"Why Can't I Ride Like That?"
"Overcoming the Adult Rider Jitters
by Christopher Ewing

While giving riding clinics around the country and in Europe for a number of years now, I have had the opportunity of teaching a lot of very nice riders, and if there is any single question that I am asked, it is the adult riders who ask: "I sit and watch all of these kids ride around and jump all of these big jumps and they make it look so easy. Why can't I look like that?"

A good example of this happened a few years ago at our barn. One of my students who was 14 at the time was jumping a 4'6" course as if they were walking across the room - like it was nothing. One of my adult riders who was sitting on their horse watching asked the kid when they were done "How long have you been riding?" The kid answered, "9 years" and the adult rider instantly started laughing and said "so have I, but I can't make it look like that" and we all started laughing.

Now, while it sounds funny, it is very common when you look at junior riders vs. adult riders. Both of these riders have been riding the exact same length of time. So why are their riding abilities so vastly different?

In this on-line riding lesson I am going to explain to you my theory as to why I feel there is such a huge difference as to how adult riders ride vs. how juniors ride. I will also give all of you adult riders a couple of suggestions as to how you can change the way that you "think" as you ride so that you can get more out of your riding.

I have 2 theories as to why a lot of adult riders have a riding style that does not appear to be as "at ease" as a junior rider appears. First, is the adult rider's "fear of falling" and the second is what I call "The Look vs. Logic" concept. I will explain the latter theory in more detail in a moment.

First, "The Fear of Falling".  YIKES!

If I were to ask an adult rider when the last time was that they fell (not necessarily off of a horse, but at all), they may say something like "3 months ago when I didn't notice that the dog was laying in the middle of the floor and I tripped over him and fell". Now, if I were to ask a junior rider when the last time they fell was, they might say "2 hours ago in gymnastics class when I was practicing a flip" or "yesterday in my ice skating lesson when I was trying to do a double-sow-cow" whatever. You get the point. The adult rider approaches riding with a greater fear of falling because it is not very often that they do fall, and their thoughts of falling "later in life" conjures images of something painful and tragic. The adult rider may have a parent who has fallen and broken a hip or something similarly terrible, whereas the junior rider's day-to-day life consists of falling just as commonly as eating ice cream. It is a normal everyday occurrence in their life. An adult rider will subconsciously approach riding with a form of hesitancy because of their fear of falling off of this big animal and getting hurt. Meanwhile, a junior rider, with their huge love for all things "horse", doesn't really care about falling off because they may have just gotten a cast taken off two months ago from when they fell playing soccer! In short: Kids have little or no fear of falling and getting hurt!

Second, "The Look vs. Logic" Theory

My other theory is what I call the "The Look vs. Logic" concept to riding. From the moment we are born, and throughout our teens at least, we as people learn how to get through this thing called "life" primarily by "sight", i.e. what we see other people doing and how successful they appear at accomplishing whatever it is they are doing. A baby learns about life through touching everything they see. They touch everything, with no concept or understanding of fear. They reach out to touch everything they see in an effort to learn more about what it is and how it works. Later, kids start going to school and they come home at the end of the day telling their parents that they need to have clothes that "look this way" and fit "that way" because "that's what all of the other kids are wearing". This is a young person's everyday existence. They learn how the world works by what they see. They learn that in order to make it through life at the stage they are at, "looks" are what is important. Personally, I feel that this is taken to dangerous, ridiculous and very unfair stereotypical extremes, but that is a whole other topic.

But, again, on a day-to-day basis, kids use a "look and learn" approach to life. Think of it as a kid's job. From the moment they get up in the morning it is all about "looks". Kids get up at 6 in the morning to get ready for school and one of the first things they concern themselves with is trying to "dress the part". They then go through the whole day trying to make sure that they "look the part" by how the act, walk, dress, etc. Then at around 2:30pm they get out of school and head to the barn where the appearance game continues, only now they have to implement it to "riding the part" on a horse, and since kids are so used to playing this kind of game, they are good at it. It's almost like second nature to them.

Now, an adult is different. After a while, we as people stop learning strictly by sight once we come to the realization that life also requires a certain amount of logic. Thus, the adult approaches their day-to-day life differently, using primarily their sense of logic. That is what their job requires, that is what their family requires, that is what their life requires. They get to work by 9, go through their day using "logic" while doing their work and then they head straight to the barn after work, still in "logic mode" and they begin applying logic to riding their horse. Now, there's nothing wrong with that type of approach, because riding does require a certain amount of logic, however using strictly a logical approach to riding could be the thing that holds a rider back. Remember, the very essence of showing is based, first and foremost, on "appearances"; the appearance of the rider on the horse, as well as the appearance of the horse that the rider is on. Everything is based on appearances or "the look".

