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Ray's Rules of Horsemanship

The Wisdom of Old Horsemen (Part II)


I was lucky to have one of the best teachers ever... my dad. He never went to college, but he was wise in the ways of the world. He was especially wise in the ways of animals. Some might call him a "Horse Whisperer". I've seen him go up to a terrified, out of control horse, talk to them softly, put his hand on their neck, and seen that horse just stop whatever it was doing.

My Dad would constantly say, “An old horseman showed me this…” and then he’d go on to give me some minor or important lesson about riding or about life. I’ve put his most important teachings into what my son and I call “Ray’s Rules”.

First, never ride alone. In the ring, have someone watching. On the trail, have someone ride with you. Yes, jockeys, competitive show jumpers and eventers get tossed all the time. The permanent injuries to these people are minimized because medical attention is always on hand to assist quickly. And today, we have cell phones to call for help, even on the trail. However, if you’re knocked unconscious from a fall, you won’t be using your cell phone to call 911. The buddy system works for safe swimming; it also works for safe riding.

Second learn how and when to bail off. When you learn to ski, one of the first things you are taught is how to fall and get up again. If you are going to ride, you have to accept the fact that you are going to get tossed off sometime or other. Being able to make the split second decision on how, when and where you are going to come off, will help to minimize injuries both to yourself and the horse. Learning how to vault from the saddle and either land on your feet or how to roll away from the horse is important. It has saved many a jockey from a career ending injury.

Third, always have the right safety equipment and gear. Anyone wearing sandals or going barefoot was (and is) never allowed beyond the outer gate at our farm. Good boots and helmets are a necessity. No one should ever be allowed in the riding ring without the correct gear. Safety stirrups and handholds are good for beginners. Broken toes, fingers, noses and the occasional concussion are still real possibilities if you choose to ride, but more serious injuries can usually be avoided with the right gear.

Fourth, find a good teacher and a good “observer” that you will listen to. When a person rides, so much is done by “feel”. Unfortunately, what may feel right at different stages of training, may not in fact BE right. This goes back to the principle of “balance”… both for the rider AND for the horse. You may feel great, but you may be causing undue strain or stress to your mount through your “bad habits”. A good teacher, reinforced by an observer who makes sure you practice what your teacher has told you to do in between lessons, are essential to good riding. Like learning any physical activity – from a sport like tennis to playing the piano – riding is very much about muscle memory. With solid practice and constructive criticism, muscle memory can begin to take over so that the act of riding in balance with your horse becomes second nature. At that point, what feels wrong probably is wrong. Stop, relax yourself and the horse, refocus and start over again.

Fifth, practice, practice, practice. Not a lot can be accomplished in one lesson a week, unless it is reinforced by consistent practice on non-lesson days. My dad taught me the basics. But then he was smart enough to leave the advanced lessons to a qualified third party. Then he spent the rest of the time reinforcing what I had been taught in my practices. I learned an incredible amount about discipline from those practice sessions that has paid off in just about everything in my life.

I have no problem repeating the same thing again and again until I get it right. Repetition toward improvement is now a habit for me. I expect that I won’t get it right the first time and I have the patience to keep trying and improving what I create. Willingness to practice is a mental discipline that will pay off in later life for every young rider… in school and in their ultimate careers. If you are taking lessons with a young family member, you can be an excellent role model by showing this kind of discipline.

Sixth, always ride “within yourself” and let the horse do it too. My dad had no patience for what he considered “reckless riding”. This involves riders who take unnecessary chances that could easily result in accident or injury to themselves or their horses. As every horseperson agrees, riding always involves risk. Riders need to develop a sense of the difference between a “manageable risk” and a “poor risk”. This is why solid training and frequent practice is so important to develop sound judgement. Is something well within the rider’s capabilities, just barely within their experience, or not at all?

