Do You Need Riding Lessons?

It was a conversation about riding lessons. My friend said she thought it was strange that I’d worked so extensively with trainers. Yes, I could have paid for a college degree with the money I spent on riding lessons back in the day. She said in her country, people didn’t do that. I’m not sure it’s a thing in my country, either. And it isn’t easy to explain. My mother thought her adult daughter was some special kind of stupid to still need lessons after riding most of her life. Maybe she imagined that I just kept falling off the side. After a few years of my riding improving more than her attitude, I came up with an answer. I told her that even Olympic riders had coaches. But dad watched the Olympics on tv all those years and she hadn’t ever seen any horses there. Mom had me on that one.

Do You Need Riding Lessons? No. I’m sure your horse is perfect. All horses are perfect and honest and right.

As for you, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. You have no problems at all, most likely. None. Your cues are clear and your body awareness is amazing. All the transitions you ask for are easy and calm. No spooking, no vices. Besides, you “only” trail ride. (your words, never mine.) Or you have a friend who is more experienced, and it gives the two of you something to share angst about. Some of us like drama.

Maybe you stopped riding because your horse didn’t like being ridden. You decided it was cruel to ride. If you have a sound horse who doesn’t enjoy being ridden, that tells a story of cruelty that might not be flattering to his past owner. Does that purgatory have to go on forever? Has the horse quit or is it you? Because horses are resilient above all and you can change the world for him.

He’s supervising the conversation about hands.

Maybe you stopped riding because you got nervous. I truly do understand that reason. I don’t know a rider who hasn’t hit that bump, myself included. If you can make that choice to walk away and it doesn’t haunt you, then seriously, do it. Most of us can’t.

Maybe you’re addicted to the adrenaline rush from near disaster on a horse. Maybe you get a thrill when you wrestle with a horse in the “cowboy way.” Okay, your horse is terrified of you, but maybe it’s worth it for the rush. If that’s true, you are an ass hat, and riding lessons won’t help you. You got me; I don’t understand you any more than your horse does.

Maybe you’re too remote for a trainer to come, or you have trailer issues. The high side of this pandemic is that good trainers are available online for live lessons. It’s different and horse people are famous for hating technology, but you’ve managed a cellphone, (the only requirement). The world is changing, we’re all re-inventing our lives. The best reason to experiment with online lessons? Your horse gets to work from home.

Maybe you believe all the trainers are monsters. Sure, some are, like any professional field. But are the people telling me, these people who have not worked with me, that my hard-won vocation, my mentor’s vocation before me, is deplorably brutal? Watch me take a deep breath, something horses taught me. I’ll flash a big toothy smile and say, “Try me.” Not taking things personally is in lesson one.

Maybe you’ve never had an advocate on your side. Someone who cares about your horse, whose job it is to listen to you. Most riders are introverts and it’s a vulnerable thing to ask for help. Sometimes it can feel like your horse is a bad boyfriend or that things are a bit dysfunctional, riddled with misunderstandings. All you want is a better relationship. Yay, that’s the right answer. If he was human, you’d break down and ask him to go to therapy. Well, horse trainers are couple’s therapists. They’re translators. The best are peacemakers.

Or maybe, and this reason is achingly sad to me, you’ve never ridden a relaxed, confident horse and you don’t know there is an alternative. You haven’t seen a horse’s intellect, you haven’t met them at a place of mutual trust. It’s okay, you can love them anyway.

Most of the riding horses in rescue have a training issue that a good trainer could help the rider turn around but the rider thought would be easier to get a different horse. Mysteriously, the next horse they got had the exact same problem.

“I never sent a horse to training but when I finally starting taking lessons the world opened up. Here’s to the great instructors. Everyone should seek help for themselves, even the greatest riders have mentors. My pet peeve is expecting the horse to retain training without the rider getting some too.” -Tracie Calabro and her mares.

Romantic job, isn’t it?

Does your horse think you should take lessons? Lordy. They never shut up about it. “Can you see she is kicking me every stride?” “You must tell her how much this saddle hurts, please, she can’t hear me.” And frequently, “Can you do something about her hands!? I can’t breathe.” said most horses, including some of my own. That inside hand thing? Everyone has that problem, you aren’t special. An inside hand that pulls is just instinct. We’re primates, after all.