Now to put all of this into riding terms, if you notice, almost all junior riders ride the same once they reach a certain level. They look very at ease on the horse because, as I explained above 1) they are not afraid to fall off and 2) they want to "look the part" while on their horse, they want to look like all of the other good riding kids they see so they try to emulate how all of those other "good riding kids" look, and ride. And because kids have such a keen sense as to how to quickly adapt and "fit in", they are able to apply this adaptation skill into riding a horse equally as quickly.

So what is the adult rider to do?

Obviously, the adult rider doesn't want to look like they are uneasy or novice on a horse. They want to look as at ease on a horse as they can.  First and foremost, the adult rider should do what they can to force themselves to push away all fears of there being a potential for a negative outcome while they are on the horse. Of course the junior rider knows that they could fall off at any time, and they do fall off, however they don't let the possibility of falling off show in their riding. In my lessons, I teach my students a series of what I call "brain exercises". Look at it this way: after a rider has learned HOW to ride, i.e. how to get on a horse, how to steer a horse, how to stop a horse, how to post, how to canter and how to jump, everything else is mental. Physically, you as the rider, are fully able to understand how to do all of those things because you have learned how to physically do what it takes to get the desired outcome. However, once you understand how to ride physically, that is where the mental part comes in and it stops being about how to physically do things, but it then becomes all about how you are able to train your brain to mentally get from yourself, and your horse, exactly what you want and/or need "on command".  Another exercise I implement into my lessons are a series of "mind games", a exercise of mental strengthening that challenges riders to "push through" the mental blocks that may occur as they are on their horse in the middle of a course at a horse show, enabling them to get out of their riding, and their horse, exactly what they want, right when they want it.

 VIDEO:  Being a "catch rider" is a perfect example of having to instantly put your show nerves aside and take care of business.  A catch rider is someone who is recruited at the horse show, sometimes at the last minute,  to compete a horse that they may have never ridden before.  In this video clip Sandringham  rider Carolyn Moulton is catch riding one of my other student's horses at the WEF in Palm Beach. 

A recent example of having to put all of your horse show nerves aside can be seen in the video clip to the right. One of my junior riders was competing in Palm Beach this past  winter and had to serve as a "catch rider" (a rider who is recruited at the last minute to show someone else's horse). Another one of my students had to leave for the airport   before her class started, otherwise she would have missed her flight home, so my other   student had to show her horse. It was the last day of a very competitive Junior Hunter  division at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Palm Beach and, at first, she started to put some pressure on herself, to not only do a good job on someone else's horse, but she also wanted to be able to successfully show a horse that she had never shown before (and had only ridden for a  few short minutes before the class). This rider eventually went into the ring and did an outstanding job in the class, scoring in  the  80's and placing 5th on the horse in one of the most competitive 3'6" divisions at the horse show.  I use them as an example so that you can see how situations can arise for a rider during a horse show and how your show nerves can either make you or break you.  It is very important that at those crucial times you master the ability to be able to control your nerves, no matter what.  Remember, it's all within your own mind. How you master the skill of being able to bring out of yourself your ability to ride, and translate it into and through your horse, is up to you.

Try the following exercises:

1) Strive toward training yourself to completely relax as much as you can while on your horse to allow your position and form to look completely at ease.  Any stiffness and lack of flexibility is what casts a "novice-like" appearance.

2) Watch other riders on their horses, especially the good riders, and see how they control their position and form while on a horse.  Use a good riders style as a model in your mind in order to help establish a foundation from which to build upon.

3) Have your trainer, friend or spouse videotape you while riding.  I videotape all of my riders and I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a rider say while watching themselves on tape "Wow, now I see what you mean!  I really do (carry my hands too high or lean too far forward or whatever)."  You'll be amazed at what a difference it will make in your riding to take a step back and evaluate your riding from your own point of view. 

4) Trust yourself. You have gotten as far as you have in your riding not by chance, but because you're a good rider, so give yourself permission to feel confident about your riding.  Avoid all "I can't" statements. Permit yourself to truly believe that you are a good rider, that you have complete control over how well you ride your horse and then let that confidence show through your riding.

5) Most of all, enjoy yourself as you ride and enjoy the concept of learning how to become a better rider.  Look forward to learning how to be more "at one" with your horse as you ride.

Hi! My name is Andrea. I am 14, and though I am not an adult, I can relate to some of the problems you reviewed in your on-line lesson! I think it is such a cool idea to put that on the website! I am currently riding a 4 year old Appx. QH and we are trying to train him to jump. I have never ridden a horse that can jump higher than 3 ft. so that is the highest I have ever reached. It gives me more perspective on everything. I have had my fair share of tumbles, (probably a few people's fair share)! Thanks again for the on-line lesson. I look forward to many more! ~Andrea


"Hello Christopher  Ewing:
I enjoyed reading about the junior rider vs. the adult rider. It sounds like me.  My confidence was completely lost  but it is 60% back. I will listen to your advice next time I ride."

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