Horsemanship is a combination of hands and seat, strengthened by nerve. It cannot be learnt by reading a book, and must be acquired by practice. Good nerve, I have already said, is merely a question of health.
There are some people who lack that delicate, sympathetic touch in the fingers which goes to make first-class "hands"; but, though they can never know the magnetic feeling which should exist between horse and rider, they may with care avoid torturing the animal they ride. This, like everything else, may be learnt much easier in early life, and a boy should never allow himself to get into the habit of hanging on by the reins. The first thing is to remember that a horse's mouth is both delicate and sensitive, to be made hard and callous only by our bad usage. If a boy by a stretch of imagination will think that the reins are made of thread, and that a hard pull will break them, he will get into the way of touching them lightly. When you are first learning to ride, your natural instinct prompts you to clutch at anything that may preserve your balance, and the reins in your hand will of course come first. This is what you must avoid. Never use the reins for that purpose, but rather hold on to the pommel if your equilibrium is threatened.
I should always advise a boy to use a snaffle bridle, and parents should never provide a pony that cannot be ridden in that bit. I would even go further, and say that no man ought to be allowed to use a curb bridle unless he has fairly good hands. The curb, which to an accomplished horseman is an assistance in the higher art of equestrianism, is, in the grasp of the heavy-fisted, an instrument of torture to the animal he rides. The bars are the sensitive part of the horse's mouth, and the use of the curb is to bring the head down, so that the bit falls on those bars. Now the poor animal's only protection against heavy hands is to get the bit in the corner of the mouth, where there is little or no feeling, and the bad rider can hang on there without doing much damage. If, however, the curb is used, the bit is brought to bear on the sensitive bars, when the poor beast is driven mad with pain and discomfort. Horses that run away, or are always throwing up their heads, have usually been driven to these habits by bad hands.
There is a general idea that delicate handling is not necessary when a snaffle bridle is used, but this is a mistake. The plain snaffle bit should always be the chief medium for conveying your wishes to the horse, and the curb should be looked on as an assistant only. A curb is also of use in balancing a horse, but that is a proceeding which the beginner had better not worry himself about. No horse can be considered perfect unless he is well balanced, and one which is built that way will never be a hard puller. A good horseman can, by a delicate manipulation of the reins, give a horse an artificial balance, whereas the same animal, in the hands of a bad rider, would be galloping with the whole weight of his body thrown on to his shoulders.
You may liken a horse to a steel rod which, when it is bent in curves, develops a great springing power. The curb makes the horse bend his head and bring his hocks underneath him, when the steel rod may be said to have become a spring. In this position a horse is capable of exerting his greatest power for jumping. You will also understand that your weight will make a considerable difference in the working of the spring, and much will depend on the position of the weight. These are, however, some of the more intricate points of the riding art which the beginner need not trouble himself with ; but I want you to appreciate the fact that sticking to the saddle and riding over a fence does not constitute a first-class horseman.
The boy who is learning to ride must above all things avoid getting into some bad trick or habit, as once such is acquired it is very difficult to throw off. He must cultivate a quiet neatness in dress, and there must be nothing in his whole manner or bearing to draw attention to him. A very ugly trick, which some men and many women have, is resting the hand on the hip and sticking out the elbow. Sit straight up in your saddle, don't round your shoulders, and keep your hands as low as you can get them, with your elbows close to your side. The legs should hang straight from the knee, and the heels slightly down. The body, above the waist, should bend freely and easily with every movement of the horse, while, below the waist, it should be firm and immovable. This is, I think, the whole secret of riding, and embodies the principle of it in a nutshell. Allow me therefore to repeatóbe pliant in your body and stiff in your legs.
In riding at a fence, lean forward as your horse rises and lean back as he lands ; but this will come more naturally to you after a time. At the moment of landing your weight should be as far back as possible ; because, if the horse makes a slight mistake, you are not so liable to come off, and also because, with your weight off his shoulders, the animal can more easily recover.
Most steeplechasing experts ride with the feet home in the stirrups, but for hunting and ordinary riding the ball of the foot should rest only on the iron. There are, however, many first-class men who ride with the feet home, but I think the other method is better, because you are able thereby to get a more delicate feel of a horse's mouth; and for the same reason I advocate the arm being slightly bent at the elbow. Steeplechasing is altogether different, as arms and legs should then be quite straight. You have to hold your horse together for ten minutes or more without a moment's relief, and you would find the bent arm a great strain on the muscles. You will see men who are even strong and in first-class condition, but unaccustomed to riding races, quite tired out with three miles between the flags, whilst a mere boy who is used to the game will finish as fresh as when he started.