How to get back in the tack after time away from riding
Jane Ehrhart runs River Hill Farm, a private training facility based in Wellington, FL. River Hill Farm is a place where riders can be successful in a competitive, fun environment. This is the second edition of her blog at theplaidhorse.com, where she will offer an insider’s view of the show jumping world. Read her first blog HERE.
By Jane Ehrhart
Whether it’s having a baby, going to college, or increased work responsibilities, there are times when riding has to take a back seat for some amateurs and juniors. The comeback shouldn’t be scary – it should be fun! I’ve worked with a number of clients who have taken time away from riding and found the following tactics to be successful.
The Trainer’s Responsibility to the Horse
As a trainer, it’s important to start by discussing your recommendations about what the horse will need during the rider’s time away. How long is the absence? Will the rider be gone for the summer, maternity leave, a semester abroad? For me, it’s easiest to work backward from when the rider plans to return to when they leave in order to develop the right program for their horse.
A rider’s time away can be incredibly productive for their horse. It might be a great time for a green horse to get show mileage and training. It probably isn’t a good idea for a youngster or a tricky horse to fall out of a program. If the horse is having soundness issues, a rest during this time might be smart. For our older, veteran friends, I find it best to keep them going with lighter work and some jumps. From my experience, they use it or lose it.
The goal is to have the horse ready to go when their rider is back.
The most important thing is to listen to the rider. Are they afraid or is their physical weakness making them uncomfortable? First, it’s my job as the trainer to make sure their horses are ready and focused. It won’t be productive for anyone if the horse is unmanageable when they first get back on.
If a rider is scared, start slowly and build their confidence with good experiences. It might take a little bit longer, but time becomes irrelevant when a rider’s comfort level isn’t high. Start with flatwork or lunge line lessons, then move to poles or cavalettis. Poles are low impact on a horse and can sharpen the rider’s timing and eye. Once that seems on track, add in small jumps, simple courses, gymnastics and eventually get back up to show height. If the rider wants to aim for an upcoming show, I find it best to help my students a little bit every day.
When students are scared, bad habits can creep in quickly, so daily guidance will help increase the rider’s confidence and keep bad habits at bay.
For a rider who feels “weird” or uncomfortable because they don’t have the same strength they used to, let them start by just getting back in the saddle, and begin flat lessons to build their strength and stamina. Again, riding without stirrups or daily lessons will help with stability and balance.
The goal is getting riders back in the groove to feel secure and confident, but the approach I take is individualized to each student. Practice is the only way to build confidence. Juniors and adults are different; juniors often can handle a “let’s get going” approach while adults might need a little more time.
Getting to the Show Ring
Make sure your riders do horse-show-like exercises or patterns at home. It will feel very foreign to them if the course chart looks nothing like what they have been doing for practice. If given the opportunity, I encourage them to ride in the show ring or jump a few jumps if a warmup is offered. It’s a great way for riders to get a feel of the show ring environment. What do the turns feel like? Is there an uphill or downhill grade to the ring? Is the horse distracted by the judge’s booth?
All sports and performances have scrimmages and dress rehearsals – horse shows shouldn’t be any different. In the end, there is no substitute for repetition and practice. I know I’ve never been to a show and thought to myself, “I wish I practiced less.”
I have helped a lot of my clients come back from injuries, maternity leave, a month away for family time, and even 10-year breaks. These are examples of two clients I helped with very different lengths of time away and different approaches:
A 7+ Year Break
My sister took roughly seven years off from riding to grow her company and start a family. She lives in Boston, so driving to the barn in the dark in traffic after work wasn’t that appealing. She came down to Wellington in 2018 and took lessons with me. She was ready to show when she found out baby Harrison was on the way. In 2019, riding was basically off the table.
This past season, she came down twice for lessons. Every riding day got easier and easier. We worked on getting her stamina up- a 3-pole exercise turned into two courses of 10 jumps plus pole exercises on another horse. The week she was available to show just happened to be World Champion Hunter Rider Week (WCHR)! I took her horse to the show the week before and did two days of warmups to get him settled in. I did the Tuesday warmups and then she met us at the ring Thursday morning. (Her schedule did not permit more practice time, or the ability to ride in the ring.) She informed me that she was really nervous so I told her there were zero expectations, and to have a really good time.
She got on early to flat and then jumped a few warmup jumps. We went over her plan about five or six times to help her focus on the plan instead of her nerves. Her first course was beautiful with only a little rustiness showing up over a single oxer. She won the second class with an 86!
The biggest revelation for her was that she wasn’t a worse rider for taking time off, she was just out of practice! Working on stamina and jumping with little patterns reminded her that she could still do everything once stronger.
A Month Off
I had a client who had family obligations for a month or two at a time. Usually she came back the week before the show, which meant we needed to get her going – and quickly. She liked to come back and ride her horses for a long time, so I took that into consideration with regards to their fitness and schooling programs. The horses got a little break when she left, and I increased their work load when her arrival date grew closer.
Upon return, I gave her a day or two to just ride while providing some reminders. We did lots of cavaletti and pole exercises to sharpen her eye and rehearse measuring lines. We moved to small courses, then show-height courses and a more difficult schooling line if she felt ready. It was important that we made every moment count when she came back so she could feel confident in her timing, and strong enough to show. She liked winning, so I had to push her out of her comfort zone at home in order to make the show seem easier than lessons. She has been reserve circuit champion at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) back-to-back years!
The longer the break, the more time it takes to knock the rust off. That’s just life! Showing is inherently nerve-racking, but we can eliminate some of that worry with a lot of practice at home.
Find River Hill Farm on Facebook and Instagram, or visit riverhillfarmfl.com for a look into Jane’s boutique training business, as well as behind-the-scenes updates from her horses and riders.