Creative Horsemanship: Improving Yourself on a Budget
As horseback riding becomes more and more of a niche activity, relegated to either rural folks who still make use of horses as work animals, rich urban folks, or just those of us who are passionate enough to become “horse poor” in order to incorporate horses into our lives, gaining access to the resources we need to continually improve our riding and horsemanship can prove challenging. Lucky are those who have access to a perfect facility complete with miles of groomed trails, round pens, indoor and outdoor arenas with ideal footing, accessories like jump standards and cavaletti, and professional trainers and instructors available around the clock to help them with any training need that may arise. Most of us are lucky to have a place to put our horses, and anything beyond that is a pipe dream!
Unfortunately, I all too often run into people who use this lack of resources as an excuse to remain stagnant in their growth as an equestrian and not pursue their horsemanship goals. While I will acknowledge that continually improving without being able to practice in a mirrored arena twice a day under the eye of an experienced coach is difficult, it is far from impossible for those willing to use a little creativity and resourcefulness.
If you lack an arena, the trail is your best friend. You can teach a horse everything on the trail that you can in an arena, if you use your creativity! If you have a straight trail going for a quarter mile or so, you can work on lateral movements such as shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and haunches-out. If you’re riding down an empty street or a sidewalk, you can take advantage to practice a leg-yield or a half-pass from one side to the other.
Transitions can be practiced anywhere, and are a good way to start working towards a longitudinally balanced horse who can collect and rate his speed. Pick spots along the way to practice a transition. For example, you might say, “at that mailbox, I will transition from a walk to a trot, and then at that bush, I will halt before picking up the trot again. I will transition to a walk before that intersection, and pick up a canter through that flat field.” This will help you become more precise in your transitions. If you miss one or one is particularly ugly, you can always go back and try again from the previous spot.
A row of natural wind-block trees can act as poles or cones to weave in and out of. You can practice this as a walk, trot, or even a canter once your horse is ready to perform flying changes. You can also practice simple changes through the walk or the trot between the trees, and then you’re doing double duty of working on both longitudinal and lateral flexing of your horse at once!
Near my old barn in Golden, CO, the city had recently built an overflow parking lot for a park that never got used. It was huge, level and graveled, and most important, almost always completely empty. We alternately used the parking blockades as cavaletti by going over them, as cones by weaving between them, and as a way to practice perfectly straight lines by going between two rows or alongside them. The possibilities were endless!
If we went to ride there at sunset, we had the added advantage of being able to see our shadows silhouetted perfectly against the fence on the east side of the lot. Although not quite as handy as a mirror, you could tell a lot about your position by looking at your shadow and you and horse rode by.
As for not having access to consistent coaching, there are still ways to access the wisdom and assistance of others in your quest to become a better horseman or woman. Join Facebook groups dedicating to training and riding. There’s one group in particular—“Ask the Trainers”—that does not allow for anyone other than an approved instructor or trainer answer your question. Be prepared to send them some video and then try to implement their suggestions. Come back later when you think you’ve got it and ask for follow-up feedback. Such groups are free of charge and can be enormously helpful.
If you have the money to spend on it, purchase books by trainers your respect, and don’t forget to consult the old masters of horsemanship, dating in some cases all the way back to the fourth century, B.C. You can also join online classes. A helpful place to start searching for these is YouTube. A lot of content will be offered for free, but if you find a trainer you really like, you can sign up for additional material for a nominal fee. Enter raffles or sweepstakes for the opportunity to ride with different instructors and trainers, even if it seems like a discipline outside of your area of interest. You never know what you might find useful from another style of riding to apply your particular discipline.
Sometimes, an eye on the ground is very helpful, even if that person isn’t a certified instructor. Ask a riding buddy to watch your turn on the forehand and confirm that your horse is indeed crossing his outside foreleg in front rather than behind the inside one. Have them watch you from directly behind to ensure that your shoulder-in is on three tracks rather than four. Ask for your ground person to film you so you can watch it later and critique your own riding or post to a group in Facebook for feedback (only do this if you have tough skin, as keyboard warriors are alive and well in all Facebook groups, including the horsemanship ones!).
If you have no riding buddies to rely on, there are many ways you can rely on yourself for feedback. Set up your phone or camcorder somewhere and practice in front of it so you can watch the video later and see what you may be doing wrong. Take a look at your hoof prints left in fresh snow or mud to see any irregularities in your horse’s gait and be sure that he is stepping under himself equally with both hind legs. Go riding just after sunrise or just before sunset when your shadow is sharp and easy to see so you can see what your position looks like and critique your horse’s silhouette as well. Ride with music that matches your horse’s gait and try to maintain the same rhythm for the length of a song. You can also download a free metronome to set to your horse’s gait and practice staying with it.
As horse ownership becomes more a sport for the rich to enjoy, the average Joe should still be able to find ways to make this sport their own. As you can see, there are many ways to make up for a lack of resources to be able to improve yourself almost as well as the folks with the endlessly deep pockets. Go out there and get creative, and let me know in the comments if there’s another trick you utilize to make up for lack of instruction or facilities!