The skill of the rider matters incredibly. In fact that’s one of the reasons that the top equestrians compete well into middle age; riding skill continues to grow through middle age and so it’s one of the few sports where top competitors actually improve as they go through their 30s/40s.
Two examples. 1, cross-country. I spent all day today on the cross country course. I was there 6 hours; a new horse comes by every 4 minutes. As each rider came by you could see HUGE corrections that the rider was giving the horse, such as: major major speed corrections (especially, MASSIVE braking before fences - most horses left on their own almost always rush fences way too fast and also often take off at the wrong spot.)
Also: a lot of lengthening/shortening of stride. All the riders already walked the course before & figured out the exact number of strides between each 2 fences, so for example, between a certain 2 fences, the rider knows if the horse needs to do 6 long strides or 8 short ones. The horse does not know that (the horse has never seen the course before; the rider has) so the rider has to micro-control the horse’s stride length between those two fences. (Olympic courses nowadays are designed to be especially tricky for stride length so that the rider has to keep adjusting the horse’s stride length.) Also, riders do cuing at take-off that tells the horse (a) how much it’s going to need to stretch over the fence (the horse can’t see how wide the fence is), (b) which way to be prepared to turn afterwards & which canter lead to land on; sometimes (c) whether or not there is a drop on the far side. The other thing I noticed today was that riders were also doing a TON of rebalancing on today’s course, which was very up-and-down and turny. There was a kind of terrifying downhill gallop where many horses started to go too fast, get out of control, and likely would have tripped & somersaulted if riders hadn’t been doing rebalancing. Another example - I spent a large amount of time at the bank (the steep vertical drop). There was 1 horse all day that did it with no cuing from the rider; every other horse (over 50 other horses) all required major corrections/guidance right at the beginning of the bank. IMO none of the horses could have gotten around this course on their own (assuming they knew which way to go, which they don’t).
Two, dressage: This is imo the most difficult type of riding there is, and the one that requires greatest skill. It takes the most years of practice (decades usually to get to Grand Prix level). I have done only a teeny tiny bit myself, just enough to realize how difficult it is. When it clicks it feels like the horse’s legs become your own legs.
(Your right leg is microcontrolling the horse’s right hind, your left leg the horse’s left hind, and each of your hands has 1 of the horse’s shoulders) Once that clicks you can almost magically figure out how to combine those 4 cues to request combinations like “Curve your body to the left, but actually move to the right, and bounce high in the air. At a medium trot”. The horse gets it wrong at first, or isn’t sure, or says (basically) “What was that about the curve?”, and you keep doing all these massive pushes and presses in different directions that feel almost like you’re building the horse’s body out of scratch. The amount of leg and ab and shoulder strength required was ridiculous. Most of it is isometric contractions and is not visible to the onlooker; ideally the cues should all be invisible; but if you could get a hand under (say) the rider’s calf you’d find out the rider’s legs are like iron.
To me dressage feels almost like the horse becomes an extension of my own body, or like I am floating in mid air and I’m sort of “juggling” the horse underneath me, bouncing it back and forth between my hands and feet. (it feels like I am holding the horse up, instead of vice versa) It is intense. It is very difficult. The weirdest thing is that the horse starts to lean on you mentally - it gets almost like you’re reading each other’s minds.
Best analogy I’ve come up with is that it’s like tango dance, or some other very intricate couple dance. The rider is the lead and the horse is the follow. (And it takes two to tango!)
Well I never.
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- featheredoars said: Although honestly I disagree with the horse being led thing. Its more like developing a language with the horse through muscle movement. That’s why it feels so good when you communicate it correctly and both you and the animal perform the movement.
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- herestothehalcyon said: I grew up riding every day…and competed from 3 to about 18 years old. definitely not as easy as people think (at least not to do it well). Kudos for this post.
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