Q: Tell me what 4-H riders come to you for help with most often.
A: I see confidence as a big factor for 4-H riders. If you're worried about the horse, the whole package doesn't fit together. In 4-H, many kids get out of riding before they get started. Many have horses they're afraid of-they're afraid, so they start pulling on the bit and getting angry with the horse. Almost everything we do by instinct, when we're scared, is wrong. We tense up, lean forward and hold tight, when being calm and relaxed would help the horse and the rider. Kids get frustrated with the whole thing and quit. To help? Parents, get a horse that's really broke for a 4-Her to learn on. You don't have to buy a breed-show quality horse for big bucks. Instead, get a horse that's already trained well enough so the 4-Her can learn to work and train him- or herself. Don't buy a 2-year-old colt and think, "my child can grow up with this horse." That idea works for dogs, not horses.
Also with 4-H, kids often get really focused on their projects just a short time before the fair. When the fair's one week away, they want to know what they can do to show well. The important thing is to be consistent over time. Have a horse that's calm and trainable and look for "how-to" articles-like in Horse & Rider or Practical Horseman-and work on those over time. Parents, look through your kids' eyes. Find out what they want to do. If the kid gets into riding and stays interested, he/she can stay out of a lot of trouble. If the kid gets scared or frustrated, they miss the responsibility lessons that
riding and 4-H can teach.
Q: What about IHSA riders? What are typical riding pitfalls there?
A: Confidence and time are big issues here. A lot of college riders have trouble putting time into riding, especially when they have intense classes and homework. Beginning college riders have often had some past experience, but mostly on school or camp horses. Or, the rider has always ridden and shown with one horse and one trainer. In college, they'll ride many different horses when they compete at different schools. It takes lots of riding time to build up the skills and confidence you need to handle any horse. (Note: IHSA does not require competitors to own and show their own horses. Rather, riders draw a horse's name a class or two before their ride. They show without warm-up and without having prior practice with the horse. Judging centers on equitation, not conformation). I've seen riders do best in IHSA when they come in open-minded and willing to learn something new. No matter what you ride or what type of barn you ride in-English, dressage, Western-the basics of riding are the same. There's something you can learn there. When you think you know everything, that's when you start over-usually from the ground.
Q: You talk about a rider's positioning as most important to help the horse perform well. What are some easy checks a rider can do to make sure he or she is in the correct position?
A: As soon as the riders mount, or at a checkpoint on the rail, I have them pretend that if the horse isn't beneath them, they'd come down landing on their feet. Legs can't be too far forward or too far back if they could hop straight down. There are other position fixes for specific problems. If a rider drops one shoulder to the inside-like when turning-I have them take the reins in one hand (with the outside hand) and hold their inside arm straight up, then straight in front of them. Then I see if they can feel a difference in the horse's movement. Does the horse feel more balanced beneath them? Riders have to learn to feel what they need before they ask for a movement. Also, to get riders focused on themselves, rather than over-focused on the horse, I'll have them close their eyes as they go around a circle. They get focused on feeling the horse and tend to relax and ride better. Body positions get out of alignment when riders are trying too hard to fix the horse instead of themselves.
Q: Is there work, off-horseback, riders can do to help their position-especially if they can't ride everyday?
A: Anything to stay in shape! Riding is an athletic event-whether you believe so or not. The better an athlete you are, the easier it will be to feel comfortable on a horse. I teach the college riding program as well as the team. When a soccer player, or other athlete comes out for a riding lesson, they "get it" more easily than those who don't do physical activity regularly. They know where their balance is. Yoga balls are a great help to get that balance. Balancing on a ball is the same as balancing on a horse. If you sit on a ball, you understand what happens if you lean too far forward, or too far back. What happens to the ball is the same thing that happens to your horse. By staying up square, you stay over the balance points of the horse. You also begin to understand how your stomach has to move-it's your main shock absorber. If you're stiff in your stomach, everything goes downhill from there. You can do stomach relaxation exercises on and off the horse-belly breathe (make your stomach move out as you breathe in and in as you breathe out), count slowly and breathe to your counts, or sing. Whatever you can do to calm down and breathe will help you be a better rider-no matter what show circuit or discipline you ride.
Terry Myers has been showing and training many breeds of horses for more than 30 years. Myers is the coach of the IHSA Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team and teaches university riding lessons at his Ostrander, Ohio, training center. The Myers family (with wife Trixi, daughters Mandy and Makala, and son Tanner) is active in Ohio 4-H. Myers has been a member of the Ohio State 4-H Judges Committee for more than 10 years.