Seven Habits of Highly Effective Riders

2014-11-10 23.03.10

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Riders

What is it that caused me to let a kid come for a lesson on a sacred Monday? For 80 % of hairdressers, chefs, waiters, and horse trainers, Monday is Fun Day. A day usually reserved for beach, movies, errands, etc. It is total me time and nothing stands in the way of that. So what was I doing in the middle of the dusty arena on a beautiful day watching that nine year old bounce around on the back of my beloved assistant, Spec?

Summer Camp 2013 #11Cluck. Thump. Thump. A big sigh. A sweet laugh. There it was. That’s why. The petite blond rider flapped her little legs with enough force to produce a significant noise. Spec peeked at me from the corner of his inside eye, sighed loudly (could he possibly realize it is Monday?) and stepped into a completely uncollected bouncy jog that triggered the tiny giggle.

You see, my trusted associate, Spec doesn’t usually jog unassisted for a 50 pound child in their first lesson. He doesn’t feel they are capable or deserving of it. Ordinarily, he plods around with beginners who will cluck till their mouths are completely dry and their tongues are stuck to the roof of their mouths. He’ll look over his shoulder at me, while those greenhorns thrash around, swinging their legs in every direction but inward. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him roll his eyes as they whine, “But I am kicking.” It is a routine we have experienced together for over 15 years. I know what is expected of me at this point in these lessons.

Spec cocks his ears back slightly, as I trudge out to take hold of his bridle. He then tries to nip my hand as I reach for the slack in the rein. It’s not at all alarming, because I know what he’s thinking. As I cluck, then jog next to him, we have the same conversation telepathically we’ve had a million times.

“Can’t you just jog for this brat?”

“And what would that teach them?” Spec’s voice in my head is deep, kind of grumpy, but with a hint of a chuckle in it. “That riding is easy and if they just push a button I’ll light up and entertain them like all the silly devices they own?” (He just started bringing up the devices a few years ago. I wasn’t aware he knew about those things.)

I’m panting as we round the corner of our first lap in the deep white sand. “I’m going to let go of the reins now and you keep jogging, ok?”

A soft snort, “Nope.” He breaks to a walk the split second I let go of the reins.

“When will you keep jogging for them? This is killing me.”

“When they can steer clearly without giving me conflicting directions every ten seconds, when they are balanced enough to stay in the center of the saddle and when they are willing to put enough physical effort into it to convince me it’s what I should do.” He grabs the edge of my sleeve and tugs playfully. “This jogging along with me isn’t hurting you, you old bag, is it? Now do your job.”

I grit my teeth and glare at him. “It’s a good thing I adore you, naughty monster.”

Now back to the fact, it’s Monday and Spec is jogging for a brand new beginner. She is “special.” This is her sixth lesson and she is doing things that take most people twenty or so weekly lessons to get to. I let her come because she begged to have an extra lesson this week. This was after texting me the question “Was it possible to get a two hour lesson on Saturday?”

About once a year, a really special kid or adult walks up our driveway for a riding lesson. Hundreds of really nice people learn to ride and go on to do really great things, but there are a few that have something more. What is it? It has to be more than something just one old lesson horse knows, because for a long time, that’s how I knew. Spec just told me, as clearly as if those conversations in my head were real, by doing just what they asked of him… right away.

I started talking to the kids I was teaching about what it took to be special. I explained that teaching a special rider was rewarding for an instructor and it didn’t feel anything like work. I can’t help it, but special riders are always my favorites. Of course, they all wanted to know if they were one of the special ones. One in the group was, but there was no way I was telling them who, I let them all believe it was them. And a miraculous thing happened… the others rose up and acted “special”.  This is what it takes to be one of the “special” ones.

THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE RIDERS Or “How to be your Instructor’s Favorite.”


If it was easy, everyone would be able to do it. The position you need to master is different than you use anywhere else in your life, so nothing but lessons and practice is going to make you better. If you stop every time you get tired, you are average and will stay average. That’s okay, if that’s your goal. Not everyone is cut out to be special. A special rider works until their trainer sees their exhaustion and calls for a break. And we recognize acting.


I became a better riding instructor when I started playing golf. Golf looked easy to me and I thought I would be great at it. I was wrong. It was hard, frustrating, and way more technical than it looked. Add to that, when I got mad, things went from bad to worse. Sound familiar?

I became more empathetic to the romantic notions first time riders come with. Initially, they have visions of themselves galloping wildly across an open field with the wind blowing their hair back from their helmetless head, much like I saw myself driving the green every hole with a high straight shot…in both cases, it never happened. When you realize how hard it is, decide if you are going to step up and put the work in. A special rider commits to that within minutes of that first tricky lesson.


You can’t fake this. And if riding isn’t the thing that brings you more joy and satisfaction than any other activity you do, that’s completely okay. You can still be very, very good at it.

