How's My Riding?
Wendy Murdoch, internationally acclaimed clinician and author of the highly acclaimed "Simplify Your Riding: Step-by-Step Techniques to Improve Your Riding Skills", has been teaching rider awareness for nearly 20 years. She currently teaches riding clinics around the world. Wendy has shared with us her unique perspective on what it means to be a good rider.
What do you think are the most important components of 'good riding'?
Wendy riding Blondie, owned by Susan MacNelly. Placing a hand on the horse's hip can help riders feel when the hoof is pushing off the ground. This photo was taken during the filming of Wendy's soon-to-be-released 3-part DVDs, Simplify Your Riding, Ride Like A Natural!
Photo by Bradley Schneider
• A willingness to learn. Desire is everything. I have worked with students of all ages and ability levels. Unless they really wanted to learn I couldn’t teach them. Good riders are willing to learn from their experiences and from others. Everyone has their own style of learning and that is important to recognize.
I remember giving a clinic in Dayton, WA years ago. One of the students, a middle-aged man, told me he was going to be my worst student. He turned out to be my best because he wanted to learn so badly. The problem he had in previous clinics with other clinicians is that they did not recognize how he learned. They tried to teach him with words and demonstrations. But this man learned almost exclusively by feeling things. He had no idea he legs were flapping around like a flag in a gale force wind, until I tied the stirrups together underneath his saddle. Suddenly he felt what he had to do. When I went back the next year he got my “most improved” award.
• Talent is given, but talent without desire is nothing. I would rather teach the person with desire and little talent than the other way around. In the end the person with desire will become a good horseman, while the talented rider with no desire will ultimately quit when it doesn’t come easy.
• Self-responsibility is another component to good riding. “Responsibility” means the ability to respond. If you think about it this is what a good rider has to do all the time. You have to sense and feel what is happening with your horse and the environment. You have to respond to the situation. This includes the environment because you have to recognize potential dangers and not ask your horse to do something that is unsafe. How many times do riders ask their horses to cross a small bridge out trail riding for instance, without knowing whether the bridge is sound enough to handle the horse’s weight?
• A good rider recognizes that his actions have consequences. Someone who wants to blame his horse, the equipment, the weather, the show steward is not acting in a self-responsible way. Good riders are ready to accept the responsibility of their horse’s actions and reactions. But this doesn’t mean that simply taking the blame is acting self-responsibly. In fact, riders who always complain that is it their fault, that they are their horse’s biggest problem, or that their horse would be better off with another rider are not acting self-responsibly. Remember, self-responsibility means the ability to respond.
• Good riders constantly problem solve. When there is a problem they don’t give up nor do they keep repeating the same thing hoping for a different response. The best riders I have known are constantly observing, thinking, changing their approach to find the best way to solve the problem, whether that is under saddle or on the ground.
I had the pleasure of going to the Global Dressage Forum in Tilburg, Netherlands. There I watched demonstrations from some of the top riders in the world. But perhaps the best rider wasn’t the riders with the best horses, it was Kyra Kurkland. I was so impressed with her presentation that I went back a second year to watch her again. What made her such a great rider? Her ability to rationally think her way through problems. Unlike the other trainers who simply stuck to a rote program with all their horses, Kyra problem solved when her horse couldn’t perform. She talked about studying dolphin and wild animal training for her solutions. Wild animals cannot be forced or coerced into doing something. You have to study their behavior and have a very large “tool kit” as Kyra called it, to find just the right thing that will get across to the animal you are working with.
Kyra demonstrated some of the best training I have ever seen because she was able to think outside the traditional horse training box. She did not use punishment or exhaustive repetition. She used her rational intelligence to help the horse use his intelligence and learn. It was quite remarkable. Therefore a good rider is a rational rider, one who is able to think, using the horse’s intelligence rather than forcing the horse through instinctive approaches.
• Finally, a good rider is able to recognize that improvement - not perfection - is the goal. A good rider will not force the issue just because they think they have a deadline. A good rider plans a training program to be successful and makes the necessary changes along the way to aid in that outcome but never gets caught up in the idea of perfection. Horses are living, breathing creatures. Unlike a painting they are never finished, they are always a work in progress throughout their career.
This applies to everyone endeavoring to be a good rider. You don’t just wake up one day and realize you are good. In fact good riders don’t look at themselves this way. They simply do the best the can each time they are riding their horse. I think that a good rider is not a judgement of someone’s abiltity but more their mental approach to riding.
Maureen Kraut at her first horse show using the Equiband® to support her legs.
Photo by Ellen Barton
When I travel to Michigan I teach a teenage girl, Maureen Kraut, who has Cerebral Palsy. The progress she has made over the past 3 years is incredible. Maureen even rode in a horse show last summer. The parents of the other competitors wanted to know why she was allowed to have a strap (Equiband®) tying her stirrups back. Maureen did not win a ribbon but she was a true winner that day. The other parents were quite sheepish when they watched her dismount and take up her crutches after the class. Is she a good rider? Absolutely! Perhaps not in our traditional sense of the words but in the larger context of her accomplishments over the past 3 years, Maureen is a great rider.
What riding problems are the easiest to remedy, what are the most difficult, and why?
This is a tough question. When I have a new student I have to assess three things: the horse, the saddle and the rider. Within the first few minutes I determine which factor is creating the most trouble for the other two.
