Horse-Riding: Participating in Clinics

Every instructor has preferences as to the appearance, equipment, and preparedness of students. I can only speak about mine, while trusting that they correspond to some of the expectations of fellow instructors. Expectations may vary somewhat, depending on the frequency of instruction for a particular pupil. An instructor may have pupils seen only once a year or much more frequently.

The horse should be in continuous training and athletically prepared for a dressage clinic. He should be strong enough to take an hour of gymnastic work, although intense work limited to exercises in a manege should last only thirty minutes. Good muscle tone and good cardiovascular functions result from regular training and correct feeding. A horse regularly schooled should also have a prolonged attention span and the ability to concentrate on his rider. Horses benefit immensely by frequent rest periods, which must not be long and may even be limited to one minute. Resting periods are more for the horse’s mind than for his body, unless, of course, he is in strenuous training for cross-country work. Resting for a minute is the most effective reward and it also allows the horse to realign his body and work as his own “chiropractor” with a loose neck. Resting could be as frequent as every six minutes for young, weak, or nervous horses. Even the most educated and willing horse needs a rest period after every fifteen minutes of work.

The rider should also be athletically conditioned. Sick, injured, or weak riders have low physical and mental tolerance for learning. They should not participate in clinic lessons. Unfit riders cannot be given proper education and athletic guidance through a clinic format. Unfit riders should not take lessons because their learning abilities are impaired.

Ideally, riders with an independent, balanced seat benefit most from an occasional clinic. I believe that the seat and aids of riders need serious attention. Few riders have been started correctly, and therefore equitation becomes the most important part of a clinic. During a clinic, an instructor must teach the horse using the skills of his rider. Daily instruction or supervision, however, may still be the best for riders who need to learn an independent, balanced seat and riding theory in a thorough manner. Poor riding habits are much harder to correct than giving good riding skills and habits to beginning riders. Bad riding, habituated during many years, is well learned. Unlearning it is a monumental task, all the more so because the bad habits feel “normal” and good to the rider who habituates them.

The horse’s equipment should include a dressage saddle, well-adjusted headgear and the proper bit for the level of the horse’s schooling needs. (Regulations concerning equipment for competition are found in the rule books of national and international regulatory organizations.) Many riders come to lessons with unevenly adjusted stirrup leathers. They are accustomed to riding in uneven stirrups in order to compensate for a crooked seat that shows in a collapsed hip. Or they did not notice that over time, one leather stretched. Stirrup leathers should be checked and measured weekly. All tack should be clean.

The rider’s equipment and attire should approximate, as closely as possible, that used in competition. Competition attire is standardized because in it riding can be done well. In it, the rider can also be accurately observed. By all means, do wear clothing that reveals the position of the torso and the use of the back. Wear leather riding boots for correct feeling and effective aids. Gloves are indispensable in any weather as protection for the rider’s hands and as instruments for “generalizing” the feeling on the reins.

Carry a riding whip. Both the rider and the horse have two equally important sides. Therefore, carrying two whips might be a great asset with lazy horses. Changing the whip from side to side could be very disturbing to the horse, destroying continuity of the contact and regularity of rhythm, unless skillfully done by an educated rider. Correctly changing the whip skillfully from hand to hand should hardly be noticeable to the horse. Basic training should be schooled without spurs. Prior to the horse’s ability to collect, spurs are useless because their function is occasional and “percussionary,” to enhance cadence or to increase engagement. In any case, spurs are instruments for refinement and should not be worn by riders who cannot keep their heels away from the horse’s sides and who cannot ride with draped, effectively driving calves. Sensitivity to mild leg aids is paramount in dressage riding and, even on phlegmatic horses, can best be developed with the help of reinforcement of the leg aids by the whip. Spurs are useful when collection and cadencing work commence. They are instruments of sensitivity, similar to the double bridle. However, their use should slightly precede the use of the full bridle.

At the beginning of a lesson, the rider should walk up to the instructor and halt there. They could exchange greetings and the instructor could ask the student about essential information concerning the horse and the rider’s experiences. While the instructor inspects the equipment and adjusts it if necessary, the rider should offer a short and relevant report on the horse. This should include the horse’s age, training background, current schooling plans, and particular problems or strengths in performance. After the equipment has been inspected and, if needed, adjusted, the lesson proper may begin. An instructor should adjust the rider’s skeletal position while still at the halt. This is the time to sculpt the rider’s torso and leg position.

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