Monday, February 24, 2014

Tracy Meisenbach: Riding to Compete or Competing to Ride

            Riding is a lot of fun. It’s a physically active sport and also requires a lot of mental engagement. When coupled with the fact that it brings us closer to those great hairy beasts we are obsessed with, it’s often the best form of therapy against the stresses of daily life. As more and more people discover the joys of riding and horse ownership I see a definite reduction in the quality of riding and training, vs the quantity of riders and horses. It’s not a good trend.
            When I started out in horses good equitation was drilled into us from the moment we got on a horse. Classes like western pleasure and hunter under saddle REQUIRED a good, well presented rider. It wasn't about the bling, it was about your seat and hands. Now judges don’t even look at equitation in these classes, as is evident by the leaning back and pumping heels you see at World and National shows.
            Back in the day you learned to ride and then when you finally got good enough to be in tune with your horse you started competing, first at a local level, then regionally and finally, if you were good enough, nationally. It was a big deal. A National championship meant a lot because it was the result of years of work and dedication. Horses that showed in halter also showed under saddle, proving that their conformation was truly form to function. Now, except in very rare cases, those days are gone. Poor riding has become the norm and it’s a disgraceful trend. I see top level trainers that have less riding ability and ring etiquette than local 4 H riders. I see leaning back, horrible bouncing, legs pumping with every post, constant hand movement, and constant spurring. It’s almost like the show ring has become a puppet show full of poorly guided marionettes.
            In the speed events it’s become even worse. The riding I see at rodeos and jumping competitions is downright scary and embarrassing. Whoever invented the super extended, kicking every stride, barrel racing method was an idiot. It looks bad, actually slows down the horse as he braces for each kick, and creates a non-existent seat as your butt flies up a foot out of the saddle before slamming down onto the horse’s back. And the jumping with the exaggerated two point, super short stirrups, death grips on the reins and constant see sawing around the ends is just deplorable. WHERE HAVE ALL THE RIDERS GONE?
            In the here and now a trainer can win big money and still ride really bad.  Why? Because most of the trainers are being judged by people, who are also trainers, and they ride bad too. When you look at the stock horse industry the hunter section has become a travesty. There are judges hired to assess English classes that have NEVER ridden in that event. They've never been to USEF shows. Their exposure to English classes has been watching the other stock horse boys ride. Well that’s like learning to be a mechanic from someone that has no idea how to work on a car. Their ignorance is reflected in the horrible trending down of equitation. Let’s face it, proper form while riding is a thing of the past. Even in the Olympics someone that leans back and has a leg that swings like a pendulum can get a gold medal, the Beijing games were proof of that.
            So let’s step back a moment and look at why proper riding has gone away. Riding is a discipline, like ballet or gymnastics, which requires “form” in order to create the correct “function”. Of course you can muddle through, but in doing so you risk injury to yourself and your horse. And you waste a lot of time and money before you get good results. We need to remember the horse should NOT be used as a guinea pig while we try not to kill ourselves while learning to ride. Think about it, you’d never go hop in an airplane and just fly off into the blue. You’d never reach the end of the runway before killing yourself. A horse needs the same mindset. He’s a set of earthbound wings and to guide him safely and to take advantage of his power and flight you NEED to know how to handle him correctly. Here’s a list of things you should know before you EVER ride into the competition arena (barring leadline class!)

