The most skilled horse-and-rider teams are those that have a connection. Through years and many saddle hours, a rider gets to know her horse’s skills and temperament so she can get the most from him for a high-scoring performance or to navigate any obstacle out on the trail.
But when you get on a new horse, this connection doesn’t exist. The ability to quickly connect with a new mount when you’re trying a new prospect, enjoying a trail ride on someone else’s horse, or drawing random horses for competition helps you maximize his potential. Here, I’ll share five lessons I taught when coaching NCAA riders for competition that every rider can use to get the most from an unfamiliar horse. With this planned approach and some practice, you can learn to ride any horse to the best of his ability.
Lesson One: Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
The only way to get comfortable riding new horses is by doing it. When you ride the same horse in the same setting all the time, any change is stressful and throws you off your game. If your first experience riding an unfamiliar horse is at a show or trying a new horse to buy, you might lack the confidence to ride how you usually do. To regain this confidence, broaden your comfort zone by riding many different horses. There isn’t a specific number; it depends on you. Ride as many as it takes for it to no longer feel foreign. When you get on a new horse and think to yourself, “Yeah, I’ve got this,” that’s when you know you’re mentally ready to ride just about anything.
Every rider has a preference of horse size, speed, sensitivity, and demeanor. In competition, such as with equestrian challenges and in NCAA events, it doesn’t matter what you like or don’t like. Your goal is to ride what you’ve drawn to the best of your ability. Riding a variety of horses prepares you for the variability. Choose to ride horses that you don’t naturally gravitate toward and that challenge you. If you don’t like sensitive horses, ride as many sensitive horses as you can until they no longer intimidate you. When you’re nervous, it’s difficult to think clearly and you’ll struggle to troubleshoot an issue if the ride doesn’t go according to plan. If you’re confident, you won’t be caught off guard if your horse suddenly overreacts or doesn’t respond. You’ll likely have encountered a similar issue with another horse during your prep and will know how to quickly change your approach and go to Plan B, C, or D if needed.
Luckily, when you’re purchasing a horse you have more control. You can spend more time getting to know a horse and your handle won’t be under scrutiny. However, riding many horses before a purchase helps you make wiser purchasing decisions. You’ll understand how to quickly identify a horse’s potential as well as the traits you like and don’t like. If you can see what he’s got early, you won’t pass up a skilled horse or take one home that’s not quite right.
Lesson Two: Always Scout Your Mount
If given the option, take advantage of the opportunity to watch someone else ride the horse you’ll get on. In a competition, this is likely a demonstration rider. At a pre-purchase showing, it’s often the owner, seller, or trainer on the prospect. You can learn a lot about a horse by watching him go. Examine his cadence and how the rider handles him. If he has a smooth, consistent stride it means he’s comfortable. If his stride is inconsistent or choppy, with high knees and constrained movement, for example, he’s either uncomfortable or being sent mixed signals. Watch to see how he’s cued, including the specific hand and leg movements used and the rider’s seat. If the horse is responsive and seems comfortable, model the rider’s approach. If he seems stressed or frustrated, this is a sign that the horse doesn’t like how he’s being ridden.
Lesson Three: Start With a Plan
In a competition, you likely won’t have much time to warm-up with your horse (if at all) before you’re expected to perform. If you don’t start with a plan, you can quickly run out of time. Approach the pre-ride and warm-up methodically with step-by-step drills and exercises that help you get to know your horse. Start with a slow jog. It often relaxes a horse and can curb excess energy before a performance. If you find your horse tries to speed up and becomes anxious, walk instead.
After a couple laps, begin your warm-up drills to test your horse’s flexibility, responsiveness, and sensitivity. Start with flexing exercises, first laterally to test his responsiveness to direct-rein cueing as well as his flexibility. Ask for vertical flexion to determine if he gives at the poll. If he seems to fight this or is resistant, don’t force the issue. It can quickly escalate to irritability. Then move on to moving his shoulders and hips.
As you laterally flex, apply pressure with your legs to ask him to yield his shoulders and hips separately. Test if he can complete a pivot on the forehand or hindquarters. These simple maneuvers show you how sensitive he is and how well you can control his body. When you’re confident and you know your horse’s skillset, you can begin to visualize your ride, planning which maneuvers can earn you high marks and which you simply need to aim for correctness. For example, if he pivots easily, you know this is an area you can likely earn extra points by adding speed; if he struggles, make a mental note to avoid highlighting this in the arena.
In the case of a pre-purchase ride, your horse’s ability to do these things might be a deal-breaker, or it might identify an area you want to work on later.
Lesson Four: Ride What You Have, Not What You Wish You Had
When it comes to a horse’s skills, maneuvers fall into two categories: Thrive and survive. The thrive maneuvers are those that your horse does willingly and correctly. These are your top-mark-earning maneuvers where you can challenge your horse to give his best performance without him getting frustrated. Survive maneuvers are those that he struggles with. If you put pressure on him to add speed or more technical execution, he can unravel. With these, aim for correctness.
