Practice Makes…(wait for it)…*Possible*

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | June 17, 2016

Jennifer Paulson
Credit: Jennifer Paulson
Your child may or may not have innate talent for riding. More important: how much and how well he practices, under a good coach’s discerning eye.
We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect, right? But…is it practice—rather than talent—that makes the biggest difference in how good you get at something?

To put it another way, if you’re not a naturally gifted rider, can you still achieve the highest levels of horsemanship—given enough of the right kind of practice?

At least one expert says yes.

His name is Anders Ericsson, author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. On a recent NPR “All Things Considered” segment, Ericsson said the power of practice has more to do with how far you go than your innate talent does.

How does he know that? Through decades of research into the matter. He points out that even Mozart—the poster boy for innate talent--likely benefited more from the right kind of practice than from his inborn musical ability.

Most people don’t know that Mozart’s father was a pioneer in designing effective ways of teaching music to children. Moreover, Mozart the senior worked with Mozart the junior from the time the boy was 3. Indeed, as Ericsson reveals in his book, he’s never found a convincing case of anyone, regardless of talent, developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.

And he even goes a step further. He believes the very notion of talent actually holds us back, because it gives us an excuse for failure—and a reason perhaps to quit before we expend the effort that would boost us to proficiency.

So what does this mean for you, or for your children who ride?

Most importantly, learn under an outstanding instructor. Here’s how Ericsson explained the importance of good coaching on the NPR segment: “Say you’re playing doubles in tennis. And you just miss a backhand volley. Now, the game will just keep on going and, if the same situation emerges a couple of hours later, you’re not likely to do much better.

“Now try a thought experiment--practicing with a coach. That coach allows you to stand by the net, ready to do your backhand volley--and then makes it increasingly more difficult. Eventually, he forces you to run up to the net to do it and then embed it in regular rallying.”

The payoff? “You can improve your performance more in those one or two hours with a coach than in five to 10 years of regular practice with your friends.”

One or two hours, versus five to 10 years. That’s a differential that gets your attention.

The right coach finds suitable increments of improvement for you, so you don’t overface yourself and become discouraged. He or she also helps you set reasonable expectations, and knows how and when to push you.

How do you go about finding this kind of coach? Ericsson recommends looking for someone who’s been successful teaching students like you (or your children) to achieve the level of proficiency you desire.

So if you want to excel in, say, team penning, find a trainer who’s helped riders like you succeed in that event.

Then, under his or her watchful eye, practice, practice, practice.


Invent fun variations on arena practice.

Practice vicariously by watching others.

Let Western dressage improve your practice.

Incorporate new ideas into your practice.

Rearing Horse? Four Key Cautions

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | May 26, 2016

Grand-looking in a statue, rearing’s not so appealing when it’s your own horse doing it. Heed our four key concerns to reduce the risk of injury to yourself or your horse.
What goes up can be dangerous. A horse that rears can easily fall, injuring himself and hurting or even killing his rider. If you own a horse that rears (or even thinks about rearing--more on that in a moment), here are four key things to know.

1. Rearing is really, really serious. Pro trainers will tell you that dealing with a rearer is often best left to an expert. “Once a horse has become confirmed in stopping and rearing, he already knows more about the subject than we ever meant for him to know,” says Frank Barnett, a Florida trainer with years of experience schooling problem horses. “He won’t just ‘unlearn it,’ though there are ways to ‘disarm’ him when that subject comes up.” Whether you’re the right person to attempt that disarming—or whether you should continue with the horse after a trainer has worked with him—are matters to discuss with an expert for your and your horse’s safety.

2. Rearing begins subtly. How subtle? “The first time a horse rears his front feet don’t leave the ground,” says Barnett. “It’s just a hesitation. You might be leaving the barn and he just stops. He may go again immediately, but he’s been able to stick a delay into the system.” He won’t forget it, either, and if you don’t nip that “nappy” tendency in the bud, he’ll build on it. You’ll need to stay constantly alert and aware to keep nappiness—that reluctance to go forward--from happening again.

3. You can inadvertently cause a rear. Rearing occurs as a result of fear, confusion, pain, or disobedience. It’s your horse’s way of saying NO when he doesn’t have any other way to get out of what he feels is a bad spot. You can actually cause a rear by overfacing your horse or mixing your signals—such as asking him to go forward while inadvertently hanging on his mouth. The latter is a mistake sometimes made out of nervousness or fear.

“When that happens, the horse feels claustrophobic and his energy bottles up,” explains Texas trainer and clinician Clinton Anderson. “The only way he can release the energy is by going up in the air or flying backwards.” Keeping your horse thinking forward—and feeling free of pain or fear in doing so—is an important preventive to rearing.

4. Rely on one rein, not two. If your horse surprises you with a rear, your immediate goal is to keep him balanced as you urge his front feet back onto the ground. Smoothly move your legs back and your hands and upper body straight forward, encouraging him to return to earth. Once he does, if you feel uncertain of your ability to keep him from going up again, Anderson advises you to get off and put him immediately to work on a longeing circle to remind him that you’re in charge of his feet. (Anderson’s “longeing for respect” is designed for this sort of work. Review how to do it here and here.)

