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  • Writer's pictureSaskia Gerritsen

Insecure Moments in the Saddle

In a recent riding lesson, the horse and rider pair I was teaching had to deal with some distractions. We were in an indoor arena that has open sides, so the horse could hear and partially see things that were happening outside. The rider chose an approach that I see happen often, and it seems a natural reaction for us... But that only adds to the tension, instead of getting the horse to calm down again. Read along for a new way to ride through those anxious and spooky moments!

We all know this situation: you're riding along just fine, starting to warm up at the trot, and something outside of the arena distracts your horse. As horses are prey animals, a distraction is often followed by precaution, preparing to run, all systems on high alert... As long as your horse cannot make sense of what it was that he heard or saw (or could smell even), you'll probably notice it has an effect on his focus on you. Or maybe he's even telling you: Let's get the hell out of here!

Once our horse's instincts made sure he worries about the distraction, we can start feeling insecure in the saddle. "What is the horse going to do?" "Can't that ... just stop doing ... outside?" (Why all riding arena's should be closed, no windows and soundproof? ;-)

And once we start to worry too and aren't relaxed anymore, it just isn't fun so you might as well call it a day...

Unless, you have a specific approach, that you know will work every time!

*Disclaimer: if at any time you feel like you need to get of the horse asap, get of the horse! But for those little anxious, a bit spooky moments I'll tell you my strategy.


Ok, so what happened in the lesson exactly was this:

  1. I requested my student to trot her horse around the arena along the rail.

  2. Some other horse in a nearby field started running around.

  3. The nice Frisian the lady was riding in my lesson noticed it (of course).

  4. The horse's head went up and he didn't want to stay on the rail and go through the corners.

  5. And here comes the human straight-line-thinking reaction (of course): my student tried to keep her horse on the rail by moving his head over with the outside rein...

Now the first thing you must know, is the order in which things are important in riding. Where she was riding (along the rail) was the least important thing! I only chose that pattern, because they were doing nicely on the circle and the trot got rhtythmic and consistent. So I wanted to start using the corners for more bend and engaging the inner hind leg...

The order of importance in any exercise you ride:

  1. most important: relaxation and rhythm, relaxation comes from rhythm and vice versa

  2. consistency in your position and contact with the reins

  3. correct posture and movement in your horse for the exercise

  4. least important: correct location/position of the exercise

Correct position of the exercise, just let it go:

For example, if you ride a circle bigger than you wanted so that your horse doesn't lose balance and raises his head: you did the right thing. If you wanted to ride a small circle in the next corner, but you ride another long side first to prepare better: you did the right thing.

Correct posture and movement, don't micro manage:

If it happens that your horse raises his head (lost balance, had to look over, etc.) don't pull his head down. If your horse has difficulty to align on a circle or in a corner and leans on the inside rein: don't pull his head in! We can't force the way the horse moves, find an easier exercise and come back to try again.

Consistency in your position and contact with the reins:

This is almost the most important thing at any moment you're in the saddle. If you are not riding the exercise correctly, your horse can't compensate for that. And the other way around: if you are strong in your core and can hold the correct position, your horse will seek harmony with that eventually because it feels better. It is a form of passive leadership in non-verbal communication. Be the dance partner that is stable, predictable and reliable in all movements. Be the leading dance partner, your horse prefers follow!

Relaxation and rhythm: the most important thing and most difficult sometimes...

Do whatever you have to do, so that your steady and correct rhythm is maintained. At the walk, most of us are riding too fast. You want a nice flowing walk where every leg gets the time for it's stable landing and you have a clear 4-beat rhythm.

At the trot it's like clockwork: rise the trot slowly, stay in the saddle a bit longer, until you feel that each diagonal is truly following the same stride length and speed (this is cadance).

For a relaxed rhythm at the canter the horse actually needs to work very hard. Building strength over time to engage the core and relax the back is your goal here.


In the lesson I told my student to let go of these things, exactly in that order. As humans we tend to stick to the exercise: do what you're told by the trainer :-)

What you should be thinking about is not the exercise, but the reason why your riding it. And if you lose the number 1 most important thing, i don't give a $*^%& if you are still on the rail, it's not helping anything...

So I said: "Acknowledge what your horse is focusing on, so he hears or feels from you it's nothing to worry about." (She didn't say it out loud, but getting her mind of it already helped.)

Then: "Now I don't care if you can make him stay on the rail, you shouldn't either. Please stop pulling on your outside rein, that's not helping us to get back to relaxation. Instead, leave all of that scary corner out, just don't go there. Find the spot where you would need to turn away from the rail before your horse starts to worry. Ride a good turn, with correct bend and then a nice straight line, wherever you can make that work."

Having her focus entirely on the outcome of the exercise, which was improving her horse's movement, brought them back into a nice rhythm. Repeating the work, without going to the scary spot, enabled the horse to relax. Once the instinctual alarms were off again, the nice big Frisian with the small heart was confident enough to follow the rail all the way. And in the meantime we had worked on exercises that contributed to the goal I had in mind for them, not losing any time on the distraction and keeping the confidence in both horse and rider :-)

So remember: Lose the location, keep the rhythm and stay that steady leading dance partner!

And don't forget to leave me a comment, tell me what you think :-)

Have fun!


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