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Is it really a sport?

I have come across many non- horsey people that ask me the million Rand question: “How is horse riding a sport if the horse does all the work”

As a horse riding instructor, a competitive show jumper and a riding pupil, I have been able to experience this from all the angles. I have been the one to stand in the middle of the arena and shout and I have been the one shouted at. What people don’t seem to realise is the amount of work that goes into this sport. The vast amount of sweat, blood, blisters, tears, bruises and broken bones us riders and our horses have to deal with during our riding career to get that perfect 2 minutes of competition that gives us a clear round in the show ring.

Well, let me try explain it to you in the most “non-horsey” way possible.

The prep that goes into a horse is endless but the possibilities are limitless.
Before we can even consider prepping a horse and rider for a show, we need to consider the psychological:
How do you work under pressure?
How much disappointment can you handle?
How often do you blame others for your faults?
… and that is just for the rider!

Then there is the question of the rider’s physical strengths and weaknesses.

Once this has been assessed, we now move to the horse –
How does the horse handle pressure?
How does the horse work with other horses?
What are his strengths and what are his weaknesses?
And the main one, is he 100% sound in his body and mind?
How is his mouth?
What bit should we use?
Does the saddle fit?
We also have to consider the psychology of the horse and rider are they psychologically compatible!

Once all the bases have been covered, one needs to start understanding the fundamentals of riding a 600kg animal with a mind of its own.
Firstly, yes “pull means stop and kick means go” but try pulling on a horse with 2 hands when they have a mouth like butter, or kicking a sensitive horse to go. If you get this wrong the horse will show its displeasure and send you tumbling to the ground.

What “non – horsey” people don’t understand is the intricate details that go into riding, asking a horse to move forward and slow down, that we don’t just sit there and let the horse do all the work. Proper riding is about a partnership, this partnership is based on communication. The communication we use is not a sound based language, but an intricate language made up of subtle movements and pressures backwards and forwards between horse and rider.

To start to learn this language we first have to get the basics right …

Here are just a few of the basics:
When sitting on the horse, do you have a straight line that runs through your shoulders, elbows, hip and heel?
Are your hands equal level above the horses neck and are you holding the reins correctly with your thumbs facing the sky and reins tightly held between your ring finger and baby finger?
Are your heels down and toes facing forward?
Are your knees off the saddle?

So, just sitting on the horse, the work for the rider has already started.

Whenever we ride a horse, we must always consider the horse first and foremost, we want to make sure the reins are not too tight and not too loose, that the pressure from the bit to your hands is equal and enough to keep the horse from running away and at the same time not too much that he stops.

Are your legs hanging off the sides of the horse like Christmas lights or are they squeezing the life out the horses? Again, you need to have just enough pressure to keep the horse where you want him.

When we sit on the horse, the most commonly used terms are “keep him together” or “make him sit on his hocks” or even “don’t let him swing his hindquarter”. How on earth does one do that?

Now that we are ready to “talk” it’s time to start walking .

We need to use our legs and hands to control his entire body, from his nose to his tail.
When we ask him to walk, we use a light squeeze of the legs to get him to walk forward, not too much or he will trot.
We need to learn about each individual horse before we can know how much pressure we can put on his sides with our legs.
We use the outside rein (the rein by the fence) to keep him balanced as well as our inside leg (leg closest to the instructor) to keep him from falling to the inside of the circle. If our horse goes around a circle and throws his hindquarter out and his head goes in, we then use outside rein and outside leg. All the while maintaining the perfect pressure with both legs to keep him moving and just enough pressure on the mouth to keep him collected in the walk but not to slow him down

When we want the horse to slow down, we use outside rein, a slight squeeze with the knees and relax the glutes.
Now let’s change direction or as we say “Changing the rein”. Keep even pressure on the reins, hold your outside rein, squeeze with the inside leg BUT remember to hold pressure on the horses side with both legs to keep him walking.

This is just the start of the conversation between horse and rider. As we advance and the partnership grows the communication gets more complex, but the rewards of learning this “language” are huge. As a horse and rider learn they progress to trotting, cantering, upward and downward transitions, body position in the walk, trot, canter and jump, jumping position, jumping execrises and of course show work.

The dictionary defines sport as: “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others” , so to all those who say this is not a sport, I challenge you to come on out and get in the saddle, feel the burn of your leg muscles as they strain to keep you in the saddle, feel the sweat running down your spine as you struggle to control your horse during a jumping lesson and see how sore and stiff a rider is the day after a big event. What I can tell you is this: If you do take up the challenge, and you do discover for yourself what a hard, but rewarding sport this is, you will forever be a changed person. Learning to communicate, trust and partner up with a horse is without a doubt the most spiritual and life changing thing a person can do!

~ Candice Levy – CV&T Instructor