Riding Lessons and the Tense Rider

Riding Lessons and the Tense Rider

“You’ve been riding all your life. Why do you still need riding lessons?” My non-riding friends ask me this on a regular basis. The answer is complicated.

For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by talented riders and amazing horses, so my bar for what’s ‘good enough’ is set fairly high. I’ve been realistic enough to know that I’m not talented. What I do have going for me, though, is perseverance. When my heart is set on something, I suffer from terminal stick-with-it-iveness. Perseverance and riding lessons have therefore been my answer. A lot of riding lessons. With different coaches. On different horses. Learning to adopt an attitude of sympathy for the horse.

It hasn’t helped that I’m a tense person. While lessons have been good at teaching me the mechanics of riding – how to apply a canter aid, or how to do a turn on the forehand – they haven’t been able, in themselves, to teach me how to relax.

Riding lessons: riding Gandalf, tension in rider's shoulders, arms and hand, pinched lower leg
Riding Gandalf, back in the day. He was such a good boy to put up with my tight shoulders, arms and hands – not to mention the rest of me. See how I’m pinching him with my heels.

What they have done is make me aware of my tension. My coach used to stand beside my horse and jiggle my leg. “You’re tense here,” she’d say, poking my thigh. This was news to me. I’d spend the next several weeks working on relaxing my thighs, only to realize I was also tense in my shoulders. And my neck. And any number of other places. To give you an idea of how tense I was: in a clinic once, I was struggling so hard to keep Gandalf trotting energetically (an effort which was making my tense body even tenser) that I ended up with costochondritis, a painful inflammation of the cartilage in my ribs.

Riding lessons: Gandalf overbent, and tension causes me to grip with my knee, which in turn causes my heel to come up.
I love the slanted sunlight in this picture, and the way Gandalf’s tails drifts like angel hair. Too bad he’s overbent, and tension causes me to grip with my knee, which in turn causes my heel to come up.

Sometimes I’d overcome tension in a particular trouble spot by accident. I spent years exhausted by the mental effort of synchronizing all the necessary body parts to keep from bouncing out of the saddle at sitting trot. Then one day, my attention faltered for just a second, and in that moment, my body took over, adjusting naturally and effortlessly to the horse’s motion. Once I’d actually felt it, it was a lot easier to reproduce on demand.

Not long ago, a coach told me that, in order to get Larry to move forward more willingly, I had to relax. Wow! You mean I don’t have to bust a gut to get him to move? This somehow gave me permission to stop trying so hard, and coincidentally, to stop being so tense.

Another coach told me to imagine the reins as two sticks connecting my hands to the bit. The connection had to remain light but constant no matter what Larry did with his head. If he got too heavy in the contact, or too light, too high or too low, I had to ride his body with my leg – not use my hand – to bring him back into balance. This was very different from the concept of actively softening his mouth with the hand, and then giving when he dropped his head. The stick-rein concept has been another great help in allowing me to shed tension from my hands and arms.

Riding lessons:Larry, early re-training days for both horse and rider. Don't you love the orange Mickey Mouse gloves! It's hard to tell with the black breeches, but my leg is relaxed, as is the rest of me!
Riding Larry, early re-training days for both horse and rider. Don’t you love the orange Mickey Mouse gloves! It’s hard to tell with the black breeches, but my leg is relaxed, as is the rest of me – I think…

Why did it take a lifetime to learn these simple lessons? A Grand Prix rider once told me, it takes two lifetimes to learn to ride. In my case, I think it will take three. I just hope there will still be a lot of good coaches around to give me riding lessons.

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