I am currently teaching riding lessons to three students, and have come to accept that one of them has some serious difficulty with coordination (especially holding the reins correctly). This student has difficulty with fine motor skills. Although I understand where the problem lies, I believe that she can't really advance in her riding skills without being able to control the horse with reins, lead rope, legs, etc. I'm just not sure how to continue with her. She has such a love for horses, and a desire to please, yet her coordination is making it very difficult to advance to the next skill in riding. Do you have any suggestions?
It’s true that some people will take to riding more easily than others and those that are coordinated, athletic and well balanced will progress more rapidly than riders that are not. Then again, I think that is true for any sport. However, that does not mean that a less-coordinated person can’t become a better rider.
I think that riding and all of the associated activity is excellent for developing coordination and fine motor skills and in fact, this is one of the many benefits that therapeutic riding offers: it is a fun, challenging and exciting way to work on those skills. Remember that coordination and fine motor skills is also a factor of age and physical development, so if your student is very young, she may just need to mature.
With this student, you might need to back up and work on some more basic motor skills, off the horse. Grooming offers an excellent means for developing coordination and strength. Remember that riding is a very bi-lateral sport, so always make sure you are working both sides of the student’s mind and body in everything that you do.
I like to have my students groom with both hands for that reason. Put a curry comb in each hand and have her make circles all over the horse wit both hands at the same time. Same with your body brushes; teach her to follow the growth pattern of the hair using both hands at the same time, stroking with one hand and then the other. Make sure you use the small-sized brushes; for children and most women, the smaller sized brushes are much easier to hold and control.
Knot tying is another great way to develop those fine motor skills and make a game out of it. Get some short lengths of cotton rope (smaller diameter rope for smaller hands) and practice the half hitch, square knot, quick release knot and scores of other knots.
Another great exercise for developing coordination is doing ground work with the horse from a lead-line, as is done in showmanship competition. Learning to handle the rope and move in a coordinated fashion with the horse will help. Teaching your students the ‘quarter rule’ (which applies when you show a horse at halter and pertains to switching sides of the horse according to the position of the judge) and teaching the specific cross-over step the handler uses to switch sides of the horse, will help with coordination and focus. I teach students to cross over in three steps as they step to the other side of the horse (while facing the horse), using the leg furthest away form the horse first and crossing in front of the other leg, then stepping to the side, then placing your feet together. We actually practice this three-step maneuver away from the horses in a rhythm just like you were practicing a dance step, until the students are very coordinated and graceful.
Also working the horse from the lead-line and doing patterns and walk-trot transitions and backing will help the student with her coordination. She will have to learn to use her body to cue the horse and keep her hands still and quiet in a specific position very similar to what is done when riding.
To help her with rein-control, set up some reins on a pulley system, attached to a wall or something stationary, so that she can practice holding the reins correctly, shortening and lengthening the reins and using one hand independently of the other like when turning. No sense in having the horse’s mouth abused when you can practice those specific skills off the horse. I believe that all riders, not just the athletically challenged ones could benefit from these rein exercises. Every where I go I see riders that are ineffective at handling reins and therefore are riding with either the reins too short, too long or uneven. Make sure she learns to hold the reins in her fingers and not her fist, so that she can learn to develop ‘feel’ in her hands.
I also like to have students ride without reins as much as possible. Put your student in a round pen or on a longe line so that you can control the horse, then secure the reins in such a way that the rider can grab them if need be and so they will not fall to the ground or trip the horse. Starting at the halt, then progressing to walk and trot, have the rider swing her arms in different patterns, like punching right-left, making circles forward and back, windmill, paddles, etc. I even had one group of advance students that would do the ‘Macarena’ while mounted.
‘Around the World’ is another classic exercise to help the rider become more coordinated, balanced and centered. Practiced at the halt, with the instructor at the head of the horse, the rider drops stirrups and makes a 360º circle in the saddle by lifting her legs one sat a time and swinging them to the other side.
There are many other activities your students can do to improve balance, rhythm and coordination. Taking ballet classes or any kind of dance class will help with coordination, balance and isolating different parts of your body. I use a big gym ball a lot; in fact, I am sitting on one as I write this article because it helps with my posture and balance even when I am doing something as seemingly passive as sitting at a desk. There are other balance tools and exercises specifically designed to improve balance.
Developing fine motor skills, balance and coordination comes easily to some and not so easily to others, but everyone can improve with practice. The challenge for instructors is to make the practice fun and inspire the students to improve. Don’t’ give up hope! Not everyone can become an accomplished rider, but just about anyone ought to be able to enjoy the sport.