Riding: Proactive or Reactive?

My horse friends and I are all mostly around the same age and we all grew up riding the same types of horses once we got beyond lesson horses: green broke, young, ex-racehorses, or horses with some bad training behind them that had to relearn that being under saddle is not a nightmare. And maybe a little pony squishing thrown in. Consequently, we learned how to ride reactively. Not what you typically think of when you hear reactive, like if a horse is “reactive” it’s code for hot or oversensitive, even explosive. We learned to ride reactively in the sense that we mostly just sat on these creatures, asked them to go forward and straight, and pretty much left them alone to do their job or learn their job. Close the leg to correct more than to ask. Lots of riding in a half seat or two point. Throwing our weight around a little, but tunelessly, to get things arighted. Only reacting if the horse did something truly wonky. Letting tack “gadgets” address perceived issues, so that the horse would be struggling more with himself than the rider (which I realize now has to be endlessly frustrating and defeating for most horses).

I am not passing negative judgment on this type of riding at all (except misuse of draw reins). This is mostly how I still ride today, minus the “gadgets.” I am more interested in getting out of a horse’s way and letting him do his job, but I also have low confidence in my ability to help my horse out of a scrape. I just don’t know enough. Ultimately, while I am more than simply a passenger when I am on a horse, I question whether I am really and truly riding. I think in some ways this style of riding is most prominent in the hunter/jumper disciplines, and “stay out of his way” can be heard over and over in any warm up ring at a h/j show. A difficult style of riding to master, it’s even prized and rewarded, for if you have a horse with a lot of talent and just enough training to steer and get to a jump, getting out of the horse’s way generally produces a phenomenal jump. For many, many riders, this is the only riding they will ever know and oftentimes it’s enough to get them quite far, to top accolades. If you do it well, I think it does count as good — and even great — riding.


But there’s more, isn’t there? There’s another level: the proactive ride. If you don’t know what you’re doing and you try to take this approach, you will probably do much more harm than good to the horse. I am thankful I learned the reactive ride first and best, but I know there’s more. Starting out, uneducated, and attempting to mimic what you see truly great riders accomplishing will result in a very discordant, inharmonious, and damaged relationship with a horse. Proactive riding is not innate, instinctive riding the way reactive riding can be. Proactive riding must be taught. A rider must be receptive to learning all the different cues, must coordinate her body well enough to be able to use each muscle group independently, must develop a true sense of pressure and release that can become so subtle as to be invisible. This, in my mind is true riding and takes a lifetime to achieve. There is no end to the learning.


Developing this kind of ability starts out on horses already trained, schoolmasters, competent and charitable animals that are few and far between, that most people never encounter. And to go a step further, teaching a horse to be this way takes this kind of riding — tactful, judicious riding. No longer is it a matter of less is more, taking away everything except the one thing you need to do to get the desired result, but a matter of asking correctly, effectively, with alacrity, to get the desired result. Asking for the canter is no longer a matter of outside leg pressure until the horse moves up into the gait and then the leg pressure is taken off. It becomes much more principled and refined, reliant on timing … A slight touch on the outside rein with the ring finger; a lowering of the inside seat bone and simultaneous lifting of the inside calf to increase the pressure just slightly at the horse’s rib cage just behind the girth. A horse lifts into the gait, pushing from behind, and the rider maintains the gait by painstakingly reinforcing the aids, not just pony kicking if the horse breaks to a trot, but preventing that from even happening with the seat and leg, holding the hand correctly so the horse has assurance of carriage. Not once ever having to pull. Not once dropping the inside shoulder of either horse or rider. Not once showing the hand you’ve been dealt but playing it close to the vest. Keeping the secret between you and the horse.


How do I get there? I haven’t said one thing that I didn’t learn from someone else, horse or human. Keep riding. Keep reading. Keep watching, and listening, and studying. Try harder, do more. More lessons or clinics. Read some more. The education never stops. The communication gets better and better. This is not about moving up the levels. Horses learn much faster than most of us do, anyway. But no matter how far I get, I want to harmonize with my horse. I want to keep a line of communication perpetually open between me and my horse because he can teach me the most.

