First how is the person on a horse defined. Is everyone that is on a horse a rider? If so, what is the definition of a rider? According to Britannica Kids “Horseback riding is the art of riding a horse and controlling the animal's movement and speed with maximum effectiveness and minimum efforts.”
The Free Dictionary says, “horseback rider - a man skilled in equitation.”
What is the definition of equitation? “The art and practice of horsemanship and horse riding.”
And, finally, the definition of horsemanship – “The art of riding, handling, and training horses. Good horsemanship requires that a rider control the animal’s direction, gait, and speed with maximum effectiveness and minimum efforts.”
The Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the oldest riding school in the world and is now 451 years old. This school is known for putting out excellent riders. You have to apply at the school and, if accepted, (very few are and they prefer the candidates have no prior riding experience), you embark on a ten-year training program of which 80% do not complete. It takes three years of training to be a groom. A groom learns how to clean stalls, how to keep the barn, and horse handling skills. When you start your riding program, the first six months (minimum) you are on a lunge-line exclusively daily. If you have developed your skills to a specific point when the six months are up, you will start to have regular riding lessons in addition to your daily lunge-line lessons which are then done without stirrups and last at least three years. Your progress is monitored and if not heading in the right direction by the Spanish Riding School’s criteria, you are asked to leave.
Even after a solid three years of daily lunge-line lessons, those at the Spanish Riding School are put back on the lunge-line intermittently.
Good riding requires good balance, timing and feel. Balancing on a horse, is very different from balancing on a bicycle, roller skating, a balance beam, etc. When you are balancing on a horse, you are learning to balance and move as one with another living, breathing mammal that also has a mind of its own. Every horse moves differently, just like every person walks a little differently. People that have only ridden one horse for twenty years of their lives might get on another horse and feel like they don’t know how to ride at all.
Horseback riding is a sport. To ride well, a rider needs to be physically fit. To ride well, the rider needs time in the saddle. Just like any other sport, there are those that seem to be naturals and those that have to work harder at being good at it.
Our lessons here at Meadowsweet start with lunge-line lessons for anyone that is new to riding. If someone comes and says they’ve done trail riding for years at a local stable, they are considered beginner riders.
Riding on trail rides through a livery stable, is not riding, in my opinion. Horses that spend their days taking people out on a trail ride at a walk and following the horse that’s in front of them, is carrying a passenger, in my opinion. Horses are herd animals. It is very easy to get horses to follow each other. So, whatever the horse in front does, the one behind does. The person on the horse, sits there, often unbalanced, not aware of where the horse’s hooves are, and does not have the knowledge of what to do, should the horse the person is on decides to take off, or is on a horse that is following a horse or horses that have all started to run for any reason.
So, in my opinion, lunge-line lessons are necessary and critical to help develop a decent rider as well as keep the student as safe as possible until they have developed some balance and maneuvering skills. Lunge-line lessons provide the student the opportunity to develop their balance, at least somewhat, toward what is described as an independent seat. An independent seat meaning that no matter what a horse does, the rider is able to move with the horse and stays on. Which is why those in training at the Spanish Riding school are on lunge-line lessons for so long.
Lunge-line lessons also give the rider nothing to worry or think about other than themselves. They do not have to control the horse’s speed or direction. They can focus on their bodies and developing their balance, timing and feel.
One family that quit lessons said that after five lessons the kids had never touched the reins. Five lessons means that there were four lessons that included about a half hour on the lunge-line during each lesson, so two hours total on a lunge-line. Our requirements here are that the student can sit a walk; sit a trot; post a trot by picking up the correct diagonal by feel; maintain a balance position (also called a two-point position) and sit the trot without stirrups. Then we start working on the student handling reins, changing the horse’s speed, etc. as we ween them off the lunge-line.
There is nothing more beneficial to a rider and their mount than having good eyes on the ground that can help the rider not fall back into habits that do not enhance their riding skills. We all move our bodies differently. We all have habits that we may have had since the day we learned to walk. This is what our body feels is correct and changing that habit takes a lot of time, focus and feel.
So, how long does it take to learn how to ride? There is no correct answer to that question because it all depends on the riders’ abilities, time in the saddle and what they would like to do. Many say, “I just want to trail ride.” As if that means, trail riding is no big deal. In my opinion, trail riding is a big deal. Now the horse needs to try and balance a rider on varied terrain and footing with exposure to all kinds of unknowns. There’s a saying – A 90-pound unbalanced rider does more damage to a horse than a balanced 300 pound rider. There is some food for thought and a topic for another time.
So, in my opinion, if you, or someone you know is taking riding lessons, look for improvements in your (or their) abilities. There will be times when a student will feel like they are not improving and then all of a sudden things will click and they’ll be ready to start working on or improving something else.
I take lessons as often as I can from people that I respect, and feel are good eyes on the ground for me. Anything I can do that helps me make carrying me easier or better for the horse I’m riding is worth my time and effort.
As food for thought, I’d like to share An Accompaniment from the book Dancing With Horses – The Art of Body Language by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling.
He was a noble caballero whose entire life had been devoted to horses. Not only was it said of him that he was a very dignified and humble man, but everyone who saw him ride was enthralled by the performance, and deeply moved by his riding ability.
At the age of 96 years, as he lay on his deathbed, he called for his nephew to come to him so that he might bid him farewell. And so it happened: as the nephew was finally turning away to leave the room he saw, for the first time, tears in his uncle’s eyes. The old man reached out again for the younger man’s hand and said softly: “It is such a misfortune that I must die just now.”
“Why?” asked his nephew, tenderly stroking the old man’s hand, “This time comes for every man, and you have had a long, rich, blessed life”.
“Yes,” said the old one, “you are right, but it was only about a week ago that I first realized what it means to truly ride a horse”.
I believe that no matter how long you ride, your riding can always improve. For me, it’s a lifelong pursuit.