open the gate

I often wonder why riders who say they want to win or be better riders never utilize the one thing, the one FREE thing, that is at their disposal all the time. Riding outside the ring. I hear every excuse in the book, and I could care less what yours might be, but riding outside the ring is the of the most underutilized tools of becoming a stellar rider, and stellar horse, especially pertaining to the hunter rings. Yep – that “Cross-Country” term that brings people to firmly shake their heads, quiver in their boots, and refuse to even consider.

Yet, those who are keeping an open mind about progressing as a rider and actually do venture out into a field or woods, quite often have better equitation and better instincts in the actual show ring. And it costs absolutely nothing.

Your heels automatically go further down – Those thousands of dollars you are tossing out the window to hear your instructor/trainer/coach to remind you to put your heels down 10,000 times a year is basically achieved after one month of going outside of the ring, up and down hills, and standing in two point for a gallop (or brisk trot out, whatever). Your body has reflexes, and when you don’t want to lose your stirrups as the horse you are on is jumping sideways from a bird, guess what? Permanent Heel Down Syndrome. It is a proven science, trust me. Walking a mile back home on your own two feet is not normally an appealing option.

Speaking of reflexes, your other body parts sharpen drastically as they learn natural movements of the horse outside of the ring. A horse going around in his natural element is friskier, livelier, more on the defense from predators such as bunny rabbits, and believe me, you start to read his mind at every shudder, shake and start. Once back in the ring, everything will seem so much easier, you will be able to control the spooking before it even happens, and know to turn your horse’s head away from whatever is catching his attention.

Position. If you didn’t understand the three types of seats you are supposed to learn before going cross country, you will understand them by the time you get back. You need the two point for going up a steep incline, you need a half seat when you cross tricky terrain or a water crossing, and you fully comprehend deep seat when starting down any descent. Want to up the difficulty level? Drop your stirrups.

Have you ever been told you look down too much? Another 10k repeat from your trainer is my guess. I’ll give you a hint – looking down is kind of not a viable option for people riding outside the ring…Not only are you looking for every hazard known to man and beast, your life greatly benefits from you keeping a very keen relationship with the horizon. On the horizon could be lurking any potential suspect which might disrupt a perfectly sane outdoor experience. Your eyes will be up and in navigation mode. Permanently.

Confidence. This should be self-explanatory, but I can tell you about a hundred thousand stories of riders and horses gaining confidence merely by attempting a trek across a field, through the woods, over a log, and the giddiness that ensued. It has literally changed lives, and soaked up a fairly large portion of my monthly iPhone data with snaps, texts, and Facebook or Instagram tags. Frankly, there is not much more rewarding than someone frantically trying to recap every thrilling moment in their 15 minute escape around the farm on one of their favorite borrowed horses. I don’t now, maybe it is just me, but those moments are priceless.

So why don’t Americans go ride outside? Ten million reasons. But what a waste. The ultimate resource in advanced horsemanship and perfect position is completely accessible to thousands of young and old riders alike. No one seems to want to venture outside the gate, experiment with a trail ride, (or even hire trail horses), borrow friends ponies, sign up for an eventing clinic with Jimmy Wofford, or Dom Schramm, yet those same riders want to qualify for a Medal Final, win a derby, or compete at a league final. It makes no sense. There are thousands of exercises with cavalettis, poles, gymnastics and other tools suggested or sold to riders to try and improve your balance, reflexes, and sense of timing, when all you need is to find a local hunter pace or cross country course to school, and might cost at the most $20, if that.  Your trainer might frown upon your experiments, but I can guess why. Money. Maybe he or she cannot financially benefit from improvements you can make on your own. Whenever someone doesn’t want me to do something I always ask, why not? It usually is about money. Or maybe time. Time. So many horses to be ridden in that busy stable before 5 o’clock, there just isn’t enough time. You have soccer practice to get to. Well, when you or your parent writes that check to the horse show, how much time and money goes into that weekend? Did you win? Did you want to? How much was that check written for?

I can see the backlash now, ‘Oh No’, I couldn’t possibly allow my 6 figure imported horse to take a step in grass. He might go lame. He could go lame for any reason, but sure ok, whatever you want to believe. I personally think it is fun to teach an imported horse how to go up and down hills for the first time. Most of them come from the very flat Holland/Belgium or the part of Germany without inclines or turnout, and it is highly entertaining when a young horse experiences one of our hills. One descent and climb at the walk usually leaves them completely winded! It is comical for them to figure out how to navigate hills at the walk, trot, or canter, and then eventually become masters of descent!

With the increase in Derby classes I thought for sure I would see an increase in our hunter riders jumping cross country, but instead I have only seen people build crazy spooky courses in an indoor or fenced in arena where a horse is less likely to show his true colors. So what happens when the real derby asks the right questions? A whole lot of faults?

I don’t know actually, maybe this would answer my frustrations with the WIHS classes, when we are seeing horse after horse spooking at the trot jump. (read ‘Are You Judging Me?’)  Instead of having a schooling jump, maybe the horses need to just school cross country before showing at the most prestigious show of the year. Ugh, so many questions, so little opportunity for change.

Last year, while in Gulfport over the winter, I saw a couple of riders accessing the hill out by the trailer parking lot, and thought how smart! There is only one hill on the show grounds, but this father/daughter team was taking full advantage of conditioning their horses on that slight incline during their 6 week duration in Mississippi… Stumble or trip every once in a while? Probably, but they were out there for a reason, and it probably had to do with the benefits for horse and rider. I would imagine they were able to teach the horses how to overcome the occasional trip or stumble by changing the balance and placing more focus on the hind end rather than the forehand. Genius really, but then again, they were from Maryland, maybe it was just born into them.

Training on hills works, and this training center believed so much in the benefits of hills for racehorses, they actually built an uphill synthetic track for them. Wow.

I know, I know…… not everyone has access to the outdoors in an outdoor sport, but there are still loads of people NOT taking advantage of natural terrain, and that is a real shame for our sport. Not to mention the fun factor is literally being tossed out the window along with all those lesson dollars.  #makesnosense. #bringbackfun

If you are fortunate enough to be exposed to fox chasing, take full advantage of it, those tools learned last a lifetime. ^^same kid both pics^^

By the way, for fun I used The Google for locating State Parks that allowed trail riding? Guess what, every state has one.


8 thoughts on “open the gate

  1. That is a GREAT commentary!
    Riding in the great outdoors is my spiritual temple. My horse and I are such better partners, more in sync, and there is nothing better to keep me young then letting my partner take off at full speed up that hill, with me grinning all the way. We need to do arena work to keep ourselves fit and in form, but it is only so we’ll be better outside. Thank you!


  2. I love trail riding and this is absolutely 100% spot on. Unfortunately my most recent horse, a 6yr old OTTB just isn’t quite ready for that yet. But after some more in-ring training he will be getting a good dose of trails 😉


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