33 thoughts on “Riding: Proactive or Reactive?

  1. Definitely a worthwhile read first thing in the morning πŸ™‚ The more I think about it, the more I feel that proactive and reactive riding exist in a back and forth on every horse. There are times when you need to be that completely quiet, still rider letting the horse do what it does, and then there are times were we may need to be right there, reminding the horse of whatever they need to be reminded of.

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    • Yes! That is a level beyond, to know which kind of riding when to best suit the horse, the communication, the relationship. It is one thing to stay out of their way, it is another thing to always be in there telling (because this can be taken to the extreme as well), and yet another to have the balance in the middle. The true harmony.


  2. Really REALLY great post- and a very interesting distinction. I definitely learned the “stay out of the way” ride for many years, and that’s my instinct. But now very often my trainer will tell me to “get in the way” more to give clearer instructions, especially when shit hits the fan. It’s definitely not my first thought yet, and a very different mindset and muscle memory, and like you say, a constant learning process.

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  3. Yes! This is so difficult to do. I feel lucky that I happened to ride a progression of horses over the last few years that helped me start figuring out how to be proactive. Drifter in particular needed a lot of proactive riding. I’m definitely a work in progress (aren’t we all?) but that type of really engaged, mindful riding is really amazing. One of the best compliments I got was when his potential buyer rode him the first time and said it was a lot harder than she thought because I made it look so easy. It was definitely not easy! It required a lot of focus and finesse. I like how you made the distinction between reactive and proactive. It’s such a worthy thing to work toward.

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  4. Oh gosh this is brilliant. I learned the reactive typical hunter ride early on, and it took some very good trainers to start to switch me over from “passenger” to a rider who can use their “trainer brain”. But, as you so beautifully expressed, learning how to ride proactively is a lifelong journey!

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  5. Elusive to most because they do not want to work at. They stop questing because it is a continuous evolving state. Total immersion. It is the only way to become truly great and to bring yourself, and if you are lucky your horse, to full potential.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This concept has eluded me for a long time. Esp when I was at my h/j barn in college riding all those greenies (reactively). And esp as I began trying to start learning dressage. I can *see* that other riders are accomplishing things with their horses that I don’t know how to do – that they proactively getting somewhere …. somehow haha. Maybe one day I’ll figure out the secret code myself πŸ˜‰

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  7. I think everyone really struggles with this. Riding reactively is easier in a sense because your waiting for the horse to make the first move. Learning when and were to apply pressure, when to take the pressure away at just the right moments? So difficult 😦

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  8. This was not was I was thinking when I saw the title at first. I was thinking riding proactive: asking the horse to work, expecting them to do what you ask. Riding reactive: reacting to the misbehavior, rather than stopping it before it starts. For example, I find that I am reactive, I respond to what Cosmo is doing (spooking at something outside the ring, or diving in on my left leg) rather than riding proactively to prevent either of those (keeping him working and focused on me so he can’t focus outside the ring, or keeping him between my leg and hand coming into the turn).
    I am lucky enough to have a VERY broke horse so I should be able to learn to be a more proactive rider. When I am in a lesson and having instructions called out constantly, I am more proactive, but I have a hard time doing that when I am on my own. Mostly, I have a hard time trusting myself, that I DO know what I am doing and instead I tend to over-think rather than just ride. So maybe, I need to be more reactive first?
    My brain is swirling now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think your uses of the words make complete sense, honestly. I struggled with the language and what to title this. But “Kind of riding or REALLY riding” sounded kinda dumb, lol. And since you are riding a broke horse, you CAN do a lot more proactive riding that some of us on slightly less broke horses πŸ˜‰


  9. Pingback: Looking Back on 2016 | Patently Bay

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