By Laura Crum
One of the reasons I never tried to become a horse trainer, though I worked for half a dozen of them as an assistant, is that I don’t like to give “riding lessons”. This isn’t because I can’t teach or don’t like to teach. I taught high school English in my twenties, for several years I taught a course on “How To Write A Mystery” at our local community college, last year I taught a short course on how to write a story to my son’s homeschool group. I have given riding lessons to children and adults. I’m currently giving them to my son’s friend. And one of my big activities since my son has been born has been teaching him to ride.
So, I can hear you saying, what do you mean that you don’t like to give riding lessons? Well, what I mean is that I tend to teach in a very hands off way. As someone who was the victim of a great many very hands on riding instructors, I have pretty strong feelings about the “yell at them constantly” approach. Of course, one need not yell—though a great many trainers/teachers that I have had certainly did so. But my thinking goes further than just not wanting to scar someone else the way I was scarred. I believe that we all learn best when we work things out for ourselves. And direct instruction, in general, not only doesn’t facilitate this process, it hinders it.
I can just feel the hackles going up on everyone who gives riding lessons, so before I go any further, I’d like to give an example of what I mean. When I say I taught my son to ride, its only partially true. What I actually did was facilitate my son’s learning to ride. I virtually never gave him any formal instruction, nor has anyone else. From the time he was six months old, I put him up in front of me on gentle horses. By the time he was four, he was very comfortable at the trot and lope in the saddle with me. When he was five I bought him a pony. For the next year my son rode by himself on this pony, always on the leadline. I took the stirrups off his saddle. My kid learned to trot and lope comfortably on the leadline, or being longed, or being ponied from my horse. When he was six, I put the stirrups back on the saddle, put the bridle on the pony, and let my son begin riding independently. At first I stayed nearby at all times. I kept him in round corrals and confined spaces. By the time he was seven my son could trot and lope the pony independently in the arena and was clamoring to go on trail rides.
Toby the pony died when my son was seven and I bought Henry, a very reliable, calm, somewhat lazy horse. My kid transitioned easily to the horse and within a month we were going on trail rides regularly. My son was a bit frustrated riding Henry in the arena because Henry was lazier than Toby and much harder to kick up to a lope. For a very long time (like six months) my boy couldn’t get Henry going faster than a trot, even using the crop I gave him. I just waited, figuring that he’d work it out. And eventually he learned to spank the horse at the right moment and get him in the lope.
All this time, I rarely told my son what to do. I mostly just let him do what he wanted to do. I corrected him when it was needed, but it was always short and simple. “Shorten your reins before you try to lope.” “Make sure your reins are even.” “Remember to sit up straight.” Over the course of an hour, on average, I might make three or four such comments. That was it. I would say “That looked great,” when he did something particularly well. Mostly I stayed out of the way.
My son developed an excellent seat. He developed quiet, steady hands. He was almost never fearful or anxious on the horse. He had lots of fun. He fell off once. He hasn’t gotten hurt—knock on wood. He loves his horse. He loves to ride. Problems do come up. And I let him work them out. I give suggestions when he is frustrated, but I do not get on his horse and “fix” the horse.
This last summer Henry began to develop the habit of dropping out of the lope and trying to stop where the other riders sit to watch at the roping arena where we ride (this spot is the “haze line”, for those familiar with roping arenas). My son wasn’t quick enough to correct the horse before he broke gait, and it began to be a problem. My son could no longer lope circles; it was one circle and the horse would stop in his chosen place. I told my kid he would need to swat the horse with the crop before Henry stopped, but my son (now nine years old) wasn’t quite able to get it done. It takes a bit of skill to keep your seat, keep steering, and reach back and whack the horse at exactly the right time. Henry would get ahead of my kid and break stride and stop. My child was getting pretty frustrated.
So we took a break from riding at the arena. For a month we went on trail rides. We had fun. Yesterday we went back to the arena again. I did not give my kid any instruction other than to say, “You’ll need to get ready to swat Henry with the stick before he gets to the stopping place.” And I loped alongside of him to give his horse a lead. As we approached the stopping place, I said, “Get ready,” And my son, on his own, began to count in rhythm to the loping strides. “One…two…three..” One count per stride. And on “four” he swatted Henry. The horse lifted up and kept loping past the resting spot. We went around again and once more my son counted along with the rhythm of the lope as we approached the spot. “One, Two, Three, Swat.” It worked like a charm. Suddenly my kid’s grin was a mile wide.
“Do you see what I’m doing?” he said. “I’m using the rhythm.”
“I see,” I said. “And its working great.”
I watched my kid lope happy circles, swatting his horse at just the right moment over and over again. I saw how empowered he felt. And I knew that all the instruction in the world about feeling the timing and hitting the horse at the right moment would not have helped. In fact it would have done harm. I know all about this, having been the victim of it for years. One is trying so hard with concious effort to follow instructions that one can’t feel the intuitive physical response that is needed. Without the formal instruction, my son was free to find the natural response. He had the years of riding that gave him the intuition. He was truly able to learn—because I wasn’t trying to teach him and getting in his way.
This is the heart of how I teach. I teach writing the same way. I’m homeschooling my kid using this approach. I find its working on all fronts. Riding lessons for us are really lessons for both of us as I observe and see what is working. I always learn as much as he does. I never assume that I know what the best approach is. I intervene only to keep my kid and the horse safe and relatively comfortable. I am open to see what is going to work for both of them.
All this to explain my original statement. Because as well as my approach works, it takes time. And a person who is expecting to have some knowledge imparted to them in exchange for dollars is apt to be disconcerted by an hour’s ride in which I make four comments. Thus I no longer accept money to teach folks to ride. I’m teaching my son’s little friend for free, but already the mom has wondered if her child needs more “formal instruction.” I smiled and suggested some good local people. The mom asked if I couldn’t do it. I tried to explain that this was the way I give lessons. I don’t think she understood. But that’s OK.
Anyway, I’d be interested to hear what others think of this approach. Have you tried it? Does it work for you? Or does the concept just not resonate? Any thoughts?