Horse Articles

Advice on Riding, Training and Showing

Image description
Image description

I believe education doesn't end when you graduate from school. Learning is a life long process. I want to educate my customers as much as possible when it comes to riding, horsemanship and general horse knowledge. I want them to be informed consumers on the subject of horse training and riding instruction. When somebody takes riding lessons from an instructor or training from a horse trainer, they often don't know what they are buying. My goal is to educate my customers so they can go and learn from other good teachers in the future and hopefully avoid the not-so-good ones. The following are articles I've written on various horse topics. They come from my years of experience and what I've learned from my own teachers (both humans and horses). Riding and training is more art than science. I have my own unique perspectives and I hope you will continue to build your own. Thanks for reading!

"Where art ends, violence begins"

Bengt Ljundquist

How to Slay the Fear Monster


By Connie Warner

So everything is going great. You have a riding instructor you like, your taking lessons and learning to ride, then BAM, one day you fall off. Suddenly the thought of getting back on the horse terrorizes you.


The Fear Monster can rear its ugly head on any rider, no matter how new or experienced. Anybody who gets up on a large, unpredictable animal can become fearful. It can take years to get your confidence back, but it doesn’t have to take that long. Speaking from experience as the Queen of the Chickens, I have some things I’ve learned that may help you slay that fear and get you back on track in no time.


What Kind of Rider Are You?


There are two types of riders. Type A and Type B.


Type A

Type A is the fearless rider who is bold and aggressive. This type of rider takes chances, is an adrenalin junkie, is able to do things with a horse that make more timid riders envious. However with that boldness comes many accidents and broken bones. Their sense of feel takes time to develop.


Type B


Type B is yours truly! This kind of rider is more timid, doesn’t mind spending years on the basics and needs a good push from an upbeat, positive, ‘you-can-do-it’ instructor in order to advance. Right from the start, they can feel every twitch and shift from the horse. In a relative short span of time they become aware of the horse’s forehand, back and hindquarters. With more time and experience these types of riders can almost feel their horse’s thoughts! The biggest challenge is to not to become overwhelmed with all the
feeling and push through the occasional bouts of fear and discomfort, hence the need for a positive, demanding coach!

STEP ONE….Think Happy Thoughts


STOP THINKING ABOUT YOUR FALL. Every time you think about it, your brain (the Amygdala to be precise) thinks real damage is happening to your body or could happen. Of
course then the brain sends a protective rush of fear. Great for our ancestors to avoid large animals with pointy teeth, very bad for people wanting to ride horses!


It’s not enough to tell yourself to stop thinking about the fall. You have to replace it with good thoughts. Your brain doesn’t recognize negatives like….”Don’t think about a pink elephant!” All you will think about is pink elephants. You must replace the negative memory with a positive one.


Think of a moment of a ride where you had a really nice walk, what did it feel like? Or a perfect shoulder-in. What did that feel like? It takes a lot of practice to recall a good feeling in your ride and repeat it over and over again in your mind. But the payoff is great.  You gradually replace the negative experience and ‘practice’ the perfect ride moment until you’ll be able to do it again (and better) in the future. Your brain doesn’t know what is real and what is imagined. Brains are kind of dumb that way! This replacement thinking won’t
work magically overnight however. You must practice recalling good riding moments over and over. For every time you thought about your wreck, you will have to think a good memory a dozen times or more. Keeping a journal of every ride is a good way to get into this habit.


Just as a side note for creative and imaginative people….do NOT dream up horrific horse accidents that never actually happened to you. Also don’t fill your mind up on those stupid thrills and spills riding videos. YouTube is full of terrible riding and falls. Watch an Olympic rider you admire instead, in fact that’s a great way to develop a mental picture of excellent
riding and it will help improve your own riding in time. 90% of riding is in your head.


STEP TWO…Stop Beating Yourself Up


It’s NOT your fault that you are scared. It’s not a character flaw or proves that you are not ‘cut’ out for riding. You might be a modern human, but your brain is from caveman days! Stress from work, family troubles piled on top of a bad horse fall can cause your brain to kick into flight/fear reflex. In my experience, a brain can handle a little bit of frightful stress,
but too much and it can go haywire. Good news is your brain is simply an organ, it’s not who you are. You can learn to control it and train it to do what you want.

STEP THREE….Surround yourself with positive, upbeat people.


