Learn from the Other Guy's Mistakes

Jim Wofford explains how to make the most of the time when you’re watching instead of riding.
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Jim Wofford explains how to make the most of the time when you’re watching instead of riding.


Yogi Berra is a funny guy. He is as famous for his Yogi-isms as for his legendary baseball career. Most of us have heard such verbal gems as, “When you come to a fork in the road … take it,” or “The future ain’t what it used to be.” When I am watching one of my students repeat the same mistake, I can hear Yogi saying, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” But when he says, “You can observe a lot just by watching,” it is no laughing matter.

If you study every aspect of your sport while you are on the ground watching others ride, chances are you will be a better rider when you are back in the saddle. At first, you will have a hard time focusing. Improve by watching only one small part of the overall picture. For instance, sit by the warm-up ring during a jumping competition and watch the horses’ faces as they approach an obstacle. With practice, you will find that eventually you will be able to notice several things at once about the performance. | © Amy K. Dragoo

If you study every aspect of your sport while you are on the ground watching others ride, chances are you will be a better rider when you are back in the saddle. At first, you will have a hard time focusing. Improve by watching only one small part of the overall picture. For instance, sit by the warm-up ring during a jumping competition and watch the horses’ faces as they approach an obstacle. With practice, you will find that eventually you will be able to notice several things at once about the performance. | © Amy K. Dragoo

Here’s why: Our national and international competition committees are continually raising the technical requirements of our sport, and our elite riders keep raising their proficiency. Part of their proficiency is based on the number of hours they spend daily in the saddle—most of which are sponsored. They are getting paid to practice. At the same time, the rising cost of riding and training makes it more and more difficult for you to develop your talents and perfect your skills. Although it is generally accepted that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary to reach elite levels of performance, the sad fact of the matter is that if you’re able to ride one horse a day, five days a week, it will take you a long time to log that 10,000 hours. Instead, you are going to spend a lot of your time hanging over the arena fence watching other riders while wishing you could be out there competing and improving.

That is the bad news. The good news is that, as Yogi says, you can observe a lot just by watching … and thereby improve your riding. There’s a catch, however: You have to make sure that you are observing and not just watching because there is a difference.

It Begins With Books
If it is a given that you will have to develop the ability to learn by observation, then you must make sure that you are watching the right things. Let me put it to you in a different way: If you want to develop your skills, you must learn to short-circuit the usual heuristic (learning by trial and error) process historically associated with learning to ride at an elite level.

There are several steps toward developing the ability to observe, to learn and to apply what you have learned. First, it will accelerate your learning process greatly if you have a sound understanding of the technical basis for modern riding. For example, what are the leg and rein aids? Where, when and how are they applied? Even though you may not yet be able to apply what you observe, you need to understand why certain things are happening.

You can find the answers to your questions by endless trial-and-error on your own, by taking extensive and expensive lessons or by reading books on the subject. While you cannot learn to ride solely by reading books about riding, you can certainly take advantage of the advice contained in good books.

Why not videos? Most of the videos I have seen are excellent, but they all assume prior knowledge on the viewer’s part, which means you need to turn the pages in a book before you turn to videos as an aid to learning. Once you understand what is good and bad, video is an excellent learning tool. It enables you to watch the same exercise or competition again and again, using slow-motion and stop-action functions to analyze each step or stride of the horse and each action of the rider. If the video is about a high-level show-jumping competition, and a horse has a knockdown or refusal, watch it again and again, trying to observe what happened to cause the mistake. When you watch videos of your own riding, avoid the temptation to concentrate on the winning performances; instead, watch your errors endlessly. The next time you ride, make sure you can prevent that mistake from happening.

Learning to Observe
One of the best things I ever learned from former U.S. show-jumping coach Bert de Némethy was to analyze what caused a mistake and to recognize when in a series of actions the mistake occurred. I was standing behind Bert one day, watching as usual, and a horse jumping a schooling course knocked down the front rail of a square oxer.

“So, Jimmy, where did the knockdown occur?”

I immediately answered, “At the square oxer.”

“No,” Bert replied, “it happened three fences before that, at the triple bar. The rider did not rebalance his horse after the big spread, and he was too much on his forehand to jump the oxer clean.”

At that moment, I understood that it was possible to observe far more than I had previously realized. My observational powers started to develop, and I no longer had to make a mistake in order to learn from it.

If you are one of those people who must learn everything yourself, all I can say is “good luck.” It is a positive attribute to learn from your mistakes, but you should not insist on making every mistake yourself because there are too many possibilities for error as we learn to ride. When you read a book, watch a video or observe a good rider, you are learning from someone who has already made innumerable mistakes. Profit from their experiences!

Before we get down to specifics, we need to discuss how to observe. When you first start to watch for the purpose of instruction rather than enjoyment, everything is a blur. The horse and rider have a knockdown or a refusal or a dressage movement goes badly wrong, and you are left to ask yourself, “What happened?” What happened is that you tried to see everything at once—and consequently ended up not seeing much of anything.
Instead, practice at first watching one particular part of the whole system. For example, concentrate on watching a horse’s left hock for several moments while you ignore the rest of the dressage test. Chances are that you will, for instance, notice a loss of regularity in the hind legs just before the horse comes above the bit. Next, watch one front foot and try to determine how it and the opposite hind foot work together, and what happens when they are not harmonious. If you isolate various parts of the horse’s body and concentrate your observations on each aspect alone, you will eventually be able to “see” the whole body of the horse and understand how each part interacts to produce the performance you are watching.

Then, the next time you train your horse in dressage, you might feel the irregularity of his hind legs and know he is about to come above the bridle. This time, however, you will improve his engagement to keep him on the bit rather than pull on the reins in an attempt to “keep his head down.” You learned this valuable lesson without going through the hours of instruction that would have otherwise been necessary.

Education Through Observation
If you are unable to compete, go to an event as a spectator and sit on the rail of the warm-up arena. Devote 10 minutes to observing each horse’s eyes as he approaches an obstacle, ignoring the rest of the horse’s body. Try to feel what the horse sees and when he decides how he is going to meet the fence. Most horses make their decision long before the average rider “sees her stride,” which explains why coaches who insist that riders keep the rhythm in the final approach are successful. A horse traveling in rhythm is in balance, and balanced horses jump to the best of their abilities.

When does a horse jump well? Does he jump well when he is brought to the fence on the bit, just as in dressage? Or is he better when he has the plane of his face at roughly a 45-degree angle to the ground as he approaches? I think you can find the answer, but you have to observe carefully, not just watch.

When you watch cross-country, make sure to observe riders over both a combination and a single “fly” fence designed to be jumped at a high rate of speed. Again, concentrate on one thing at a time. Try to decide the correct place for the necessary speed change before the combination and the correct approach speed. At the fly fence, watch the riders’ actions in the approach. Do they sit down or do they sit back, and why? Which works better? In all of these instances, make sure you imagine yourself in the saddle and mentally rehearse your actions based on your observations. I think this technique of observing explains in part why a skilled rider can get on a totally strange horse and immediately ride the horse better than his usual rider. The skilled rider has been watching—observing—hundreds of horses like the one she just got on, and she is mentally prepared to ride it.

We cannot spend all our time in the saddle, but we can observe carefully while grounded so as to be ready when the chance to ride presents itself.