The same judgment needs to be made for the horse as well. If you don’t spend enough time riding a particular horse, you cannot be a good judge of that horse’s capabilities. Just because someone else tells you the horse is able to do something, doesn’t mean that you can get the horse to do it. Even if the horse is well-trained, maybe the horse doesn’t understand the signal you’re trying to give because his or her experience is different with another rider. Practicing elements and skills within the controlled environment of the ring under supervision, not only will give you the confidence to master that skill, but also will help the horse to understand what you are expecting.

Dad used to say, “Riding is a game of percentages. Every time riders get away with something they have no business doing, the percentages go higher that they won’t get away with it the next time. That they got away with it before was just dumb luck. Never confuse luck with control.”

Seventh, you need to work if you want to play. Dad always insisted that all riders share in taking care of the horses they rode. This meant grooming, cleaning, feeding, watering, mucking out and cleaning tack, etc.. The first object lesson was obviously to make the point that horses require a lot of work to keep them healthy, fit and happy.

The second more important lesson was to develop real awareness of the horse, its habits and how the animal is feeling at any given time. The person who cares for the horse should be able to tell when the horse is “off” on a given day. Everyone, people and horses alike, have “bad days” once in while when they just aren’t feeling 100%. It is the rider’s responsibility to be aware of the horse’s mood or condition and investigate what the problem is. It may be something relatively minor, and you can proceed with your ride… just be alert that the horse may do something unexpected or uncharacteristic. Or it may be something more serious and the judgment needs to be made not to take the horse out or to address the problem immediately, even to the point of calling the vet. Dealing with issues early can result in injury prevention or at the very least a shorter recovery period for the horse.

Eighth, never take your horse for granted. Even the best trained, most “loveable” horse can catch you off guard and injure you. Usually this involves getting your foot stepped on or getting slammed into something. The horse simply isn’t as agile as you are. It can get thrown off balance by stepping on or in something or it can get startled. Its instinctual reaction to small surprises can cause you to get hurt. Evolution has bred strong survival instincts into these creatures, and they will react to stimuli much quicker than we do. Dad’s phrase was, “You can never go to sleep around horses.”

Ninth, always check and recheck your equipment. This not only applies to the way that the horse is tacked up, but also to the tack itself. My dad believed that you should buy the best tack you can afford and then take excellent care of it. Keep it in good repair. Clean your own equipment so you can check the straps, stitching, buckles for general wear and tear. Be sure that the tack is comfortable for your horse as well. There are lots of new kinds of pads, bits and other products that are a help for the horse and make the ride more enjoyable all around for both of you.

Tenth, communicate, communicate, communicate. Dad always said, “There are no stupid questions.” When in doubt, ask someone. Faking it around horses can be downright dangerous to you and the horse. If you’re confused about something you’re supposed to do or not do, you can be sure you’ll confuse the horse as well. There should be no embarrassment in asking, “Is this right?” or “Could you explain that again?”

Also if something “feels wrong” to you, speak up. Maybe you’re not ready for a certain new skill because you don’t have a foundation skill solidly in place. Learning is incremental. We all make progress in small steps until it “all comes together” and we make a big break through to a higher skill level. There are no short cuts for good instruction and consistent practice. But the only one who knows how you feel is you. And while it’s good to trust yourself and be confident, it’s more important not to be overconfident and push yourself too far too fast.

Challenging yourself is a good thing. It is how we grow and progress. Pushing ourselves to the point of recklessness or being too proud to speak up when we are uncomfortable is very dangerous indeed. It is even smart to speak up when you see someone else doing something reckless. These persons may deserve to learn a lesson the hard way, but you owe it to their horses to help keep the animals safe.

My Dad died in 2001 and I still miss him. I always will. But when I’m in the barn watching my son handle the horses the way his grandfather taught him, or when I'm with my current Arabian mare that Dad would have loved as much as I do for her beauty and her spirit, I know Dad’s right there smiling at us. The Wisdom of Old Horsemen goes on from generation to generation. Probably because the horses are such good teachers!

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