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Jim Wofford: Mistakes Are Your Friend

Your riding improves through your own errors—and those of horsemen who’ve gone before you.

Loreen Kay with Jim Wofford
Loreen Kay and American Outlaw II are taking advantage of ­having a coach. You make much faster progress when you have instant feedback on your performance. This makes your ­practice sessions much more productive.
© Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

The last sermon I heard was based on Luke 6:20-21: "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Since everything is about riding for me, I immediately concluded that while God must love the poor because he made so many of them, he must also love bad riders, because he made so many of them as well. I am in the business of helping people train their horses, so, in a funny sort of way, bad riding represents job security for me. Still, I have to help people improve, or they will soon move on to another trainer.

Bad riding comes in many shapes and forms, from the mildly inefficient to the downright abusive. If I started to make a list of all the things bad riders do, my editor would give this column the hook and assign me a new topic. The simple answer is that the difference between good riding and bad riding is that you can't see good riding. To define "bad riding," I will apply the US Cavalry maxim: "Any system of equitation that disturbs the tranquility of the horse is flawed."


From Mistakes to Improvement
While bad riding consists of making mistakes, the reaction of bad riders to their mistakes varies enormously. Some riders are aware of their mistakes and agonize over them, yet repeat them. Other riders sail blissfully along, totally unaware their actions are, to say the least, disturbing the tranquility of their horses.

One characteristic of good riders is an unusual ability to benefit from their mistakes: Having learned the lesson that a particular mistake has for them, they rarely repeat it.

I was lucky enough the other day to work with a good rider whose nice horse had not been going well. Her mistake? To simplify things, let's just say she was kicking a horse who was already going forward. After I made a couple of critical comments and suggestions, she improved a great deal. She finally pulled up, smiling, and said, "That's great! How did you know to tell me that?"

"It's simple," I replied. "I used to make the same mistake, but I learned how to fix it. Now you have, too."

When we learn about riding and training, we are the beneficiaries of thousands of horsemen's mistakes—mistakes they have been making since the age of Xenophon. For more than two millennia, horsemen have been writing about their mistakes and about the lessons they've learned along the way for correcting them. (For more on this, see my November 2010 column "Great Riders Have Told You Something.")

The most direct way to become aware of your own riding problems is to get a good instructor to give you lessons. A good instructor can immediately start you on the road to improvement. Through these lessons, you will find solutions to the obvious problems you are having and also will become aware of the less obvious errors in your riding. Once you have identified the problems and decided on your corrections and homework, you are well on your way to fixing the problems and improving your riding. As legendary USET coach Bert de Némethy used to tell me, "Jimmy, it is amazing how well your horse goes, when you ride well."

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