The challenge in riding is humans and horses have very different instincts. It’s hard for us to Take a Hint. It doesn’t help that good riders make it look deceptively easy. If you’re looking for immediate gratification, get a dirt bike. A lifelong relationship with a horse is a work of art. Riding horses didn’t start with cowboys, it’s been studied for centuries. For some of us, this hook horses have in us has been magical. The idea of working with a horse out beyond the truth of predators and prey is an amazing, addictive mission. The art of understanding and communicating with horses is a lifelong vocation without a final stop. If you do it right.

Do you need riding lessons? Nope.

But maybe you had a moment like I did. Things came apart. I made it worse, but my horse showed me grace that I probably didn’t deserve. It’s humbling, it’s impossible to look away. In that moment, we get called to horses in a way that is hard to explain. We want to be the best we can be because it’s what we see in them, but the words sound trivial as we say them. We want to ride the inside of a horse. They have been part of our dream forever, but now there’s a favor we are obliged to return. And we fall in love with horses all over again. But real this time; accountably real.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes affirmative dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

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Anna Blake

42 thoughts on “Do You Need Riding Lessons?”

  1. It’s not really necessary to say this here, but for anyone who happens along to this post and hasn’t been reading for awhile, I’ll speak to them: if you end up in lessons with someone who isn’t kind to you or your horse, leave. If you end up in lessons that are all about you disciplining the horse, leave. And always be willing to advocate for your horse if anyone tells you to do something to him/her that feels wrong. Bullying isn’t teaching. No one being bullied truly learns. The best lessons I ever had came from a friend who was a very accomplished dressage rider who had trained with Olympic-level riders and trainers. I don’t know what they said to her, but what she said to me, over and over, was “breathe.” And breathe OUT. And odd things like “look back over your right (or left) shoulder. Close your eyes for a few seconds and just feel the trot. Or canter. When I did the things she said, however odd they seemed, suddenly the horse relaxed, the gait magically perfected, and I felt like I was riding the “right” way. I hadn’t corrected the horse, and it didn’t much feel like I corrected myself, but in letting her watch my body and give me cues about what it was doing, I learned to feel it myself. I started thinking about being part of a mobile with the horse. A mobile that is hanging freely seems to float. But if you pull down on one piece, put tension in its line, the other parts of the mobile tilt, tangle, go all askew. Fixing the mobile is simply letting go of that one piece of tension. If you’re in lessons that do not teach you how to feel that what you do impacts the horse, the ride, and your feelings about the ride, leave. (Maybe then read here for awhile and find someone who comes at it from a whole different perspective and experience!)

    • What great advice & truth! Thats what should be said to anyone who has a horse, whether first time, or not. And this blog is what they should be reading – to LEARN!
      Anna hits the nail on the head every single time!
      I dont put the information to practical use now but boy, I learn something each & every time she writes.

    • This is such a great post!! And so true. I had two trainers bully my BLM mustang mare – one did it without my being there, but I saw the “evidence” when my horse came home. The other was a mean bully, and I am ashamed of myself for not screaming at her to get the hell off my property. I begged my mare for forgiveness, not sure she ever gave it as I failed her twice. I resolved three things from my poor mare’s experiences: 1. I will NEVER be silent again. 2. I will probably never let anyone “train” my horse again. 3. My beautiful mare made it very clear to me that she wanted to be free, could not handle being a domestic horse – how could she after being abused by two supposedly top notch trainers – so she is permanently boarded on 5,000 acres living wild and free with about 35 domestic horses.

  2. As always, Anna, you are spot on. And I hope your message gets spread wide and far. Can you please write a post, again maybe, about signs to look for that a trainer is a monster or a monster-in-training or just plain problematic for our horse? As you know, we get caught up in the charisma of the trainer, their confidence, and perhaps the fact that they can get our horse to do what we want them to do. Maybe we haven’t read the Calming Signals book, maybe we’re new to riding and horses, or maybe our child is hell-bent on riding/showing and we don’t now a thing about horses other than that they have four feet (have seen this A LOT). Thanks Anna. Your messages are so grounding. It takes time to embody the practices but I see how things are better every time I am with my horses, if, on a particular day it means that I just laugh/shrug and say maybe next time. But I walk away calm and at peace, having done no harm, and placing a priority on only that.

