A Horse Is a Horse: Horseback Riding Basics for All Disciplines

Updated on September 23, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

For those of you who have been involved in the horse world for any length of time, you may have stumbled across some opinions on what the "best discipline" or "best breed" is—the Western versus English, the dressage verses eventing, hunter versus jumper . . . that sort of thing. If you haven't encountered it yet, you will at some point (it is out there).

Where do I stand? Not normally on top of the horses back! Don't try this at home kids,do as I say not as I do.
Where do I stand? Not normally on top of the horses back! Don't try this at home kids,do as I say not as I do. | Source

Where Do I Stand?

I don't have a favorite discipline. I competed in dressage and eventing and enjoyed it. Though I'm not competitive by nature and don't have any interest in competing anymore, all three of my personal horses happen to be thoroughbreds off the race track, but it just happened that way. I had a warmblood before the thoroughbreds and I've ridden everything from draft crosses to morgans.

I ride in an English saddle, in a balanced seat position. If you had to compare my style of riding and training to that of training for a certain discipline, I would have to say the closest thing is eventing, but really I think we are all after the same things basically. The disciplines just come down to the fine tuning and specific skills needed for the chosen sport. Basically, the way I see it, we all are working towards the same things with our horses and aren't so different after all. Call me crazy if you'd like, but I'm going to explain myself and I think it will be easy to see where I'm coming from.

Respect on the Ground

We all want our horses to respect us and our space on the ground, to not come into our personal bubble unless invited to and if necessary respond to our cues on the ground to move over or back.

We want them to be easy to lead and tie, to follow us where we ask them without hesitation and to not drag us around to get to the greener grass or other horses.

No matter what direction you chose to go in specifically, you are going to need respect from your horse and need to be able to understand his nature, how he thinks and how that affects what we do. We want to have them well trained enough that we can move them around our space with our body language and subtle cues.

Respect on the ground keeps us safe and builds a foundation. Everyone wants that, no matter what the discipline.

It took me a good long while with my persnickety mare, Zoe, doing ground work before I gained her respect. She thought she knew better than me for quite some time.
It took me a good long while with my persnickety mare, Zoe, doing ground work before I gained her respect. She thought she knew better than me for quite some time. | Source

Accepting the Contact

We want our horses to accept our contact on the reins. This basic skill has to come first. They understand to keep their mouth soft and not fight pressure on the reins. Once they accept the contact and stay in front of the leg, you are building the tools you need in your toolbox for more advanced skills like getting the horse to go into a frame.

Even a pleasure horse or trail horse needs to accept the contact. You won't have very pleasurable rides on your pleasure horse if he throws his head up and fights the bit everytime you touch the reins.

Dublin is accepting the contact nicely in this picture. Though it looks as if he could push a bit more from behind to get his back up, and lift the front end, then he might feel lighter in Jennifer's hand.
Dublin is accepting the contact nicely in this picture. Though it looks as if he could push a bit more from behind to get his back up, and lift the front end, then he might feel lighter in Jennifer's hand. | Source

Staying in Front of the Rider's Leg

In other words, the horse needs to be responsive to our leg and move forward when we tell them. We don't want to have to kick them non stop to keep them moving.

Most undesirable behaviors under saddle begin due to lack of the horse respecting the leg and moving forward. For example, it is a lot harder for a horse that is moving forward to buck than for one that is standing still.

The horses motor is the hind end. If you can control the motor, you can control the horse. We want them to go forward when we put our leg on, no questions asked.

I can see from the fact that Finn's hind foot is stepping up almost to the spot his front foot just stepped(tracking up we call it) nicely. Also, I took the picture and know he went when she asked, he knew he had to go when she put her leg on.
I can see from the fact that Finn's hind foot is stepping up almost to the spot his front foot just stepped(tracking up we call it) nicely. Also, I took the picture and know he went when she asked, he knew he had to go when she put her leg on. | Source

Moving Away From Pressure

Going along with staying in front of the leg is moving away from pressure. This isn't in a horses nature, in fact, it's the opposite of their nature so it is something we have to work on at the early stages to teach them.

Whether it be doing ground work and tapping the horse's shoulder away from you with a whip, or riding and being able to put your leg on to have the horse bend or do a lateral movement, moving away from pressure is necessary for all disciplines.

