Good riding is as much the result of conditioning the rider’s thought processes and reflexes, as it is conditioning the body and learning skills. What a rider does or does not put into their mind will have direct bearing on what their body produces while riding.

Automatic Reflexes

Automatic Reflexes are the moves and reactions our body and mind go to without being told what to do by our brains.

Good automatic reflexes are learned both by training the rider’s body and by training their mind. We teach new reflexes the rider has never had to deal, and we replace old reflexes with correct technique.  These automatic reflexes must be in place before a rider can do more than elementary riding. It takes lots of practice and conditioning. And it requires good instruction.

Bad automatic reflexes are knee-jerk reactions-

The term knee-jerk reaction comes from a test the doctor uses to check your reflexes—the one where he taps just below your knee-cap with a tiny hammer, and your leg jerks without any consideration from your brain.

Knee-jerk reactions are immediate responses that don’t include thinking. They are different than the automatic responses we try to train into students because knee-jerk reactions usually have a basis in fear. 

If your rider reacts with emotion rather than a thought process it will produce a knee-jerk reaction

Knee-jerk reactions usually stem from fear, an example of a knee jerk reaction is:

  • The horses stumbles, the rider gasps.
  • The horse stumbles, the rider snatches at the reins.

Whether riders develop good automatic reflexes or knee-jerk reactions has a direct relationship to what is in their mind. Students can develop good automatic reflexes more quickly when the instructor uses a system to teach response.

Teaching Good Automatic Responses

Unless your rider exercises and verbalizes thoughts, the process for automatic responses will be relegated to that dusty corner of their mind that says- “Yeah, got it.” And they won’t have it.

Step One-Develop a process

A process is as simple as having a set of instructions for mounting. We expect our students to mount a particular way every time they get on a horse.

Step Two -Teach the process-

For an action as elemental as mounting we give the student steps are and possibly a demonstration.

  • Left hand holds the reins
  • Right hand grasps the stirrup.
  • Left foot goes in stirrup, etc

Step Three- Guide students through the process

It’s simple and it may suffice for the first ride, but soon the elementary process is no longer enough.

Step It Up A Notch- Make it Personal

Since this is about riding reflexes, let’s use a scenario where the rider is already on the horse. I’ll show you how to teach a process, develop your rider’s automatic reflexes and personalize it all at the same time. We’ll use the transition from halt to walk.  Once you have the idea, you’ll be able to use this for innumerable situations.

Step One- Develop the process

These are my simple instructions for putting the horse at walk. Since this can be done many ways, you’ll have your favorite process.  I’ll start with very elemental instructions.

  • Gather your reins.
  • Check your position
  • Squeeze with your calves to ask the horse to move forward.
  • Release your calves after three seconds, or as soon as the horse is in motion.

Step two- Repeat it to me

I’ll have the student tell me what they are going to do before they even make an attempt.  Prevent your student from moving the horse and have them focus on their words.

Step Three- Action and Evaluation

When my student has successfully repeated the instructions without performing them, I’ll let them instigate action while again verbalizing the instructions. Action and words together reinforce the concept.

Meanwhile, my observation is about to make it personal. I notice that as my rider asks the horse to activate, he slumps his shoulders, leans slightly forward, and looks at the ground. Maybe your rider’s hands jerk up when he kicks, or he leans back at the first lurch of the walk. The difference in riders is why it’s personal. 

Step Four- Personalization

We stop and go over our more elaborate instructions. I explain what I see and I tell my rider that I’m going to give him his process, or action plan, for the transition to walk.

  • Gather your reins.
  • Check your position
  • Keep your eyes up and focus on ____. I’ll pick a point in front of the rider
  • Lift your chest by lengthening your core muscles.
  • Sit up on three point contact.
  • Squeeze with your calves to ask the horse to move forward.
  • Release your calves

Step Five- Repeat

After I’m sure he understands, I ask my student to repeat the process out loud. When he’s got it, we give it a try  before moving to the next step.

Steps 6- Trigger words

I reduce the sentences to words that become triggers with meaning

  • Reins
  • Position
  • Lengthen
  • Sit Up
  • Squeeze
  • Release

Step 7-

We go through the verbal word process until he’s confident. At first, I’ll have my rider repeat his triggers each time. Later, I’ll let him go through his mental check list without speaking, but I watch for evidence that he’s forgotten or skipped something. I’ll remind my rider by saying a key word. If he automatically straightens and picks up his gaze, I’ll know he was successful.

Step 8- Homework

I expect students to practice their personal process even when it’s the normal process for everyone. I want them to practice this mental exercise between lessons until it becomes an automatic response. They can record the steps into their smart phone, or they can write it on a file card, but I expect students to practice the same way a golfer visualizes the perfect shot, or a football player visualizes a tackle. There’s my mantra: practice, practice, practice.

Added Benefits

We teach by process all the time, whether we are teaching a rider an equitation pattern, to memorize a course or dressage test, or the order of motions for roping. Starting early with simple exercises will not only prepare your rider for more complex moves by ordering their minds, you will also help them overcome knee-jerk reactions.

There are an infinite number of ways to develop and make your rider’s process personal, even boiling it down to simple one word triggers that work to calm nerves in the warm-up arena. Or a simple trigger word that can break through fear.

Give it a Try-

Try my action plan to see if it helps those riders who never remember the simple thing that drives you nuts. Small problems in the rider can cause big problems for the horse. Using an action plan can help you students have faster break throughs, too. Try it. Then tell me about your results.

What about you? Do you already have an action plan or use trigger words to help your students? I love it if you’d share in the comments.

And I’d love to have you sign up for the RI news using the easy sign up form. Plus, if you’re curious to know what I do with the rest of my life, please visit my author’s page at I look forward to meeting you there.

Here’s to great lessons and terrific students,

Barbara Ellin Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
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