If you do feel secure enough to stay mounted, put your horse to work right away—because he can’t rear while he’s moving forward. Do this using one rein, drawing him to one side and then the other.

“When a horse panics and turns to the reactive side of his brain, always control him with just one rein,” explains Anderson. “Get him thinking, instead, by asking for lots of changes of direction.”

Then, soon after, figure out whether your horse’s problem is something you can deal with by improving his basics and remaining alert--or is best left in the hands of a pro.


Stopping bucking.

Curing a bully.

De-spooking tips.

Excusing misbehavior (why you shouldn’t).

Irritating your horse (how not to).

Feeling secure in the saddle.

Tests to Tell If He’s a ‘Can-Do’ Horse

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | April 18, 2016

Photo illustration by Carol Ybarra from a Jennifer Paulson image
Credit: Photo illustration by Carol Ybarra from a Jennifer Paulson image
It was author Zig Ziglar who said, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.”

         This is as true of our horses as it is of us. It’s their attitude that determines how well they ultimately do…in other words, how much they’ll “try” for us.

         And so, in the non-pro or amateur horse, attitude is everything. You’ll go farther on a good-minded but lesser-talented horse than you will on a fabulous athlete with a don’t-want-to attitude. (You’ll likely have more fun and be safer, too.)

         You can help improve a horse’s attitude somewhat, through skillful use of rewards and even clicker training. Your best bet, though, is to study a prospect’s inborn nature before you acquire him. Your goal is to learn if he’s basically an “easy” horse--or a more difficult one.

         There’s no foolproof way to determine this, but the following tips will help you.

         • Check the eyes. The proverbial large, soft, kind eye is highly valued for good reason—it’s associated with a trusting temperament and willing attitude. The opposite is an eye that makes the horse seem nervous or suspicious of you for no reason. (If rough training in the horse’s past is the source of that suspicion, you may be able to train him away from it. Still, it’s not the ideal starting point for a relationship.)

         • Look for willingness on the ground. When you go to catch the horse, does he seem friendly and amenable to being caught? When you present the halter, does he offer his head (bonus points), or raise it up (demerits)? On the longe line, does he stick to business, listening to you through one ear cocked your way? Or does he keep looking directly at you (challenging your authority), or elsewhere (indicating a disinterested, independent streak)?

         • Look for willingness under saddle. If he’s broke to ride, does he ungrudgingly move forward, turn, change gaits, and stop at your request? Or does he often hesitate or raise his head, indicating reluctance to comply? Watch his general response to the unexpected—does he spook and then get nervous and fretful? Or is his behavior more like calm curiosity?

         • Push him a little. This is the extra step that can tell you a lot about his inborn nature. Put him a little out of his comfort zone--frustrate him just a tad--and see how he responds. For example, from the ground, apply pressure with your thumb to ask him to step away from you, then ask for several more steps. Does he stay relaxed and keep responding? Or does he begin to lift his head, pin his ears, or otherwise express displeasure?

         Under saddle, ask him to try something he doesn’t already know how to do—maybe sidepass, work a gate, or travel a bit of unfamiliar terrain. Though the request may be confusing to him, does he give it a good-natured try? Or does he get cranky and unhappy? Does he stay even-tempered, or turn into a bully?

         If, after all these tests, he strikes you as essentially easy and agreeable, he probably has that “little thing that makes a big difference,” as Churchill put it: a good attitude.

         (For seven other key criteria to consider before acquiring a horse, see “Avoid Horse-Buying Mistakes.”)

Seat-Bone Power! (Do *You* Have It?)

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | March 21, 2016

Jennifer Paulson
Credit: Jennifer Paulson
Tilt! Your seat bones will NOT have best contact with your horse if you perch (left) or slouch. Sit up straight, instead.
Do you ever think about your seat bones when you ride? Are you even aware of their power to communicate with your horse?

         Try this: Find a chair with a solid bottom but some cushioning. Sit on the chair in an upright posture. Put your hands on your hips and find your hip bones. From there, slide your hands straight down and directly under your bottom, rocking as need be to get the fingertips of each hand all the way underneath you. To identify your seat bones, simply move your upper body in any fashion—from side to side works especially well. Feel that on your fingertips?

         Now try moving your pelvis around as subtly as you can. Try to do it so that you cannot feel your seat bones moving.

         Can’t do it, can you?

         Your horse can feel that, too! And if you think your saddle and pads or blankets might keep him from feeling it, listen to what my friend and frequent H&R contributor Julie Goodnight has to say about it:

         “Absolutely the horse feels your seat bones! The horse’s back, where you sit, is a highly sensitive area. You have more contact with your horse through your seat than through any other aid, whether you ride Western or English—and a Western saddle with a flexible tree offers especially sensitive feel through the seat bones.”

         How you sit in your saddle affects just how well your seat bones “communicate.” To see what I mean, sit on your hands again, with maximum pressure on your fingertips, then arch your back and lean forward a just a bit. See how this raises your seat bones up and away?

