The esteemed eventing luminary Jimmy Wofford recently wrote about making mistakes on horses and learning by doing it, “If Only…”, in his popular column in Practical Horseman, and for some reason this stuck with me for a few days while I have been riding and training my own horses.

To ride better, to avoid making mistakes or learn how not to make them, is sort of the whole idea behind taking riding lessons. We do it wrong, then we learn to do it right. I’ve made some pretty bonehead mistakes in my riding and think back on them all the time and wonder what I was thinking or why I did that. It is pretty amazing many of my horses have survived me in retrospect. I used to just be happy I survived. But I think I know better now.

Charlemagne's Cheif

An early Saint-Pony – me about 40 years ago on my Charlemagne’s Chief

I think Jim gets it right, when he says, “The noblest creatures of all God’s creation, horses are also the most generous and forgiving. If you approach them with love and consideration, they will repay you a thousand-fold and enrich your life beyond measure.”

Perhaps it is because I have had some very heart-stopping moments in my years in competition, in the hunt field, and in lessons all over the country. It’s amazing how horses make up for our mistakes, ignoring bad equitation to save the rider over jumps, keep a kid in the saddle despite a big hiccup in steering, stop when things were really wrong and allow the rider to simply lay up the neck instead of getting their heads smashed in when they tumbled off. There are so many times that scary stuff is about to happen and my horse has decided that it was just not too safe to continue … and stopped, ran out, faded past a jump, came to a gentle stop by the ingate, or simply said “no” in a kind yet firm way to me when I was really, really wrong. I know they all say, discipline him – tell him not to stop – spank him, etc. but sometimes you just sit there and want to pet them for being so smart. When the big mistakes happen, it’s a good horse that knows what to do. I don’t really know how they do this for us but I am very grateful for it!

Besides the big stuff, I know I continually make small and insignificant mistakes, too, when I ride, and that’s the part I think we can do something about. If I can’t stay with my young horse when he takes a big leap, then I know I need to go back to that no-stirrup flat work and stomach-knotting two-point stuff. And I am the first to know, trust me!

Ideally, we all want to embrace the fundamental concepts of equitation — riding in balance over your feet, having an independent seat and soft hands, the lower leg as the basis of good riding especially over fences, and riding intelligently. But it’s a sport that can kill you if you get it wrong so it’s always our goal as riders to learn incrementally and slowly — skipping steps always comes back to haunt us, as Jim points out frequently in his written articles and in all his public instruction at clinics and seminars.

There is no getting around making mistakes while riding. We all have to do it in order to learn. It makes you want to go back and hug all those wonderful school horses who patiently trudged around the arena, marching in silent suffering, while you pulled on their calloused mouths and bumped on their backs learning to post the trot.

The good news is there are enough horses in the world that school horses and high-test competition horses don’t have to be the same horse, and there are lots of great school horses who enjoy their jobs and don’t really fit in other places. I’ve taught lessons on some of the finest school ponies and horses in the world at one of the nation’s best riding schools, and the intelligence of these creatures just takes your breath away. School horses make us all great riders and we don’t appreciate them enough! I think back on my first ponies and horses and how I tortured them learning to ride. What angels they were!

Practice until you can jump like this eventer. Photo by Holly.

Practice until you can jump like this eventer. Photo by Holly.

Here’s what we owe to our horses. We owe them getting it right. Not slopping around, “practicing”. Making a serious effort to CHANGE what we are doing to make ourselves better riders for our horses.

Here’s the Mistake Blueprint I’ve thought about.

One. Change it. Riding is both long-term and in the moment — there’s no need to go around the arena three times before checking your canter lead – fix it NOW. Practice correctly. Respect every minute in the saddle. Make an effort at home to drop your stirrups and post at least once around every time you ride, more if you are trying to get more practice over fences.

Develop independence between your seat, your legs, and your hands. Don’t even THINK about jumping until you can hold a two-point and not have to rest your hands on the horse’s neck. Make an effort NOT to ride by balancing on your hands or holding reins for security but instead, with help from your instructor, work on balancing over your feet and on improving your leg. I figure if I am not out of breath at least once during my ride, I’m slacking!

Two. Get help. Eyes on the ground shortens the process – get a good instructor who can communicate and guide you and listen to them! Ask questions, observe a lot – never miss a clinic in your area even if all you can afford to do is audit. Listen to what the instructor says to everyone, no matter how much more advanced they are than you. It’s using experience as a teacher and that is a very inexpensive and horse friendly way to learn.

Third. Use media — every photograph anyone takes of you should be studied and criticized by YOU. Make changes and make them count. I beg people for photos and video. It makes my riding better to see what I am doing. I want to see how my horses are reacting to my aids and how much aid I am using – and if I could use less and get the desired result.

Put pictures in your mind of good riders. Colleen Rutledge here on the great Shiraz. Photo by Holly.

Put pictures in your mind of good riders. Colleen Rutledge here on her great Shiraz. Photo by Holly.

Fourth. Find good examples. Put pictures in your mind of riders you admire and love to watch perform. Google their videos, and watch them ride every chance you get online. And it does work – you will make your body do what your mind can picture! Pretend you are Colleen Rutledge at Rolex, or Jennie Brannigan at Fair Hill. Dreams do come true. Work hard at them.

Fifth. Be a horseman. Sometimes, it’s not always equitation that creates the discomfort to the horse when we ride. I think many saddle fitters would agree with me that how a saddle fits a horse is very critical to his comfort level while being ridden. Of all the non-rider factors affecting a performance horse, saddle fit is probably the highest next to riders. That’s something to think about. (Saddle fit blogs – study these, guys! Trials and Tribulations in Saddle Fitting, Tribulations Part 2 )

Change your tack. Use the easiest bit you can get away with. Don’t be afraid to use something bigger if you need to, also. Ride with a neck strap when you jump so you can hold on without grabbing his mouth. The saddle must fit you, too. Wear boots or good fitting chaps. Don’t wear something that gives you a lot of grip and then change to a slick boot for showing – get your boots on at home and practice in the same tack you’ll be showing in. What happened in the barn today? Are the other horses being fed? How’s the footing or the weather? Ride smart. Know how your horse might be feeling.

Sixth. Keep track of it all. Write down your experiences after a clinic and make notes about what you learned (good and bad.) Keep a log of your rides, make notes on what they did that was great, what wasn’t so hot, what worked and what didn’t seem comfortable to them. A record can be as simple as a free calendar hung up in the barn with a few little shorthand notes on it each day that you rode; doesn’t need to be fancy, just so you can understand it — and review it once a month. I try to look at the whole month just past on the 1st of every month. I note what I need to be doing and what I can stop or modify.

The goal is to ride as close to being mistake-free as you possibly can — because it benefits the horse, prevents him from being subject to discomfort, and keeps him positively working for you and continuing to be your friend. This does not mean you go around never asking for anything until you are perfect in your equitation. There’s a learning process that every horse goes through, also, in order to be a good saddle horse of any discipline. Training is always an ongoing process for both of us. I know I am promoting a very classical way of riding here, which is probably time consuming and methodical, but it is the right way to treat a good horse. We must make mistakes our own, and prevent the urge to blame to our horses when things aren’t exactly perfect. And that also needs practice – humbleness!


References: Jim Wofford, Mistakes Are Your Friend, Practical Horseman, which is an earlier online version about mistakes in riding, and the current issue, December 2014 which contains “If Only” (not available online) and don’t forget his great classic book, “Training The Three-Day Event Horse and Rider” which should be in every eventer’s library.