The Grey in Riding

In my last blog, What does progress look like?, I touched on how riders define progress and why it’s often an inaccurate representation of what is actually happening when they are in the saddle; how the checklists in our heads get rewritten and rewritten for every new stage in riding.

I want, this time, to further explore and explain this idea because it relates directly to so many riders who ask the question, “What’s next?”

Progress in riding is very unique to each rider and dependent on many factors. We tend to look at riding like this: 

  • Walk (check)
  • Halt (check)
  • Steer (check)
  • Trot (check)
  • Canter (check)
  • Jump (check)
  • Jump higher (check) 

If this were the case, my job as an instructor would be very short lived. 

In between those steps/gaits lies the grey. It is difficult to make something so fluid linear, but here is my best attempt. The stages of riding look more like this:

  1. Staying out of the way of the horse (following the rhythm of the horse, maintaining your balance)
  2. Being with the horse (confidence as well as balance, creating the rhythm)
  3. Improving the horse (developed feel and timing)
  4. Connecting to the horse (light aids, working in unison; a shared rhythm and vision)

Our initial checklist of the gaits fits comfortably into Category 1, staying out of the way of the horse. This is where we all start; with the goal of being able to safely ride the three gaits, offer some control and a touch of direction. This Category can take years or months, depending on your age (and no, younger is not always a benefit), dedication, and hours in the saddle. In this stage you are developing muscle memory, getting comfortable in the tack and breaking bad habits.

Success in Category 1 means:

  1. Your seat is acting independently of your hands;
  2. You have a solid understanding of how the horse moves and reacts;
  3. And, best yet, you are no longer being taken for a ride.

This is the level that school horses cater to and shine in; offering patience and consistency to riders who just need the time.  

From there, riders will find themselves bleeding into Category 2: Being with the horse.

Success in Category 2 means:

  1. Now you’re not only following the trot rhythm, you’re creating one. It’s the difference between leading your partner and following on the dance floor.
  2. You’re now capable enough to be demanding, picky even, about your gaits, transitions, and figures.
  3. You seek perfection. Exactness. Repetition is the training tool as you hone your aids to be more effective.

There is a lot of experimenting in this stage. This is where riders develop their own riding personality and style. It gives breathing room for that kind of uniqueness to bloom. 

On to Category 3, Improving the Horse.

This is often the stage where riders who are dedicated veer off from pleasure riders. A ‘weekend rider’ will comfortably remain at Category 2, content to follow the horse and get along without argument. A rider moving on to “Improving the horse” doesn’t necessarily need to be interested in competition (although it’s certainly common), but it does require a thorough understanding of the biomechanics of the horse; of the ‘why’. You can’t ask your horse for a lead change without first knowing how their legs will be positioned, what the rest of their body will be doing, and what you need to do to help them out. Your every aid is not only about getting a result, but about helping the horse to get the best possible outcome. 

Category 4 is where the best of the best reside.

This type of rider moves seamlessly to improve every horse they sit on, to the point where it seems like telepathy. It’s beautiful to watch. Horse and rider seem to be having a private conversation where they are in perfect agreement. The rider anticipates the horse’s responses and offers soft, consistent direction. These riders are so connected that their timing is perfect. 

Laying out the categories like this feels very linear, but it’s important to remember that the lines blur. A Category 2 rider could jump back and forth to Category 1. A Category 3 rider could take six months off riding and find themselves back at a Category 1. It’s not a ladder to climb; it is a walk through the woods. You’re not meant to fight to the destination but to enjoy the scenery. Every path is different. 

I’ll use sitting trot as an example.

Category 1: Staying out of the way of the horse

The expectation - inconsistent rhythm while the rider gets comfortable. Some dependency from the rider on their hands, resulting in some miscommunication. 

The goal - sitting without bouncing on the horse’s back at a slow trot. Keeping balance for short distances. Able to ask for a walk or turn while sitting the trot. Horse doesn’t offer a different gait (walk or canter) due to confusing messages from hands/legs. 

Category 2: Being with the horse

The expectation - rhythm in the trot, the beginnings of an independent seat. Some experimenting with aids, slightly inconsistent timing while working to create a rhythm. 

The goal - able to sit trot with or without stirrups for a longer distance. Comfortable with more complex figures, such as changing direction 

Category 3: Improving the horse 

The expectation - sitting with ease, with consistency. Aids active and keeping an ongoing ‘conversation’ with the horse. Slightly ‘busy’ with aids. 

The goal - use sitting trot as a way to connect the seat, creating contact and impulsion. Seat stays soft, following, leg aids are active to continue communication with the horse in regards to the rhythm of the trot. 

Category 4: Connecting to the horse 

The expectation - seamless and actively developing the best trot the horse can offer in terms of self-carriage. 

The goal - sitting trot effortlessly, almost as an afterthought. Light seat, light contact, with every aid creating an improved step from rider to horse. 

To quote my own coach, “no one said this was going to be easy.” 

The only thing consistent about learning to ride is how difficult it is, which makes it not for the faint of heart. But let’s be honest - we sit on 1,200-pound animals for fun. Riders are a tough bunch to begin with and are up for the challenge.

Happy riding!


RSE is excited to share that it has been invited to explore the possibility of a film documenting the preparations of the Canadian Equestrian Para-Dressage Team for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.




Amanda is a writer, instructor, and life-long equestrian whose passion for change is reflected in her bright, colourful hair. She balances high-paced life in the city with daily doses of 'barn time'. Amanda is a cat enthusiast who lives in Toronto with her fiance and two unenthusiastic cats.

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