But special riders skip other things to make sure they get their riding time in. They get to the barn early and hang out after their lesson to watch other lessons, or to get the chance to cool out a horse the trainer just finished with. A special rider reads way too many books, watches way too many how to videos, and then bombards their trainers with way too many questions. (Note: ask these questions at the appropriate time. Fight the urge to call us as you are reading or watching to ask these innocent annoying questions.) Most of us became trainers and instructors because we were you at one point. We shaped our whole lives to spend as much time as possible in the riding arena and your fresh new enthusiasm often reminds us that we, too, love horses. And we like that feeling.


Arrive for your lesson with time to get your horse ready for an on time departure. Many instructors’ days are booked with back to back lessons and nothing makes us happier than having the next lesson ready and waiting. Special riders work just as hard at learning how to groom and tack their own horses, because getting their own horse ready is part of the whole experience for them. That is the time it’s okay to hug, pat and love on your new pal and special riders can’t get enough of that. Special riders understand that once they step into the ring, its work time and a pat is only used as a reward for a good effort, not because their horse tripped or sneezed.


This may be a hard concept to accept but when a rider is late for a lesson, it feels like disrespect, but a late instructor usually has gone over time with a previous horse or a rider who is struggling. Be forgiving of that, it will work in your favor one day. Canceling or missing a lesson is inevitable. Special riders take it on themselves to reschedule or find an extra time to make it up. Special riders chat with their friends during the cool down time, never during the warm up time. When a trainer gives you independent time to do some work on your own, show us then just how special you are. Be patient, purposeful and effective, make something good happen.


I can’t even explain to you how annoyed your instructor gets when you tell them how your horse just did that wrong.

Even if you truly believe it was all your horse’s fault, think of a way to ask what you did to cause that. 99% of the time, I promise, it was you. Special riders get that. We watch these big powerful animals tolerantly tote rider after rider around the same boring circle without bucking, bolting, or biting, which they could easily choose to do if they truly were the bad guys you might be thinking they are.

Start by being grateful about what they are doing for you, then work at making your commands polite but clear. Some of us feel the same way about our faithful lesson horses as we do about family members. It’s okay for us to be displeased with them occasionally, but do not let us catch you saying anything negative about them.

I can’t tell you the number of times a rider will say to me, “Spec (or Toby or Keeper or whoever) was so good today.” I will politely inform them, “Spec (or whoever) was the same as he is every day. The difference was, you were good today. His nice response to you, was him rewarding you.”


I had a great teacher tell me “Show me, don’t tell me.” He didn’t say it once, he said it over and over again. Granted, he was talking about writing, but the same thing pertains.

Special riders quickly understand there must be way more to riding than just going round in circles, practicing correct position and cues. They figure out that we keep building on the foundation of these first lessons in equitation and the really fun stuff is still to come. How can you get here quicker? If an instructor corrects something more than once in a lesson, make it your secret goal to get them to compliment you on how well you are doing it now. If keeping your horse loping or cantering seems like a struggle, make it your secret goal to complete three laps without breaking. The minute you reach that goal, congratulate yourself secretly and increase the target number. By setting and reaching these secret goals, you are taking the responsibility for your improvement on yourself. Again, I can’t count the number of times people have told me they want to get better…show me.


Didn’t Kelly Clarkson tell us …what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? It applies.

If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t really learning. You are going to take the wrong lead. You are going to be on the wrong diagonal. You are going to go off pattern, and you are probably going to fall off.

           How you respond to those mistakes will separate you from average to special. Special riders win… a lot. But it isn’t why they participate in this sport. They do it because they welcome and enjoy the challenges of the journey to the show pen. It is a great journey, but it won’t always feel forward moving. Pitfalls along the way can be great lessons, if you approach them correctly. Find the lesson in everything disappointing that happens to you.

Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. An instructor needs to know if something is confusing you or is unclear. It may be our fault. I was teaching a kid who always answered correctly when I questioned what lead she was on. Her friend wasn’t having the same luck, so I stopped the lesson and called them both in to the center of the ring. I thought maybe a child to child explanation would help…did it ever! The lead genius says to her friend, “It’s easy, when Kim says, what lead are you on, it’s the correct one. If she says, what lead is that, it’s the wrong one.” Trainers are not perfect and sometimes we also need to embrace our failures.


Do more than what is expected. It is important to stay realistic, but be brave in the goals you set for yourself. In many of the scoring systems in place for different events, there is a means with which to reward excellence. At first glance, it seems weird that a maneuver performed correctly will earn a score of zero. How do you earn a plus half, a plus one, or even the elusive plus one and a half? How can you be better than correct? By upping the degree of difficulty, by doing something with a style and finesse that is beyond average. If your instructor pulls your heel down an inch, push it down two more inches. If they ask you to post without stirrups for 2 laps, go for 3. You get the point.


It’s not too late for you to give your instructor the same feeling that new little girl did me. There may not be a Spec in all of your lives, but if you give all your effort and concentration to your every ride, if your face is beet red from the heat or from the cold, if you have a rub or two going, but you still can’t imagine being happier or more satisfied… I guarantee you will make your instructor’s day…and if it’s a Monday, you probably already are their favorite!


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