Dump the negative people, including your instructor if you have too. A rising tide lifts all boats. Even if you can’t find positive riding buddies, go seek out non-horse people that are busy chasing their own dreams whatever they might be. Anybody with a can-do attitude is what you want. If they’ve written a book, read it. People who have started successful businesses are good influences as well.

STEP FOUR…. Don’t compare yourself to other riders


When I was a teen, my crazy friends started jumping their horses over big picnic tables. Needless to say, I never wanted to! I was more interested in riding bareback and my dream was to develop an independent seat, hand and leg. Now fast forward several years and I’m jumping bigger jumps than picnic tables and don’t have the broken bones to show for it! I felt like the biggest loser chicken at the time, but today some people think I’ve never been scared. I find that absolutely hilarious, if they only knew how many years I spent being nervous!


Don’t compete against other riders, compete only against yourself, always striving to become a little better rider and person every day.


STEP FIVE….Make a List


What CAN you do confidently with a horse? Make a list. Nothing is too small or unimportant. Here is an example of a list….

  1. Approach a horse.

  2. Pet the horse.

  3. Put a halter on the horse.

  4. Lead the horse.

  5. Groom the horse.

  6. Tack up.

  7. Get on the horse.

  8. Walk the horse.

  9. Turn left at the walk

  10. Turn right at the walk.

  11. Halt.

  12. Dismount.

  13. Untack.

  14. Put horse away.


A rider who is only comfortable walking, might be considered timid to some. However look at this list, it’s a respectful length. There are people who are too timid to even pet a gentle horse, much less able to do all those things. So when you fall into the ‘woe is me slump’, pull out your list and read it. Then pat yourself on the back and lighten up!

STEP SIX…Learn how to think like a horse and take the mystery/unpredictability out of horses


If you asked me to go ride that camel over there, I’d be nervous! I have no idea what makes a camel tick, what their body language means and much less what sort of personality that particular individual camel has. However if an experienced camel trainer taught me all about camels, later gave me camel riding lessons, I would gradually gain confidence and would learn to ride one decently and without fear.


Horses are no different. Even if you’ve been around them for years, you can never learn everything about them. But the more you know, the more mystery and fear is removed. Monsters live in the dark. Shine a flashlight and the fear goes away.


STEP SEVEN….It is more important to trust yourself, then the horse.


The only thing you can control in this life, is you. You could have the most perfect, docile horse on the planet, but you’ll still be scared if you don’t trust yourself or your abilities. You can work with and ride the craziest horses without fear when you develop the knowledge, skills and ability to work with them safely.


Seek out the best, most knowledgable horse people you can find. It’s wiser to spend your money on excellent riding lessons and clinics, than to buy an expensive horse. Like someone said, most people don’t need a $35,000 horse, they need a $1,000 horse and $34,000 in lessons!


Read the best horse books you can find. My main interest is jumpers, but I have dozens of books on dressage, saddle seat, and natural horsemanship. Even within the same riding discipline, everyone has a different perspective, some of the things they say are real gems that you can store away and pull out on the certain day with a certain horse. Don’t limit yourself to one guru trainer either. More the merrier!


STEP EIGHT….Learn to plan and develop a game plan with each horse, every day.


Just like an airplane pilot goes through a pre-flight checklist before taking off, you must do the same with the horse you intend to ride. Here is an example of a pre-ride checklist on a green horse…


My horse, Jim, has only been broke to ride for a month. Yesterday he was very good walking and trotting in the round pen. Today the wind has picked up and its 20 degrees
cooler than yesterday. Even though he was calm yesterday, I will take extra precautions since the weather has changed so much. As I tack him up and tighten
the girth, I am looking at his back, and looking for the tell tail sign of a raised back. If I see him raising his back, I will know he has a couple of bucks stored in there. I think I see his back raised, so I will turn him loose in the round pen with his saddle on. After securing the English stirrups, so they don’t fall down, I close the gate and move to the middle of the round pen. I point the lunge whip at his hindquarters and sure enough he immediately goes bucking off! I continue to let him move around the round pen until he canters both ways and reverses without bucking. Satisfied I put my helmet on, his bridle on and get on quietly. I am very aware of what his back feels like under the saddle. If I feel any lifting, I’m getting off immediately. I feel nothing, so I let him walk a few steps, halt, walk a few steps more halt. Later since he ‘s walking quietly, so its okay to do some trot steps………

 This is the way I think every time I’m working a horse. Most of my work is starting young horses, so it’s a constant, thoughtful, non emotional, analytical process. As long as I
approach each horse in a series of small baby steps, there’s no fear on my part because I’m in control. Being alert to changes in the weather, distractions like dogs playing in the tall grass, distant people walking down the hill towards us, loose horses running the pasture and seeing those things like a horse would and acting accordingly prevents most accidents.