You can see Chaps moving laterally off of Jennifer's right leg in this picture.
You can see Chaps moving laterally off of Jennifer's right leg in this picture. | Source

Balance

Everyone wants their horse to be balanced, to keep their shoulders from falling in around turns and to not feel like the horse needs your help to hold it up on a circle.

We want our horses to learn to keep their weight over their backend and keep the front end light. A balanced horse is much easier to ride, as well as more equipped to do whatever job we ask of it. Whether it be negotiating hills on trail rides, fancy dressage moves or jumping.

We all want our horses to be balanced.

We all need our horses to be balanced. Whether it be for ring work, or for things like trail riding, the picture doesn't do it justice, but we had a steep little walk down into the river in this picture.
We all need our horses to be balanced. Whether it be for ring work, or for things like trail riding, the picture doesn't do it justice, but we had a steep little walk down into the river in this picture. | Source

Self-Carriage

Self-carriage goes along with balance and literally means just that: the horse carries himself instead of leaning on or relying on the rider for balance.

As we said before, the motor is producing the energy in the hind end, and we want them to take that energy and lift their back up and keep their front end light. We want them to do this on their own without us holding and pushing or constantly correcting.

Self-carriage is what makes upper-level dressage horses look like they are floating on air. They have the motor running and are balancing all on their own.

Self-carriage is also necessary for horses who jump, no matter how big the jump. Think about it: When you ask a horse to jump, you ask it to lift its self up and over something. If he doesn't have the self-carriage he needs to keep his hind end working, then his front end is going to be heavy in your hands, making it extra harder for the horse to get over the jump. We want them to approach with their weight on their hind end, shoulders straight and front end light. The back end propels the horse forward over the jump, but the front end still has to make it and if he is heavy on the front end (doesn't have self-carriage) you are setting yourself up for a hard time jumping.

Sort of an odd angle for this picture, but Finn is quite good at self carriage, as long as you have your leg on and consistent contact he will rock back on his hind end all on his own, and go in a frame,
Sort of an odd angle for this picture, but Finn is quite good at self carriage, as long as you have your leg on and consistent contact he will rock back on his hind end all on his own, and go in a frame, | Source

Collection or Going in a Frame

Going along with self-carriage, we want our horse to be able to hold himself lightly and shorten (or lengthen his stride). We want to be able to take all that energy that we are able to produce by putting our leg on and be able to shape the way the horse holds his body.

We want the hind end under the back and pushing, the shoulders and withers up, lifted and light. We want to be able to close the front door, meaning riding with contact and being able to have a soft gentle hold of the horse's mouth. When he feels the door closing (pressure on the bit), he responds by softening his mouth and lowering his head.

To what extent he lowers it and how much contact you use, that part varies within the disciplines but the skills it requires are necessary across disciplines. Whether you want a collected frame like a dressage horse or a long and low contact like a western pleasure or hunter under saddle type horse, it all begins with the horses back legs pushing, which lifts the back and if he is trained to accept contact, lowers his head.

Work Ethic

We all want to have horses with a good work ethic—horses that go out and do what we ask of them to the best of their ability, willingly, each time we swing a leg over the saddle.

Some horses have a natural work ethic, others have to learn to have one. One way or another, a good rideable horse (which we all want) has a good work ethic.

One thing to keep in mind is work ethic sometimes correlates with the horse's aptitude to do the job you are asking of them. This is where appropriate breed choice comes into play. Picking a horse that is physically suited to do the job you intend on it doing will make the job easier for the horse, in turn, hopefully, making him a more willing participant.

Horses good work ethic is also on you somewhat. As riders and trainers, we need to use exercises with our horses that keep them engaged and stimulated. If they are totally bored every time you take them up, the work ethic is going to go out the window. Sometimes keeping that good work ethic in your horse requires a change of pace. A day off, a trail ride, something to break the monotony.

Basic Skills Are a Must

We all have different end goals for our horses, but without certain basic skills solidified first, you can't put on the fine tuning you need to get discipline specific.

Despite the fact that we all like doing different things with our horses, we should all respect each other, because there are many things that we share across disciplines if you sit and think about it. Whether the saddle is English or Western, you can train any of those skills I mentioned above in either saddle.

For the basics that we all want, the saddle is just a hunk of leather between you and your horse, and the style of saddle you choose doesn't matter. Your horse doesn't know the difference!

Stop the Discipline Drama!

So next time you hear discipline drama going down, just smile and walk away because you know the secret: a horse is a horse. They need basic skills and once they have them, you can train for whatever specific discipline your heart desires!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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