For example, if the student presents herself to me in a too-small saddle for both her and her horse and the tree is broken, there is no point giving her a lesson in that saddle. It will only cause pain for both horse and rider and no one is going to learn anything from the lesson. In that case the saddle needs to be replaced. But depending on the horse’s back shape, the rider’s finances, the saddles available to her, and her knowledge of saddle fit, this might not be so easy to remedy. Yet it is the thing that is preventing both horse and rider from making any progress. So you see, this is not an easy question.
All problems are solvable given an open mind and a willingness to learn. But the lessons are not always what the student thought they might be. Maybe my answer should be, "The problems that are easiest to solve are those which the student is ready and willing to let go of. "
What things can the horse's movement reveal about the rider's balance and timing?
Nearly everything about the rider is visible in the horse. I often talk about the horse being a mirror for the rider, not just in their riding but in their mental and emotional state as well. My horse Andy for instance, is a perfect mirror of my state of mind. When I returned from a month-long European trip I was pretty exhausted. I went for a few days to my friend's to recuperate. Andy was an emotional basket case for the people taking care of him. As my mental state improved, so did his.
This is why they are now doing equine rehabilitative psychotherapy with horses. The horses mirror the patients and help them recognize and cope with their issues.
As far as riding is concerned, I once gave a lesson to someone on Andy because her horse was lame in the right front leg. Andy appeared instantly lame in the right front leg but I knew he wasn’t lame! As the lesson progressed Andy lost the “lameness” and we addressed the rider’s issues that made him look lame to begin with.
Horses are subject to our body patterns and weight since we are sitting on their back. They are also significantly inhibited by a poor fitting saddle. This would be similar to you wearing shoes that don’t fit.
The cause of the movement patterns I see in the horse are not always clear at first. I have to play detective sometimes to uncover the issues. Often the issue is what isn’t moving, i.e. someone with tight hips, vs. what is moving – arms and legs flailing around.
Horses that fall on the forehand in a canter transition, or who have to run into the canter, highlight riders who allow their body weight to fall forward in the canter transitions. Horses that won’t stop or that stop abruptly illustrate riders that do not understand how to use their seat.
Bottom line: the horse is significantly influenced by the body patterns of the rider. That’s why sometimes it is difficult to help a student. I can get on the horse and have a canter transition with only my seat, but the student can’t find the transition because she isn’t conscious of how to use her seat. That’s where education and experimentation come in. We need to learn more about how our body works and improve our coordination so that we can control movement patterns when 1000lbs of moving horse is trying to sway us out of the saddle.
What helpful things or exercises can a rider do on the horse
to help with
balance, position, and timing? What can riders do off the horse?
On the horse, slow things down and experiment with your position. Make sure you are on your quiet older horse, not the colt you are just starting. Make small adjustments to your position, don’t worry about doing things right. Observe what the horse does in response to your changes. Have someone help you find the timing of your horse’s four feet, or walk on a hard surface where you can hear when the hooves hit the ground. We get so worried about doing things right that we lose our sense of playful curiosity. This is what children do - they experiment and play without judgement of their performance.
If you find out what causes the horse to do something you don’t like, keep looking for what he will like. If you go slowly and make small changes the horse will tell you what you are doing without having to get overly loud about it.
Feel for a comfortable position. Change the angle of your pelvis - does it feel better or worse? Breathe into your abdomen - does this make you feel more connected to the saddle? Have someone push gently but firmly on your back as you make changes in your position until you find the solid place.
Why start slow with small movement? Your nervous system, your brain, can pick up very small changes in position, Think of walking into a room that has a slight slope to the floor; you immediately notice the difference. That is because your nervous system is monitoring your environment all the time. The less outside stimulus the more sensitive to change you become. You can’t hear your cell phone ring in a noisy party because of so much background sound. But if you are standing in a doctor’s waiting room your cell phone sounds blaring when it rings. This same thing is true of our nervous system.
When you reduce the noise, walking instead of cantering to find your solid place, your nervous system will be able to recognize the improvement and learn where this place is. When you go back to the canter you will then have something to look for.
Wendy is demonstrating an Equiball exercise for opening the hips. This will improve the rider's ability to lengthen the horse's stride. This photo is also from the DVD filming.
Photo by Bradley Schneider
Off the horse there are numerous things one can do to improve their riding. My favorite is Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lessons. These are available on CD or as a class with a Feldenkrais Practitioner®. Awareness Through Movement Lessons guide participants through a series of movements designed to increase our sense of functioning as a whole, something we need to do unconsciously on the horse. Lessons are about 45 minutes and will not only improve your riding but everyday life. They are not exercises in the typical sense; you don’t have to “strengthen” to improve. The idea is that you become aware of possible movements you may have forgotten or not realized were possible. Therefore you improve your overall coordination, spacial awareness and sense of balance. I use these with my students to great success.
The principles of the Feldenkrais method can be applied to everything from riding, training horses (TTEAM is a combination of Feldenkrais and Linda Tellington-Jones' knowledge of horses), to playing an instrument or sitting comfortably in your chair at work.
Another wonderful tool is an exercise ball. I have designed a series of lessons I call “Equiball® lessons". These are specifically designed to address rider issues such as lengthening the horse’s stride, jumping position, canter, lifting your chest, etc. Just sitting on a ball can be very useful to riders especially if they have back pain. I have a number of students who use a ball in front of their computer instead of a chair. The first Equiball DVD will be available this spring.
Other modalities people have used to improve their riding off the horse are yoga, tai chi, Pilates and martial arts. The important thing is to find the activity you enjoy. That way you will continue to improve your riding off the horse as well as on the horse.