STEP NINE….Eat an Elephant


How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!


 Set a tiny goal for every ride and I mean tiny. Are you nervous to trot, then trot one step ONLY. Is that too big of a step for you? Then recruit a friend to clip a lead rope on your horse and have them trot that one step with you. Is that too big of a step yet?  Go to the smallest riding area available like a round pen or tiny corral. Is that too big of a step yet? Then set that goal for the week or month. Break that elephant down until you can eat it.


Don’t fall into the trap of setting a huge goal for the day, not making it and then feeling guilty and a failure for not making it. That is a nasty and unproductive cycle. Think like a horse trainer. When we train horses for something we set a big goal, then take millions of baby steps to get there. And with some horses, it might be tens of millions of baby steps!  But it’s okay, it’s the final destination that’s important, not how we get there.


STEP TEN…..Fake it till you make it!


I have learned a neat trick while training horses. I can manipulate their body position, so their brains think they are more confident than they actually are! For example, if I have a horse that is scared of tarps, I will take a small plastic tarp and fold it up. Then while I have the horse on a long lead rope, I will hold that tarp against my chest and while walking backwards, pull the horse towards me. The horse touches the tarp and even if he is scared will keep walking towards it. His brain then thinks that he must not be scared of the tarp since he is walking towards it! Dumb, I know. But our brains aren’t much different and can manipulated in the same way.


While you are riding, be very aware that you keep a confident position even if you’re scared. Sit up straight and look where you are going. Don’t curl forward, slumping your  houlders forward and looking down, that is a defensive position that people do instinctively to protect their vital organs! If you sit up straight and look ahead, your brain will start to believe that everything is fine and that you are confident!


You must train yourself to relax. It doesn’t happen automatically, you must practice, practice, practice. People hold tension in their lower back and shoulders. Becoming aware of when you have tension is half the battle. Whatever you’re doing, ask yourself, ‘are my lower back muscles tense?’ If so, learn how to relax them. Eventually you’ll be able to relax them on command. By the way, this is the big secret to sitting the trot, loose lower back muscle that can absorb the impact by making millions of tiny vibrations to smooth out the jarring trot.


STEP ELEVEN…..Age is just a number!


Seriously! Unless you have major health problems, don’t use your age as an excuse to keeping you from becoming the best rider you can be. If I had a nickel for every 40 something (heck every 30 something) telling me they are too old to ride, or they don’t bounce like they use to, I’d be rich! There’s a reason we wear helmets and develop pre-ride checklists before we get on our horses. If you are careful and diligent, falls and accidents will be very rare.


STEP TWELVE….But if you are going to fall off, do it with Style!


Jumping riders have the most falls of any riding style. It just goes with the territory and yes it stinks big time. However, time seems to slow down and you do have a while to plan your graceful exit. I recall one fall in particular. The horse I was riding had a very weird rhythm. We were approaching an oxer. He wasn’t going over it so into the air I was launched. I
had enough time to go limp, roll into a ball and avoid hooves and poles all at the same time. Trick to falling off well, is to go limp. Keep your arms and legs in, if possible. People get into trouble when they try to stop their fall with an arm or leg. Try to fall on your butt or side and roll away from the horse.


Afterwards, figure out why the fall happened. Use your instructor or another eye witness to help you. Stay as logical and as unemotional as possible. Do NOT get back on the horse until you’ve figured out what happened. I really dislike the old notion of getting back on right away and not thinking and evaluating first! Every fall I’ve ever had, I can tell you why and what happened. And I’m sure as heck, not going to make that mistake again!


Learn the emergency dismount. In cases where your horse is going bonkers, learn to jump off. Starting with a friend holding your horse, kick both feet out of the stirrups and jump off facing forward. Next with your friend leading at a slow walk, jump off again, bend your knees and lean forward as you land. Practice makes perfect. If you feel comfortable, try it at the trot and if you’re really feeling daring, try it at the canter, land running forward. But if you can do it at the walk and trot, you won’t need to try to stop a crazy horse in order to bail out. You don’t want to be stuck on a runaway horse. Thankfully run away horses are very rare, and if you follow a systematic pre-ride checklist they should be a nonoccurrence.