1)      Proper equitation. This means the automatic alignment of ear, shoulder, hip and heel. Your back should be straight, no duck butt or leaning over the cantle. Your shoulders soft but square, knees slightly bent, just barely able to see your boot toe if you look down. Your upper arm should be in line with your body NOT extended out with your hands wide open like the western pleasure riders do today. Arm down, hand closed, wrists flexible. Heels should be DOWN. Mot level, not pumping with every stride, DOWN. You should be able to snap back to good position within seconds and YES you maintain it through speed events, over fences and doing any patterns. If you CAN’T then don’t punish your horse with competitions until you can. It’s not your horse the judge doesn't like, it’s your riding.
2)      Know all the gaits, while maintaining proper equitation. This means that at a walk, jog, lope or walk, trot, canter your butt is in the saddle, it doesn't bounce. You don’t sway like a drunken camel rider, you don’t crouch like a monkey on a stick. You RIDE the horse at all times.
3)      You can stop the horse without raising your hand to your chin, jerking on the reins, throwing yourself backwards, leaning back over the cantle or sticking a spur in your horse’s side. A stop is subtle, it is graceful and it is gentle. You want to know why horses dread stopping? Because poor riders have made it a sequence of torture that starts with jerking the reins and ends with back pain that even the average chiropractor can’t fix. Learn to stop and don’t move on until you do.
4)      Know how to move both ends of your horse and the middle. If you can’t do a slow turn on the haunches, forehand or basic sidepass, and correct flying lead changes you have no business running barrels, jumping or even going down the trail. Your horse has a keyboard down his side and each button tells him what you want to do. If you randomly whop the buttons like a cat walking across a laptop you create confusion and resentment. Learn the cues before trying to learn the event. And if your horse hasn't mastered these skills he has no business being worked on a pattern or over a jump course. Don't create problems because you are in a hurry to get in the show ring.
5)      It is ONLY after you master the above 4 that you can even consider moving on to pattern work and speed events. Do NOT try to learn patterns and speed while learning equitation. You will create more bad habits in yourself and frustration with your horse than you can ever undo. Learn to ride FIRST. Don’t play tough, don’t “cowgirl up”, don’t go all “redneck fever”. LEARN TO RIDE.
6)      Once you know how to ride, and are working in unity with your horse, then you can add speed, turns, harder stops and obstacles. And after you add these things your equitation is STILL important. It’s important for your safety and for your horse’s physical health. I see comments all the time about lameness, sore backs ( both people and horses) being ring sour, dangerous behavior and once I investigate the common denominator is usually the rider. The rider bounces, jerks, flops, doesn't balance or take into consideration the physical structure of their horse. So LEARN to ride. Take lessons from someone that KNOWS how to ride and that does not mean the local Natural Horsemanship trainer that thinks standing on the horse’s back or laying it down is a demonstration of ability. You want to know what it means to ride with your butt in the saddle and your horse upright.

New Rider Common mistakes        

1)      Thinking a new bit will fix YOUR problem. If your riding is causing your horse pain or confusion a newer harsher bit is NOT going to fix anything, it’s going to make it worse. More pain added to more frustration usually means a showdown at some point and people always lose.
2)      Make sure your tack and clothing fit the job. Don’t ride in tight boots, slippery pants, really baggy clothing. The barn is a place to work, not show off the latest fashion trends. Make sure your horse’s equipment fits him too. I realize the big belt bridles and bling buckles are all the rage, but they fit poorly and rub and annoy the horse. Use common sense. When you “bling” out and then fail to turn in a good ride you look ridiculous.
3)      Learn correct terminology. LISTEN to other horsemen at competitions. Look at what they use and KNOW the difference between good training and flashy training. Don’t mimic the jerk and spur crowd.
4)      When you have a problem with your horse the first thing to assess is YOU. Once you’ve eliminated all issues that could be rider error THEN examine what could be causing the horse to react. Is it pain, fear, frustration, illness etc? LOOK at the situation and assess it from the horse’s point of view. Don’t think that spurs, harsher bits or “getting tough” are going to fix it.
5)      Don’t go beyond your abilities. Your ego is NOT the deciding factor here. There are two lives at stake and the other one deserves your consideration. Your lack of riding ability and ignorance can condemn your horse to the canners if he becomes unmanageable through your poor handling. Take the time to learn correct methods to get solid long term results.

Riding should be enjoyable, for both you and the horse. Proper riding makes it easier on both of you. Don’t stack the deck against yourself and try to learn too many things at once. Instead learn slowly, learn completely and learn safely. Wear a helmet, it’s your life at stake. Don’t follow dangerous trends and don’t let your ego rule over common sense.

Don’t compete in order to have a reason ride, instead ride well so you have a reason to compete.

Tracy Meisenbach
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