Let’s say you’ve decided to start riding. Excellent! Good choice. So you have your lesson, and you loved it. After a few lessons, you begin to wonder when you’ll trot. Or when you’ll canter. When can you start jumping? Are you progressing at a normal rate?
When you’re new to riding, it’s hard to tell if you are progressing at a normal rate. You’re still learning about how horses work, so it’s hard to say if you’re improving, especially if you feel like you’re not making any progress in your lessons.
Sometimes things can seem slow. You really want to gallop around a field and jump things, why are you in an arena making small circles around traffic cones?
Learning to ride is a fun journey, and although everyone’s journey is different, the first year of lessons are mostly the same. You should be able to expect certain skills to be introduced at certain times. If you’re curious what kind of progress you should expect to be making in your first lessons, read on.
Phase 1 – Your Horse Introduction and Walking
You’ve now shown up to your very first lesson. You’ve entered the barn and gotten the first inhale of that delicious horse scent that you’ll soon be craving when you’re not there. You’ve got an amazing journey ahead of you, hopefully you’re very excited!
Lessons are going to start with you handling your horse on the ground. The trainer will likely bring your horse out of the field for the first time, and you’ll receive an introduction on how to lead it. You’ll get help on grooming your horse, tacking up (putting on the saddle and bridle), and then you will lead your horse to the arena.
You’ll be given assistance in mounting, and you will sit on the horse. As long as you feel comfortable up there, you’ll be told how you turn the horse left and right, and how to stop the horse.
You might demonstrate right then your turning ability and get your first horse steps. Once you can steer, you’ll learn how to tell the horse to walk on. Then you’ll get your first forward steps!
Your first lesson will involve a lot of turning around objects, and stopping. You will stop the horse, and then tell it to walk on, and then stop it again. It will be a lot of repetition. While you’re going through these exercises, your instructor will be telling you how to sit properly, hold your reins, and put your heels down. You’ll likely hear “heels down” so often, it will play in your sleep. It doesn’t come naturally until later in your equestrian journey, but don’t worry, it’ll come!
After your lesson, you’ll learn to untack the horse, clean him up, and put him away.
Phase 2 – Work at the Trot
I am calling this phase 2 because it may or may not be your next lesson. Sometimes it takes longer for it to click, other times people get it right away.
You’ll likely be given guidance but you’ll mostly be fetching your own horse, grooming and tacking up. After the lesson, you’ll be putting away the horse on your own.
Your instructor will work on you developing an independent seat. This means you need to be able to ride without balancing on the reins. In other sports, like biking, you lean heavily on the handlebars. In riding, you can’t do this. Your reins connect to the horse’s mouth, which is sensitive. So you will be working on feeling confident in the saddle without having a death grip on the reins or leaning heavily into your turns.
This will start with exercises at the walk. There will be a lot of repetition of turns and steering over poles. You’ll also be introduced to 2-point, or jumping position, which will feel a lot like standing up in the stirrups. This position is good to know for controlling the horse at speed.
You’ll walk around, holding two-point. It’s painful, but needed to gain the strength and muscle memory.
Once you’re able to steer your horse, and hold your position without popping the horse in the mouth with the reins, you’ll be introduced to the trot.
The trot will feel very bouncy. The safest way to introduce you is to put you on a lunge line connected to the instructor, giving the instructor control of the horse while you focus on how to ride a trot. You’ll be introduced to “posting,” which is sitting on the saddle on one beat, and rising in the air on the next beat. Once you get the rhythm down, you’ll be set free to explore the arena, and you’ll learn your diagonals, which is when you post according to which shoulder is moving forward.
There will be lots of turning and circles and holding 2 point to make your position even more secure. The main goal will be for you to have a solid position at the trot, and understand how to make the horse transition from halt to walk to trot, and trot to walk to halt. You’ll learn how to correct minor disobediences, like when the horse doesn’t “go”, and how to steer the horse around and over obstacles. You should be able to mostly hold your deep seat and two-point position at the walk and the trot, keeping those heels down most of the time!
Phase 3 – Cantering and Jumping
At this point you may be at about 8 lessons. You’re feeling good at the trot, and you are able to hold your position well. You are also mostly taking care of getting your horse ready to ride by yourself. .