 You might want to do some checking and look up people who do vaulting on horseback. Part of their training consists of falling off the horse on purpose and doing it safely. You might find some good tips and info from them.


Being fearful of riding does not need to be a life sentence, but it can feel like it at the time. As long as you’re willing and determined to get through it, you’ll make it!






Back in the Saddle (AGAIN)- Tips on Returning to Riding


Maybe you rode as a child or teenager. Then life got in the way and before you know it 20 (or more) years happened and you haven’t ridden since. Or maybe a beloved horse died and heartbroken you stopped riding for a while. Or maybe you had a scary fall and even though you didn’t break anything, you stopped riding.


Then suddenly, out-of-blue, you get that urge to ride again. Maybe your young daughter shows an interest (what girl doesn’t like horses?) Or you drive past a few horses in the field and suddenly you want to jump on one. Or maybe you decide that you need to do something fun for yourself and riding sounds more appealing than taking a pottery class. Sometimes a non-horsey spouse is the one to get the interest going again…”hey honey, didn’t you ride as a kid?”

Once horses get in your blood, they never leave. They might be dirty and dusty, step on your feet and sneeze on you. But nothing is better than hanging around them, watching them eat or taking a relaxing trail ride on a fall day. So forget about forgetting about horses. Once you fall in love with them, it’s a lifetime commitment!


No matter what your reason is for leaving riding, take your time easing back into the saddle. Make your riding return a goal, and then break the process down into the following steps.


   Find Comfortable Riding Clothes


Western riders have it easy, just jeans and boots. English riders have a lot more to think about!


I HATE breeches and tall boots. I know they look nice, but I daydream that someday, the powers that be, will declare jeans and half chaps formal show wear! But it’s not looking likely at this point. However if you’re like me, consider buying some riding pants (the higher the cotton content, the less the sticky cling) and wearing half chaps. Some half chaps look like tall boots. Or jeans and full chaps work too. Main point is to wear what is comfortable for you.


I like to save money as much as the next guy, but the 20 year old pair of breeches? Just donate them to a museum and get a new pair. There are so many different brands now and price points. I remember back in 1990, there seemed to be two, maybe three brands of riding clothes. Now there seems to be dozens. Find a local tack store and try several until you find something you like.


If you start up riding in the fall or winter, dress in many thin layers. Avoid bulky winter coats. They can easily get caught on the saddle horn causing a nasty accident. A t-shirt layered on top by a polar fleece jacket and a winter vest is usually enough for Virginia winters. Further north get a winter coat made for riding. These coats are tailored at the waist and flare in the back like coat tails.


It’s your choice, as an adult to wear a helmet, but I strongly urge you to wear one. Some stables require everyone to wear an approved helmet. Great advances have been made in helmets. I remember my first approved helmet. It must have weighed 5 lbs, was hot, had no air ventilation and was overall awful! Now they come in all different styles from traditional black velvet to wild colors and patterns. If you think it’s a remote possibility that you may want to show again, go for the traditional style. Many helmets even have adjustment knobs in the back so you can get a perfect fit. The helmet should move with your scalp when you shake your head. Try rocking it back and forth and front to back. Make sure you adjust the harness so it’s comfortable for you.


Gloves are optional. Some people can’t ride without them. If I never see another pair again it will be too soon!


  Finding the Right Lesson Barn & Teacher


Next step is to find the right barn for you. Most barns have a mix of child and adult students. You may feel a little odd being the only adult riding with a bunch of kids. Generally speaking, children ride after school and on weekends. If you are able to ride during the day, you’ll be more likely to ride with other adults or better yet, have the place to yourself.


I recommended that you start with half hour private lessons. You’ll get the instructor’s full attention, will be able to work at your own pace and won’t become too tired. Then once you’ve gotten into the grove again, you may enjoy riding in an adult group lesson. But be aware those lessons tend to become social events with horses, which is good or bad depending on how ambitious your goals are. The advantage is you’ll meet other returning riders and can make new friends that will encourage you and keep you on track.


