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How to Ride a More Challenging Horse: The Basics for Beginners

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

Step 1: Challenge Yourself

The first step is transitioning from what I call a "push-button" type lesson horse to a horse that is a little testier. I'm not talking about a horse with dangerous bad habits or anything scary, just one that will make you be assertive and really ride.

That is the problem with the push-button horses. They are great confidence-builders but can give us a false sense of our ability. It will get to a point where you know the basics and are confident, but then that push-button horse doesn't have anything left to teach you. To build your skills, you need to step up the ladder.

Just take one step up—to a safe horse, but one that will make you use the skills you learned on old faithful. Basically, a horse that won't let you be a passenger and a horse that will teach you that you really have to tell the horse what to do all the time; that is why they call it riding, not "passengering."

Chaps is an example of the perfect beginner lesson horse. As you can see, I even enjoy riding him on trails from time to time. But to really get good, you have to move on to harder horses! (Do as I say, not as I do; don't ride with a broken wrist!)

Chaps is an example of the perfect beginner lesson horse. As you can see, I even enjoy riding him on trails from time to time. But to really get good, you have to move on to harder horses! (Do as I say, not as I do; don't ride with a broken wrist!)

This Is the Hardest Step

This is the hardest step, I think. You get so confident on the beginner lesson horses, that it is a shock to the system to ride something a little more difficult. It can be a little disappointing because you realize that you weren't being as assertive a rider as you thought you were. It's okay though, that's what the horses on this ladder are for—to challenge you within your ability level.

Once you have mastered these horses, you will feel even more confident than you did on the old faithfuls. It feels good to know that you can control a horse that is testing your skills and that you aren't nervous about these horses anymore.

Everyone gets nervous at the beginning of riding a new horse, that's natural. Just remember, your instructor knows when you are ready, and they would never put you in danger. They want you to succeed as much as you want to!

Step 2: Learn How Your Riding Affects the Horse

Once you have mastered the more challenging lesson horses and proved that you are an assertive rider, you still have to keep moving up the ladder. In my program, the next step is to ride a safe horse, but one that is a little less refined. In other words, it may need reminders to stay at a certain speed or help with balancing. It might be a horse that likes to get crooked and you have to work on straightening or a horse that needs work on picking up the correct canter lead.

This is when you begin to learn about how your riding affects the horse, for example, how we correct basic problems like crookedness or maybe a dropped shoulder here and there. Your instructor will be talking you through how you can use your body and position to correct whatever the horse is doing wrong. So now, not only are you refining your own position and riding skills, but you are also learning training tools. You will learn what exercises help with what particular issue the horse might have.

You are perfecting the tools you already have and learning new tools to add to your toolbox when it comes to riding. Though it can be hard at first, I think this phase in the learning process can be the most rewarding because it is when you finally are learning why we do things and you begin to be able to problem solve on your own with your new skills. Nothing feels better than getting off a horse feeling like you made it better than when you got on.

Buddy was a move-up horse for my friend Megan. I think she would credit him for many of the lessons she learned—also the fact that she is now a very confident rider.

Buddy was a move-up horse for my friend Megan. I think she would credit him for many of the lessons she learned—also the fact that she is now a very confident rider.

What Comes Next?

Next, you will continue to refine your skills. All your riding experience on different horses will help you to add to your bag of tricks and make you a more effective rider.

By now, you may have decided that you want to specialize in a certain discipline. So now you will begin to ride horses that are trained that way. Maybe learning to ride dressage or eventing horses.

You will have developed your skills enough to ride horses that know more than you do and they are able to teach you new horsemanship lessons. How to ride a horse on the bit or maybe do lateral work. Jumping outside the ring. The possibilities are endless.

My heart horse, Zelda, and me. I learned more from her than from any other horse I have interacted with.

My heart horse, Zelda, and me. I learned more from her than from any other horse I have interacted with.

You Can't Skip Rungs

You can't skip any rungs on the ladder. Each one serves its special purpose in teaching you the skills you need to become a great rider. On your climb up the ladder, you will have good rides and bad rides.

It is your instructor's job to make sure that you understand why you are doing what you are doing. That way, you can see the process and where you are on your way through it.

Never Stop Learning!

With horses, you never stop learning. There are always new lessons to be learned. That is what is so exciting about horses if you pay attention—they always have something to teach you. If you ever feel you are unsure or are losing your confidence, be open with your instructor and come up with a plan to get back on track.

Learning to ride a horse is a never-ending journey! Enjoy each phase along the way, and don't be afraid to ask questions or express how you are feeling about things to your instructor.

Remember: We have been through the process you are going to, we can relate more than you probably think! Happy Horsemanship!

Never stop learning, or having fun with horses!

Never stop learning, or having fun with horses!