after jumping a fence. A typical solution to the problem is to halt in a straight line after the jump. A less experienced rider may get tense, lock the elbows in the air over the fence (anticipating the runaway), and continue to grip the horse’s face until he comes to a ragged halt with his head up and mouth open; and then the rider wonders why the horse continues to rush the fences. An experienced rider with better timing will stay soft over the jump, giving the horse no reason to tense up on landing. When the horse does run off, the rider will attempt to halt (perhaps strongly) but will take and give the pressure, softening the hand when the horse just thinks about slowing down or stopping. Giving the reins prevents the horse from bracing, and rewards him for considering the correct option– slowing down– even if he hasn’t come to a full halt just yet. The halt may still be a little ugly at first, but with repetition, the horse will come to trust the rider’s hands and understand what his desired response should be.

Photo by Ivegotyourpicture.com

Photo by Ivegotyourpicture.com

As riders, we should always strive to improve our sense of timing. We should seek to understand our horse’s thoughts and use that to shape his future behaviour. It is far easier to correct the horse before he makes a mistake than waiting for a habit to become ingrained. Why do some riders make a horse look so easy to ride? Because they fix the horse’s “thought” before it becomes an action. They feel the horse want to pop his shoulder out or fall in on a turn and use a little outside rein or inside leg for straightness before the horse actually gets crooked.

Bad (or inexperienced) riders are unaware of a horse’s problem. Average riders may be aware of a problem, but don’t know how to fix it by themselves. Good riders identify the issue and know how to solve it. Great riders recognize the problem before it ever happens, and take action to prevent it in the first place. When it comes to riding horses, timing is everything.

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