One of the best places to gather names of instructors is the American Riding Instructor Association’s website. Each state is listed and it is likely to have an instructor near you. The test to become an ARIA certified instructor is very demanding. When I took it, I had a very long essay question exam that had to be submitted beforehand and then a 4 hour written test at a testing location. If I wanted to become higher than a Level 1 teacher, I had to submit a videotaped riding lesson to the exam board. The written test consisted of essay question that were judged and scored by some of the top trainers in the country. (They won’t tell you who, but I always wondered if George Morris graded my paper!) I have met many ARIA instructors at the annual national conference and they are a very professional bunch of horse people. Chances are one will serve you well.

When you first talk to prospective teachers, let them know you are a returning rider. A good instructor will congratulate you on your big riding return, relate that they have had other returning riders and will detail a program for you that empathizes slowness and safety until you get your stride back. It’s important that you click with your instructor. Don’t choose somebody that intimidates you. It’s fine to ride in a clinic with a top (and usually unapproachable clinician) but  your “everyday” instructor should be someone you feel comfortable asking questions of and you trust their judgment.


There are also basically two types of teachers; the Barking Dictator and the Friendly/Positive Conversational Type teacher. I personally have gotten my fill of the Barking Dictator for this lifetime, but that’s your choice!


   Visiting Barns


In addition to finding the right instructor, you should look at the barn they operate out of. Try not to judge a book by its cover. I have been to plenty of beautiful farms that had the best of everything, yet the horse management and general knowledge was lacking. On the other hand, some barns are much more humble, but the teaching and horse management is superb. Keep in mind that horses don’t perform well if their home life is stressful. If the horses aren’t turned out to pasture much, if their feeding times are irregular, if they don’t get along with the horse next door or the other horses in the pasture, real stress can build up over time making the horse unsafe to ride. Try to visit a barn during feeding time. All horses will pace and get a little excited when it’s time to eat, but they should settle down quickly once fed. I remember one lesson barn I rode at as a kid. When feeding time came you thought the barn was going to come down! All of them started screaming, kicking the walls, pounding their buckets, rearing at their next door neighbor, pawing the floors and raking their teeth along the stall walls. They didn’t settle down after being fed either because they would be busy fighting at the neighbor on the other side of the wall. Avoid this kind of place!


Also consider the general atmosphere of the barn. Are the people friendly or are they snobby? What are the employees like? Do they seem content or are they stressed and hurried? The reason you should care is because horses pick up people’s attitudes. If the people around them are calm and happy, chances are the horses will be as well.


Is the barn neat and clean? Are blankets hung up? Are tools put away? Is the tack reasonably clean or do the bits have big green globs of fossilized grass clippings? Little things like this indicate how much pride the people there have in their work.


     Your First Lesson


I know it’s hard, but try not to get nervous! This is huge step for you. In certain cases, this simple act of coming to your first riding lesson might be the product of years of wishing you could ride but being too frightened to. Or maybe your just plain excited to get back to what you love. Whatever the emotion, don’t eat a heavy meal before your lesson. Eat something light like a salad or some crackers. You could always chow down afterwards while celebrating your big riding lesson success.


Try not to get into the ‘past self’ versus ‘present self’ comparison trap. As adults we tend to glamourize our wild riding youth. You’re convinced that when you were a kid, you were jumping your horse over ditches bareback, galloping full speed across an open field and then lived to tell your parents about it! Reality is you were probably just jumping cross rails bareback and did a pleasant canter across the pasture. But if you fall into the trap of thinking that you’ve lost every riding skill and ounce of courage you had in the past, you’d be mistaken. Sure as we get older and have families are bodies aren’t as spry as before. But the head knowledge is still there and will only improve with age. Riding isn’t like ice skating. You don’t wear out at 30. Watch a Grand Prix jumping class on t.v. Sometimes they will list the ages of the riders. The older riders always kick the butts of the 20somethings! How cool is that?


 Riding is about 20% body strength and about 80% head knowledge. It’s a good idea to take up a light exercise program off the horse and eat better, but it’s more important to work that muscle between the ears. You are the horse’s brain and he is the muscle.

In any case don’t think for a minute that you’re special or unique on the returning rider roller coaster. If you only knew how many riders are going through the same thing! There are multitudes of returning riders like yourself and there are riders who are returning to jumping or horse showing and are in the same mindset boat as you…uncertain, excited, nervous, unsure and hoping everything goes well!  Lucky the emotional roller coaster stops and by the 3rd or 4th lesson you will be happy and back in the saddle again like you never left it.