Book Excerpt: The Athletic Equestrian

Ride Like a Varsity Athlete

By Sally Batton with Christina Keim (March 2022)
Reprinted with the permission of Trafalgar Square Books


For varsity riders, being able to get on an unfamiliar mount and produce a winning ride is an essential skill. At collegiate shows, horses are always warmed up in front of the competitors; careful evaluation of this warm-up phase is essential to creating an effective plan for your ride. In general, my assessment covers the same critical areas as when I try out a new horse—equipment check, attitude/demeanor, responsiveness to the aids—with a few additional considerations in each area.

At most collegiate competitions, riders entered in the show are not allowed to warm up horses. Show managers frequently rely on other riders from the host barn to perform this essential duty, some of whom may not be as experienced as the competitors. If a horse looks challenging to ride during the warm-up, I evaluate the skills of his rider. If she appears to be less experienced, it is possible that a more experienced rider, using normal aids with better timing, will establish a more positive result. If a warm-up rider appears to be having a significant negative impact on a horse’s performance, I will ask a steward to see if the horse can be schooled by someone else.

Equipment Check

At collegiate horse shows, horse providers or show hosts determine which horses may be ridden with a crop and/or with spurs and ensure that these animals are warmed up accordingly. Athletes and coaches are not allowed to simply decide that a certain horse should be ridden with a crop or spur, even if he appears to be quite lazy. Remember, the horse provider or show host is the one who knows the horse best, and she wants to ensure that each horse has the opportunity to do his job happily and successfully.

Even if a warm-up rider carries a crop or wears spurs, don’t assume that you must do so as well. If you have only limited experience using a crop or spurs at home, then using either of these tools on a new horse is probably not a recipe for success. Additionally, I consider the rider’s conformation before allowing her to use spurs. For example, a rider who is 4 foot 11 inches on a broad, big-barreled horse will end up using the spur higher on his body than he is accustomed to, possibly resulting in a much greater reaction to the aid. In collegiate competition, I always preferred the possibility that a rider would not be able to motivate her horse to go forward over creating a situation that was potentially unsafe.

Photo Courtesy Dartmouth Athletics


It is not your job to train the horse to get over his issues during your collegiate show ride. However, if your draw is a lesson horse, practicing a little “equine psychology” may help to get the best performance from him.

Many lesson horses are a bit herdbound, and they express this in several ways. The horse may bulge his outside shoulder toward the gate each time he passes it or be reluctant to start on course while his friends remain outside the ring. Other horses drift toward their friends in the arena or are reluctant to leave the rail and pass a slower horse. Some spiral gradually toward the middle of the ring, until they are making a tiny circle in the center instead of a full lap of the outside edge.

If the horse bulges toward the gate or seems reluctant to pass other horses, the rider should carry her crop and extra reins (the “bight”) to the outside. When she rides past the gate or leaves the rail, she gives the horse a reminder tap on his shoulder with the crop. If the horse drifts toward the middle, riders should carry the crop against the inside shoulder, giving tactful reminders with it if the horse loses his track.

Some horses do not care to be crowded and respond quite strongly when other horses get too close. If the horse puts his ears back, grinds his teeth, or kicks out when other horses pass by, or if he wears a red ribbon in his tail (which warns riders that the horse may kick), it will be critical to keep this horse away from others in the arena. Even if you do not draw this horse yourself, be aware of his position in the ring and try to keep your distance. A great way to practice this skill at home is to ride in group lessons, where each rider must practice maintaining her own spacing throughout the schooling session.

Collegiate shows have a way of bringing out even the calmest lesson horse’s sassy side. With riders, coaches, spectators, and lots of nervous energy crowding into a normally quiet arena, horses may be spooky or distracted at first. Fortunately, most horses relax as the warm-up goes along.

If your draw still seems unsettled before your ride, try to identify the specific stimulus upsetting him. If he seems to be spooking only at one end of the arena, then plan to turn early as you approach that area. If the horse is distracted by something outside of the arena, plan to gently turn his head away from the distraction, then ride forward.

It is always up to the rider and her coach to decide if the horse’s behavior is something she can safely manage. Approach a show steward with any safety concerns.

Responsiveness to the Aids

As discussed in the previous section, carefully watch the mount’s reaction to the warm-up rider’s aids. Does he maintain each gait willingly, with only an occasional, gentle reminder from the rider’s leg, or does he rely on the rider to actively cue him to keep moving? Does the horse demonstrate a clear, three-beat canter, or does he occasionally lose impulsion, fall onto his forehand, and move closer to a four-beat rhythm, or even drop into the trot?

In equitation, a break of gait is a significant fault, right up there with posting on the wrong diagonal, or picking up the incorrect lead, and it will put a rider to the bottom of the judge’s card. If you draw this type of horse, you will need to be prepared to use assertive aids to maintain his energy in each gait. If flat classes run prior to yours, note where the judge is standing in the arena and where her focus stays. If it becomes necessary to use a larger aid such as a kick or even a tap of the crop, ideally this is done away from the judge’s eye.

Pay close attention to how the warm-up rider uses her aids during transitions and the horse’s response to them. If the rider cues the horse to trot and he moves off as if shot from a cannon, look to see if the rider’s leg is soft or if she has dug a spur into his side. By contrast, if the horse is reluctant to make the transition, what does the rider do next? Assuming that the warm-up rider has some knowledge of the horse’s usual manners and way of going, her response to the horse’s resistance gives you good clues as to the best way to manage him.  

From Coach Sally’s Top 10 Tips

Tip 10: Respect Your Coach

The many instructors and coaches I have worked with throughout my own career have each helped to shape my personal riding style and philosophy. Listening to feedback from different coaches provides riders with new insights, perceptions and techniques for addressing issues in their riding. You never know when hearing a unique way of explaining a familiar concept will cause a “lightbulb moment” significant enough to drive an important correction home.

Even if the rider disagrees with the feedback she receives, it is important to show these professionals the respect they deserve. Whether she is riding with her regular coach, an assistant coach, or a guest instructor or clinician, a rider should never dismiss what a riding instructor says to her outright. Just as every horse has something to teach a rider, there is something to be learned from every coach or trainer a rider encounters throughout her career, so long as she keeps an open mind.

Experienced coaches understand that it can take time for new riders to adjust to their coaching style and expectations. They encourage riders to respectfully ask questions when necessary, but also to be observant of how other riders in the coach’s program act and behave. When riders join a collegiate or varsity team, it is expected that they follow the coach’s training system completely. Varsity athletes know that when they ride with their team coach, they are required to ride the way the coach teaches them to.

On occasion, there will be times when a lesson leaves the rider confused or in need of further clarification. When this happens, I encourage the rider to set up an appointment outside of her lesson to talk through the exercise or concept further. Don’t take time away from other riders in your group or the next lesson by monopolizing your coach’s attention, and certainly never argue with the coach or talk back.

At the end of every lesson, practice, or coaching session, thank your coach. Ask her for a takeaway to think about and practice for your next lesson. These simple habits show that you respect the coach and appreciate her time. 

*This story was originally published in the December 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!