I like to emulate other good coaching and successful player strategies in my own teaching and training so let’s consider what sports like basketball and football teach us about practice sessions. As I work through my March Madness brackets (go Huskies!) I can’t help but think of all the practice, practice, practice those players have worked through to get where they are. They’ve honed their game and built their confidence. They’ve practiced wisely and listened to their coaches.
Just like other sports, good practice riding sessions should increase a rider’s level of confidence in themselves as well as in their horse. Practice should also allow riders to achieve a mental attitude that is conducive of winning. But, one of the pitfalls many riders can fall into is a lack of confidence, which often goes back to their practice sessions. Reality is, many riders practice by themselves and often they do this rather blindly, without guidance or a plan and they often practice incorrectly and fall into bad habits.
To have a good practice session (and I'm not talking about just an exercise ride), you must ride with a goal in mind. You need to thoroughly understand what you are attempting to do and you and your horse must also have the necessary skills to do it properly. It is absolutely counter-productive to practice “wrong” – and often when things are going wrong, riders will just practice longer which can quickly eat into their confidence, not to mention “untrain” their horse.
Often my students will ask me for “home work”, exercises they can do between lessons. I love this, it means they’re thinking about their progress and are enjoying their work but I take care to only give them exercises that are right for their own and their horse’s level of experience and ability and that are unlikely to go "wrong".
During solo practice sessions riders must constantly assess their riding and how their horse is responding. Riders practicing alone must be extra vigilant and critical of their riding, trying to find ways to improve. Riders practicing alone must ask themselves: did I use my aids correctly? Was my timing good? Did I feel with my hands? How was my seat and balance? Did I help or interfere with my horse? And most importantly: how did my horse respond? Horses will always show us the way, they will never lie and will teach is to be better horsemen if we listen to them. Your horse is a great teacher but only when you “listen”, feel and work as a team.
Sometimes good practice will mean taking a step back in the level of difficulty you’re trying to work through. For example, if an exercise of multiple lope-overs is not improving, go back to a single lope-over or some less complicated maneuver. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that grinding away at the problem will fix it. Back down to something you both do well, then talk through your problems with your trainer during your next lesson. Only good "practice makes perfect”, practicing "wrong" can eat into your confidence and and undo your progress.
Work with your coach or trainer to decide what exercises are best for you and your horse to ensure your practice sessions take you and your horse where you want to go! Talk to you later, JD.