    • My biggest challenge in blogging is that there is an acceptable length for a blog. Usually 800 to 1000 words. I already steal another 200. There are always words pounding on the back of my teeth. 🙂

      • Sometimes you just really NEED to go longer. I think most of us will read it anyway. I know the “norms” keep posts from being too long but guidelines are just that, a guide, but I know you know that. I wish there were more people who mentor like you do, not just with horses.

  3. Then, when you become proficient and if you are inclined to teach and do so, you learn even more. Which is part of the reason why I know I need riding lessons. 😉 And, well, I love my horses. Thanks, Anna!

  4. Well, finally instead of tearing up as I often do when you write, this time I laughed out loud. “Ass hat”??!! “Get a dirt bike”?! Ha! Spot on, as always. Love it. Not sure if you go virtual with teaching, but if you do I can’t imagine a better instructor. xx

  5. After 23years of having horses, I am SO loving my Dressage lessons with Cecelia Overby! I’ve had other lessons but nothing like this. And of course, Scooter is very responsive and knows everything – it’s how she was originally trained!

  6. Oh Anna, this post is golden! Thank you for making me laugh. I love the dirt bike reference. I usually suggest table tennis, pickleball or boccia.
    All those reasons for taking lessons apply to all of us who are serious about making a better person for our horses. My other favorite is the “I only trail ride” excuse. I usually cannot come up with enough air to explain to that person that they might be suicidal (how do you say that to someone in the kindest- not cynical- way..?)
    Anyway.. looking forward to tomorrow’s session.

  7. “If I knew then, what I know now”. I love taking lessons and I am so grateful to have a kind, passionate and excellent “classical” instructor. Take good care of a good instructor just as we should take good care of farriers and vets.

  8. Amen. I have learned as much from the poor trainers as I have from the good ones. I have learned that it’s OK to find another trainer when you feel like you are not being listened to. Isn’t that the way horses feel? If people would just LISTEN to them, instead of just talking all the time with their bodies, legs, reins, etc. much could be accomplished. In the end, my lessons are a way to check in, eyes on the ground giving me feedback, making sure my horse looks happy as he works. I know he is because when I go to the paddock, he always comes to me, and when I visit him in the paddock, he puts his nose right against my face and we slowly breathe in and out, together.

  9. Ohh Anna! you’ve once again hit the nail on the head. I am always so surprised when someone tells me they are perfect and have nothing new to learn. Isn’t that part of the adventure, making it perfect for your horse, making it safe for you. Learning always learning, the joy of it. I’m sure the horses appreciate it too.

    • Seriously – do YOU know anyone who “has nothing new to learn”? Because I dont! After 82 years – theres always something “new” to learn. I quite honestly dont DO that often enough but should. And exactly how annoying is it when someone makes that statement? Sort of makes clear how ignorant they are (sorry if that sounds harsh).

  10. See, I wonder, does it mean she is happy when she meets me at the gate? What about in my excitement for a show (virtual these days) she reads me and leaves quickly? Lately I’ve realized how noisy I am – it’s a wonder she can understand any request! Makes me wonder, is she trying to guess what I want and because she’s been through this for awhile usually guesses right? It’s very humbling to think that I’ve gotten frustrated but FINALLY (she’s thinking) realize it’s my poor communication skills, not her receptivity. Yes, lessons. Always and forever.

  11. Anna, thank goodness I managed to steal some time for myself to read your post today; I have fallen weeks behind again. Working on our county’s COVID response has unfortunately dominated my life. It wasn’t until I read your post today that I understood what was really getting in the way of my horse joy……I need and want some lessons! For reasons too many to list I haven’t ridden in far too long, and I haven’t had a lesson in far too long as well. I’m signed up for Affirmative Training as a starting point that I think I can manage time wise. Thank you for helping me see some light at the end of the tunnel.


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