Maybe you've heard that question more frequently than you'd like to. It happens all the time to us lifelong horse owners and riders. Because surely, after all these years, you should know everything there is to know! Think of everything you've done with your horse. How can there possibly be more for you to learn?
This article is especially for those who have been riding for years and years. Do your friends insinuate that there might be something wrong with you if you still need lessons after all this time! Do your parents/friends/significant other complain that you shouldn't need to go to that clinic since you can pretty much write the book by yourself?
It's hard to put into words how there is no such thing as knowing everything in horse riding, that levels of expertise are relative and there's always more and more and more.... If there ever were an embodiment of life-long learning, horse riding is it!
As an instructor, when I start lessons with a new (lifelong) rider, two things happen. There is an initial change during the first few months, but the real learning takes a lot longer.
The little nit-picking bad habits that we can address right away will generally make an initial positive impact on the rider's feel and the horse's way of going. These fixes will make an obvious difference if practiced consistently during "homework" rides because they are likely the quick fixes that are currently getting in your (horse's) way.
They are the ones that are easier to do because they require less coordination or build on what you already have achieved.
Then invariably, the plateau hits. While it seems that nothing really changes during this stage, it is an essential part of long-term development. This is where the tough learning happens, where we work on firmly entrenched muscle memory habits that prevent progress. This is when you wonder if taking those lessons really make any difference at all!
Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to step ahead.
Making significant change can take at least 2 years - usually more if you take lessons (= get reinforcement) only once a week. Getting to the root of a problem is a difficult task not only in terms of changing old habits but also in terms of blueprinting new responses and movements.
We usually need to work on our basic skills more than anything. This is because all the more advanced movements rely on sound basics. Once you move on to the higher level movements, problems will arise not from the highest level skills, but from the basic skills that have not been established enough to be able to support the higher skills.
For example, you might be working on more advanced movements such as shoulder-in or half-pass when you discover that you have to give up the laterals yet again to better establish forward movement and straightness. Or how about the time when you think you're already sitting well in trot only to realize that you have to be more toned - which requires much more lower abdominal and core muscles than you're used to. Those changes seem to take much effort and time.
Little by little, you whittle away at the old habits, establish new habits, and build upon correct learning. Yes, this takes years, especially if you didn't start with strong basics in the first place.
But by then, the change is surely substantial because you would have made many small but significant changes to your basic skills that not only make your own riding better, but change your horse's life. There is nothing more satisfying than to one day realize your horse is moving stronger and more freely than ever before because of your dedication to making those changes in your own riding - day in, day out - until you can finally see and feel the result in your horse.
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