Riders are the Best Training Aids

By Jec A. Ballou

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies, and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place. I have watched a couple of my colleagues step away from riding and training for just this reason, causing me to question my own participation.

I continue to believe that nearly every horse can be made better by a rider. To be clear, that rider needs to be skilled and patient, mindful and committed, and a keen observer. But having witnessed the value of dressage applied to all kinds of horses over the years, I believe a horse can have a better life through riding than without it. The physically transformative influence of the rider’s educated seat upon the horse guides him to a better version of himself – balanced and symmetrical, strong and noble, elegant, and confident through his partnership with a patient leader. I have witnessed dozens of horses “fixed,” or given more comfortable lives, because of the therapeutic training through dressage.

Photo: Jec A. Ballou

Last week, I was sorting through some videos and articles about vertebral crowding (aka “Kissing Spine syndrome”) among performance horses and several of the x-ray images showed such evidence of discomfort that I thought briefly maybe we have no business riding these poor animals. If we are pinching their vertebrae and bruising their mouths and causing imbalanced muscular development, then maybe we should just leave them alone. Probably, this is a quandary many trainers wrestle with, but might feel ridiculous voicing.

When I went to the barn the following day, the x-ray images were still lingering in my mind, especially as I saddled up my first horse of the morning. I paused and looked around my training facility. I noted the once anxious mare that has blossomed through training in to a serene and confident animal. I noted the big gelding that used to get stuck in place out in the middle of the field because his stifles locked up from lack of fitness. I watched the two senior Icelandics (one is 24 years old, the other 26) that remain healthy, sturdy, and energetic because of the consistent exercise program they’re in. All of these horses would currently lead lives quite a bit less comfy and content were it not for regular riding.

A rider’s seat can accomplish magical things. It can guide a horse to use his own body in ways that are far more functional and therapeutic. In this way, it is one of our most valuable training assets. Sure, many folks can accomplish – and enjoy – playing with horses from the ground only without riding. I don’t mean to infer that this has no value; it clearly does. I just wish to sing the praises of riding because I have seen it deliver such wellness to so many horses. And, yes, probably just as equally poor riding delivers deleterious effects, which we could rant on and on about here. In the spirit of remaining positive for the best interest of our noble steeds, though, I prefer to focus on the good we can achieve. For me, this means riding them.

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more clear it becomes just how good we need to become as riders.

Photo: Shutterstock/Rolf Dannenberg

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Jec A. Ballou
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