A Poor Workman Blames his Tools?

They say it’s only a poor workman that blames his tools. It should follow, then, that it’s a poor horseman that blames his saddle or his horse or his boots or his bit.

Of course, most of the time this is very true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, “But I can’t do it. The horse doesn’t want to.” This is often followed by whoever is teaching the lesson (often me, I’m afraid; this is my favourite trick) getting on the horse and getting the horse to do whatever it is he’s supposed to do with no apparent effort. The point is not that the instructor is so much better than you (if they weren’t a better rider, you wouldn’t be taking lessons from them). The point is that it’s not the horse who’s not responding; it’s you who’s not asking him the way he needs to be asked.

Excuses are just that – excuses. “I can’t ride properly because the saddle is too big.” “The horse is too wild.” “I’m wearing new boots.” “I’m too short.” “It’s windy.” “It’s Tuesday.” One will never improve when you are waiting for the right horse, the right arena, the right trainer, to lose weight, to gain weight, to get fit, to rest up, for your new boots to arrive, or King Arthur to return before you try your best.

The best riders can get on virtually any horse with virtually any equipment in virtually any circumstances and still look pretty pro; the best students can shut up, buckle down and get on with it as best as they can, even when conditions are not ideal, within reason. Of course, unsafe conditions should be fixed and avoided.

But coming at this idea from the other side, it’s true that one cannot ride perfectly when conditions are imperfect. Speaking as a petite rider who always seems to end up swimming about in 18″ saddles, I know how much it helps when your stuff fits and the footing is good and you’re not jumping straight into the setting sun (the Mutterer still moans at me about not telling him about that). One should be able to make the best out of very little; but there’s no denying that getting the most well-fitting and well-made equipment you can gives you the best possible shot at riding your best.

Arwen’s new saddle is what got me thinking about this. We all know how much I loved my old Solo, but looking at photos of me riding in the new saddle and just feeling the difference solidifies the idea that in my mind the new saddle was money well spent and a decision I won’t be regretting anytime soon. We did some crazy things in that old saddle (everything from jumping our first 1.10m to our first ribbon to our first cross-country lesson), but the new one makes craziness easier.

I have, somehow, taken a very big knock on my jumping confidence lately. Arwen and I used to practice around 90cm regularly without turning a hair; we used to hop around 1.10m fences, hard as that may seem to believe. Without anything really happening, our jumps just seemed to get smaller and smaller. Perhaps it was with me polishing our technique for shows, where we’re only doing about 70cm anyway. Perhaps it had to do with Magic and I having some hassles about jumping. Whatever it is, I started freezing up at the base of the jumps, which led to stopping; after that, I developed my fear/hatred/phobia of stopping, and froze up even worse.

This all happened so slowly that I didn’t realise it until a couple of weeks ago and have been chipping away at it ever since. First, I started by working super hard on my light/forward seat/two point position/whatever you want to call it when you get off the horse’s back. Mostly, I spend longer periods in light seat when I do hillwork, galloping or intervals with Arwen. (Interval training in light seat only = death to leg muscles). The new saddle, due to the perfect positioning of the knee blocks and its stability on Arwen’s back, makes this about two gazillion times easier.

Second, I put my big girl pants on and raised the jumps whether I liked it or not. Not too much – not enough to daunt the horses (i. e. Arwen); just 10cm or so. Where I’d normally warm up over 70cm I made myself warm up over 80cm; I put up a 1.00m oxer which looked hideously big, started jumping it at the end of sessions when I was feeling brave, and then made myself jump it (making a conscious effort to give Arwie a bit of a kick into it to make sure she’d jump) earlier on. Now, it’s suddenly not anywhere near as scary anymore. Part of this is undoubtedly the fact that I feel absolutely dead safe in my new saddle over jumps. I know this is because it helps me stay solid in my position, instead of sliding back and sideways like I did in the Solo. I also know that I should be able to jump anything in any saddle; but I’m not there yet, and the new one makes it a whole lot easier to learn. In fact I’m back up to 90cm or so in the very big saddle that I ride Reed in, so we’re making progress.

Suddenly, jumping is a thrill and a wonderful joy again. I can’t wait for cross-country on Wednesday!

What do you think, blogosphere? Do you believe that a good rider rides just as well in any tack? Or is it an important consideration for optimum performance?

Pretending to be pro in the Kent & Masters. Except for the hair, of course. (We're both guilty).
Pretending to be pro in the Kent & Masters. Except for the hair, of course. (We’re both guilty).