After the pre-ride drills and warm-up, you’ll have an idea which maneuvers are your horse’s thrive areas, or strengths, and which are his survive movements, or weaknesses. This helps you plan your riding approach. If you know that your horse is willing in one skill, ask him to give you more when it comes time to perform that maneuver in the show pen. This earns you higher marks that can offset difficulty elsewhere. For example, if he’s responsive to your body movement for speed transitions, ask for greater speed variation between your trot and extended trot or your small slow and big fast circles in a reining pattern.
When you ride a new horse, whether it’s in a competition or try-before-you-buy situation, you must be comfortable asking for everything that your horse can give. High-level performances, or the ones that really stand out, combine a high level of correctness with speed. It’s easy to fall prey to the speed trap thinking that if you do the maneuver faster, you’ll earn top marks; that’s not always the case. I teach riders to choose correctness over showiness when approaching a pattern. While a flying lead change is flashy, if it’s poorly executed, it’s likely to earn lower marks than a technically correct and clean simple lead change. Keep this in mind as you determine how much pressure to put on your horse. Be confident enough to ask your horse to give you his best but avoid letting the ride get off the rails and becoming sloppy. When showing, it can be the difference between a mediocre score and a winning score. When you’re buying, if you don’t put pressure on a horse to perform, you don’t know if he has the temperament or skills you’re looking for.
Warm-Up Pen Drills
To draw the most from an unfamiliar horse, test these skills during the warm up. You’ll get to know him quickly and know what to expect when you ask for more complex movements later. Search these topics on HorseandRider.com for tips.
• Lateral and vertical flexing
• Backing up and side-passing
• Control of the hips and shoulders
• Pivots on the hindquarter and the forehand
• Direct- and indirect-rein turns
Lesson Five: Use Your Body to Make His Job Easier
You can’t completely retrain an unfamiliar horse in a short period; you can only ride the horse you’re given. But there are some tricks to encourage your horse to respond correctly to your cues. You likely know that your rhythm in the saddle helps you stay seated, encourages motion, and slows your horse. Use these same body-control techniques as you ride a new horse to encourage correct lead departures or lead changes and to successfully execute a pivot.
Your body’s movement can make even the dullest horse more responsive. To adjust speed, or to test a horse’s rate or ability to change cadence, use your hips and weight to your advantage. To extend a gait, use your verbal cues and legs and adjust your riding rhythm. Lean forward slightly while driving your hips slightly faster than your horse’s current speed. To slow him down, do the opposite. Sit deeply in your saddle and slow the movement of your hips. A heavier, slower seat encourages your horse to match you with a slower, more relaxed gait. You can also hum quietly to yourself. He’ll feel the vibrations through your saddle, which has a calming effect on some horses.
Lead changes and departures can also be assisted with your hip movement and timing. For a lead departure, set your horse up before you ask him to take off. (You’ll know how easy or difficult this is based on the results of the warm-up approach noted in Lesson Three.) Pick up your inside rein, move your horse’s hip over; pick up his shoulder; and when you’re ready to depart, propel your hips forward, opening them in the direction of the lead departure you’ve asked for. Cue your horse with your legs and verbal cue at the same time. This little bit of momentum makes it easier for him to transition into a lope.
Apply the same strategy for lead changes. Set up your horse, and when you’re ready to change, get out of his way by opening your hips in the direction you want to go. Timing is also important. If you’re in-tune with your horse’s rhythm, you’ll feel when he takes a step with his lead inside leg. Cue for a flying lead change before he takes his next lead-leg step, not after. If you ask for the change at the incorrect time, you make the change more difficult for your horse. This also often causes the undesirable vertical movement, or hop, you sometimes see in a lead change. Set your horse up, ask for the change, open your hips to get out of his way, and perfect your timing, and you’ll be more likely to get the smooth lead change you’re looking for.
Forehand and hindquarter turns are more difficult to influence. Focus on your torso’s position. If you hunch too far forward in a hindquarter pivot, you move your center of gravity over his front end making it much more difficult for him to manage his shoulders. Use your hips to make your horse’s job easier. Open them slightly in the direction you’re turning. For example, in a left-hand hindquarter pivot, open your hips to the left. This shifts your weight off his inside shoulder. With a forehand pivot, open your hips again, but instead lean your torso just slightly forward, encouraging his inside shoulder to stay put.
Cindy Walquist, Cleburne, Texas, served as a past assistant equestrian coach at Baylor University where she coached riders to national events, NCAA All-American distinctions in Western-discipline events and horsemanship, an AQHA Collegiate Horsemanship Challenge championship, Big 12 championship titles, and national NCAA team ranking. She and her husband, Bruce, operate Walquist Quarter Horses. The pair’s program has produced over 30 All American Quarter Horse Congress winners and over 50 AQHA world champions across multiple Western disciplines, ages, and skill groups.