You’ll have been practicing your two-point, posting, and understand controlling the horse at the trot. You can navigate over poles on the ground. It’s time to introduce the canter. This isn’t a step that’s rushed because it’s easier for something to go wrong at faster speeds
Sometimes the canter is introduced as part of jumping. The canter is fairly smooth, so it’s easier to ride than the trot, but the speed can make riders nervous. It’s common for your instructor to teach you to start jumping, and introduce canter as, “trot into the jump, canter out.” You will already be in two-point, which is an easy way to control the horse, and the horse canters very easily immediately after a jump, so it makes it so you don’t have to struggle trying to get the horse to canter. The horse will canter a few strides, allowing you to get used to the movement, and then will drop back to the trot.
Another method is the lunge line, similar to how the trot can be learned. The instructor controls the horse, you “relax” and go with the movement.
Then there’s just, “go out and canter,” you’ll learn the aid, and off you go out to the rail to do it. But if you’ve learned about steering, the aids, and two point from your earlier lessons, it shouldn’t actually be that hard.
Now that you have the very basics of walk, trot, and canter, you’ll continue to refine your position, gain better control of the horse, and tackle small jumps. At first it will be single jumps, but gradually more jumps will be added on. You might stay at 18 inch high jumps for a bit until you feel confident navigating a course.
Congratulations! You’ve learned the basics of riding. There’s no set time frame on how long this takes, it really depends on lots of factors. But with a great instructor and a babysitter horse to learn on, I would guess it would take a dedicated year of weekly lessons.
I’ve been riding for ages, why am I not trotting/cantering/jumping yet?
Without seeing you ride, it’s hard to say exactly. But it’s definitely something you should discuss with your instructor. She/he should be able to talk you through exactly what you need to do to advance in your riding. They should be able to provide you with specific areas to work on, and what the plan is to help you learn it.
Ex. “Your balance is all over the place and we need you to be able to sit upright in the saddle. You’re going to get some lunge line lessons to teach you.”
If they aren’t able to tell you exactly why you aren’t progressing, they might not know how to progress you. It might be time to find another instructor.
My lessons are so boring, we don’t do anything and I don’t think I’m advancing.
There could be a couple of reasons for this. The first is that group lessons can tend to teach to whoever is struggling the most, leaving others doing nothing. You might need to switch to a more advanced group to feel challenged.
It could also be that… sometimes the beginning stages of riding can be kind of dull. Learning to ride, in general, is a lot of repetition. But, as you advance, the repetition becomes more interesting. In the beginning, it can feel slow because you are literally going slow. You’re at a walk a lot, because you’re building the foundation for faster speeds. Once you are trotting and cantering, things happen much faster and you’ll need to know how to react.
BUT, if you really feel bored and that your lessons aren’t interesting, it could be that you and the instructor aren’t a great match. There’s no law that says you have to stay with the same instructor, you can find a different one and try them out. That goes for your entire riding journey, too. There may be some point where you feel stuck, maybe you can’t get your flying lead changes or something, and no matter how much you practice with your current trainer, you just can’t figure it out. Another trainer may be able to describe what you’re trying to achieve in a different way that will make it all click for you.
I feel unsafe, scared, “over-horsed”, the horse doesn’t listen, my instructor is pushing me too hard.
You should tell your instructor your concerns immediately. Don’t take one more lesson that scares you. If your instructor doesn’t switch your horse, tone down the lessons, or just flat out dismisses your concerns, you need to find a new place to ride. Don’t risk your safety, even if there’s no other barns. You can be severely injured from a horse, potentially preventing you from riding in the future. There will always be other barns at some point in your life, even if you can’t ride right now. Do not end your riding life before it even gets a chance to begin.
WHEN DO I GALLOP?!
Probably not in the first year, likely not ever on a lesson horse. It’s risky to allow a lesson student to gallop a lesson horse, either one could be injured. Not only is it a liability, but if the lesson horse is injured, he cannot work. If he can’t work, the riding school is losing money on him. Therefore, riding schools are not going to allow students to ride their horses in high risk situations, there just isn’t a good reason for it. Only select disciplines even use the gallop in competitions and only at certain times. If you’re wanting to gallop freely, you’re going to need your own horse.
I hope this presented you with a good idea of what to expect with your lessons. Your individual journey may be different, as different instructors teach differently, or regional or discipline differences, but overall the beginning stages are pretty similar. Once you’re trotting and cantering securely, you’ll be able to choose a more distinct path to reach your goals. Will you be jumping? Trail riding? Dressage? Mounted games? There’s tons of possibilities to explore. Choose one, or try them all. Enjoy your journey!
More about your equestrian journey