         Now try slouching and sitting back on your pockets, and see how this affects your seat bones’ contact with your fingers as the bones slide forward.

         This is one of the reasons why advice on rider biomechanics always stresses sitting up straight, without perching forward or slouching back. Either will compromise your seat bone contact in addition to causing other rider errors. The ideal is to sit on the triangle formed by your pubic bone and seat bones, tucking your rear end under just a bit.

         From this position, the best riders use their seat bones in concert with their weight and other aids to finesse turns, lateral movements, lope departs, lead changes, and many other maneuvers.

         To become more familiar with how your seat bones can influence your horse, experiment at a walk. Sitting upright with your seat bones planted in the saddle, try weighting one seat bone without giving any other cue as your horse walks a straight line. If you tip your pelvis to bear down on your left seat bone, for example, you may find that it drives him to the right, or even causes him to drift to the left as he attempts to place his center of gravity under yours.

         Experiment with other movements of your seat bones, and see how your horse reacts. Also practice observing what it feels like when your seat bones are connected, as compared to when you’ve lost contact with your seat.

         Ask someone on the ground to verify that you’re sitting evenly in the saddle when you think you are—in other words, when it feels like you’re sitting evenly. This is important because a slightly off-kilter position, with one seat bone pressing more than the other, can begin to feel “normal” over time.

         One more tip: The stronger your core muscles are, the more subtle control you’ll have over your seat bones.

Bareback: Not Just for Kids! (Here’s Why)

By Jennifer Forsberg Meyer | February 19, 2016

Cappy Jackson Photography
Credit: Cappy Jackson Photography
To develop balance bareback, let your legs hang down naturally—don’t grip with your calves or clamp with your knees.
Think “bareback” and you’ll probably smile with a memory from childhood. We all rode that way back then because it was fun. But did you know riding bareback as an adult can supercharge your balance? Clinician Stacy Westfall knows it. She rode almost exclusively bareback as a kid, then switched to a saddle to pursue goals in competitive reining as an adult.

         In 2006, however, while preparing to compete in the Road to the Horse colt-starting challenge, she returned to bareback to improve her balance--“in case I needed it on one of those colts,” she explained.

         What she discovered is that riding bareback is not quite like riding a bicycle.

         “I was blown away by how much I’d ‘lost’ from childhood,” she recalled. She’d been riding horses for eight to ten hours a day for years, but when she went back to saddleless she found herself “slipping and sliding around like crazy. That’s when I realized all those years in a saddle had led me to rely on my stirrups, instead of balance, to stay on.”

         Her bareback practice fixed that problem plus boosted her confidence, and she went on to win that colt-starting championship. Later the same year, she won the freestyle futurity riding bareback and bridleless at the All American Quarter Horse Congress. (It was a performance that later went viral. If you’ve never seen it, check it out…it’s amazing. And if you’ve never seen talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres trying to explain Stacy’s feat to a studio audience, click here. It’s hilarious.)

         Stacy went on to be inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 2012. Would you like to learn the secrets of this bareback virtuoso? The balance and confidence you’ll gain riding bareback will carry over to riding in a saddle, and besides all that…bareback is a blast.

         First, some safety considerations. If your horse isn’t “bareback-friendly,” borrow one that is. Work initially in a round pen or other enclosed small space for extra control. Skip the spurs; add a safety helmet. Consider a bareback pad, which gives you a little extra purchase. Grab mane as need be in the beginning to avoid jabbing your horse in the mouth or gripping with your legs—both absolute no-no’s.

         OK, so what’s the secret to Stacy’s secure, relaxed, fluent position bareback? Just this: Rely on balance, not leg grip, to stay on and follow your horse’s motion. It sounds simple, but it takes considerable know-how and practice. Here’s how to get started:

         • Sit upright. Your position without a saddle should be similar to a correct position in a saddle. The tendency is to lean forward--don’t.

         • ‘Drape’ your legs. Allow them to lengthen, but let them lie naturally against your horse’s sides, without clamping or even wrapping them around his barrel. Remember, you’re not using them to stay aboard; you’re relying on balance, instead. Keep your toes raised slightly or at least level with your heel.

         • Walk and jog—a lot. As you sit upright with relaxed legs, walk and jog on a straight line as much as necessary to begin developing a feeling of security. Whenever you feel tippy or slippy, grab mane—don’t fetal-crouch or grip with your legs.

         • Add circles and turns. These are more challenging. When they begin to feel routine at a walk and jog, add an extended trot. (Bonus: Work at an energetic trot will make the eventual lope a breeze by comparison.) If walking and trotting are all you do for your first several bareback rides, that’s fine. Don’t rush. Let your balance develop naturally.

         • Move up to a lope. When you feel you’re ready to lope without gripping with your legs, give it a try. To keep your bottom down through all three beats of the lope, you’ll need to fully release your lower back through both the up motion of the gait and the down. Concentrate—you can do it!

         From there it’s all about regular practice—and lots of fun.

         For more of Stacy’s bareback tips, including using ground poles and playing games to supercharge your balance, plus learning an emergency dismount for added safety, click here

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