June 30, 2021
January 12, 2021

Practice Makes Perfect

Make the most of your practice time between lessons with these tips and tricks for maximizing learning.

Allison Armstrong Rehnborg

Unless you’re lucky enough to work with a trainer every time you ride, you probably know what it’s like to saddle up between lessons and find yourself struggling to complete maneuvers you aced in your last lesson. It can be challenging to practice new skills in the saddle without the helpful voice of a trainer to praise your progress or troubleshoot problems. So, what’s the solution? As much as you might like to have your trainer with you every time you ride, that’s not always an option. Instead, try these best practices for getting the most out of every ride.


  • Ask questions. If you’re struggling with a concept or maneuver during a lesson, talk with your trainer. Then listen and repeat back what your trainer is telling you. The more engaged you are, the more likely you are to remember the solution later.
  • Get it right just once. According to American educator Edgar Dale, people generally remember 90% of what they do. If you can nail a perfect lead change during your lesson, you’re more likely to remember how you did it. Just like in any physical sport, it’s important to practice a task correctly so you can build accurate muscle memory.
  • Write it down. As soon as your lesson ends, sit down with your lesson journal. Then, the next time you’re getting ready to ride, read your notes and remind yourself of what you learned last time.


Between lessons, it’s important to practice what you’ve learned. Usually, this means practicing by yourself. For accomplished rider Helena Ryan of County Limerick, Ireland, practicing alone is her default setting. That’s because her trainer, David Deptford of Sovereign Quarter Horses, lives about eighteen hours away in Cambridgeshire, England. Even before a global pandemic put a stop to her travel plans, Helena only had lessons with her trainer about four times a year. But once the pandemic hit, Helena ended up spending the majority of 2020 riding on her own. Rather than put her goals on the back burner, Helena decided to pursue a bucket-list accomplishment: earning an American Paint Horse Association World Championship.

“I set practical goals [in 2020], which allowed me to see the progress or lack of it whenever I watched my own videos,” Helena said. “Set a target of something you want to be able to do by a specific date, then work backwards and set smaller targets along the way which will be the building blocks to your ultimate goal.”

Setting practical, measurable goals is an easy way to make progress in the saddle. Ask your trainer to help you make a list of goals to work on between lessons.


Using a video camera to record your rides comes in handy for a variety of reasons. You can record your lessons and your practice sessions and compare to see what you’re doing differently. You can also show your videos to your trainer to ask for help.

“I am a great believer in analyzing what you do,” Helena said. “I have attended many American Paint Horse Association judges’ seminars in the last few years, so I simply applied the same idea when watching videos of myself.”


Finally, stay cool. It’s easy to get frustrated in the saddle, especially if you’re having a hard time with a maneuver or feel like you’re stuck, but negative emotions aren’t helpful in training.

“Whenever I get stuck, I assess what is happening, and work backwards using cause and effect to solve the problem,” Helena said. “Once I find the cause, my mind then goes to remembering the solution from either what my trainer would have told me or from a DVD or a book.”

No matter what your experience level is or how often you get to take lessons with an expert, there are many ways to boost your training regimen and help you make progress toward your goals. For Helena, one of the highlights of 2020 was when she and her American Paint Horse, ADMS Tripple Loot, became the 2020 APHA World E-Show Trail Champions.

“I have an APHA World Show ribbon and champion buckle as a result,” Helena said. “That’s a dream come true!”

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