Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Are We There Yet?

I got a great question from a new rider today: How long will it take me to learn to ride?  I have been asked this many times, by both parents of young riders, and by adults just getting into our sport.  The question is a sign of the student's impatience to get in there and ride, and is really like the kids in the backseat on a road trip, asking, "Are we there yet??"  The answer to this question is best framed by more questions; How fit are you? How much time do you have per week to practice?  How often do you intend on taking lessons?  How well does your instructor motivate you to learn new things, and also review what you already know?  What is your attitude towards learning challenging things? 

Those with experience with horses can easily see why being fit helps a rider progress; if you are reasonably fit, you have an easier time getting on, have more flexibility and balance, faster reflexes and don't get winded as easily.  New riders don't realize how important this facet is, and often give up quickly because they get so tired and sore after their first few rides.  Being prepared beforehand, and doing a lot of stretching afterward, are keys to sticking with it.

As with any new endeavor, the time you spend on it is one of the most important determining factors in achieving success.  You can't learn to play an instrument well if you only pick it up once a week.  Daily practice is best, but if you don't have that much extra time, or don't own your own horse yet, get in as much riding time as you can.  Try to take a formal lesson once or twice a week, and then, negotiate with your instructor to borrow a horse for non-lesson practice time where you can just ride on your own (don't be offended if they don't feel you are far enough along that you shouldn't be riding alone yet; consider it their way of keeping you safe).  Keep at it, and keep your expectations reasonable - it will take months of riding several times a week before you could really be considered proficient.

Having a good instructor in your corner is absolutely invaluable.  A good trainer has beginner safety as their first priority, and therefore, may end up telling you, "No, you can't do that yet," more than you want to hear in the beginning.  A good instructor will start with basic concepts and build on them with every lesson, always pushing you to do something a bit better or a bit more daring, but will keep reviewing the basic concepts to drive home their importance.  A good instructor teaches you how to be a good horse owner and advocate, so expect to spend some time on the ground learning about horse care, equine body language, groundwork, first aid, and a myriad of other topics.  If you get the chance to assist the shoer or the vet, or even just observe, you will undoubtedly learn something. Watching your instructor, or other students, ride is also fantastic for picking things up or confirming what you are learning.

More than anything, your attitude will determine your learning curve.  To state the obvious, to be a good rider, you need to be a good student.  You need to be able to take direction.  You need to be able to face your shortcomings and faults when presented to you by an almost total stranger - remember, you are paying them to tell you what you are doing wrong!  You need to be willing to do things over and over that are frustrating because you can't get it quite right.  You might have to try something you haven't done, or may not completely understand, based on your faith in your instructor alone.  Above all, you have to have perseverance.  No one ever got anywhere in horseback riding by getting frustrated and quitting.  You have to just keep getting back on; even if your last ride was terrible, you're tired, it's hot/cold out, etc.  The greatest rewards are the ones you have to work hard for.

And your attitude will sustain you; anyone who is a lifelong rider knows that you are never truly done learning to ride.  Being a better horseman is something everyone is always working on, from the person who just trail rides, to the professional trainer who is always working to perfect their technique.  There is always something to improve, brush up on, or a new direction to go.  Riding horses is endlessly inspiring, and you could spend a lifetime learning new things about them! 

You notice I haven't said anything about the horses themselves....well, I haven't forgotten them.  Tomorrow I will cover what you should be looking for in lesson horses, and your first horse.  Have a wonderful day!