Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nowt as Queer as Horsey Folk?

Since birds of a feather flock together it’s perfectly normal that, over the years, I’ve mingled with a lot of people who share my passion for horses. Even as a very young child I had a friend whose favorite thing to do was ride around the block on her bicycle with a riding crop in her hand which she’d use to thrash her thighs every so often. I did it too, didn’t you? Another thing we’d do, like most baby-horsey people, was trot and canter all over the place, one behind the other, a skipping rope or long piece of string wrapped around the front person’s tummy. I got burn marks on my stomach once from being halted a little too abruptly.

Nowadays, my twelve-year-old niece and her seven year-old sister both charge around their garden, elbows at their side, self-flagellating their thighs with their colorful little riding whips, hurtling over tree trunks and bits of garden furniture they’ve made into jumps. They even plant pretend refusals, give themselves a good thrashing, then circle and go again! At one point, the twelve-year-old refused to go to school until she’d gone down to the bottom of the garden to feed and water her imaginary ponies. Yes, even in the arctic conditions of mid-winter, when she’d have to break the ice in the fountain in the garden! Seeing as my sister’s mornings are timed with military precision, that she’s always in a rush, and not quite so horsey, these quirky capers drove her crazy. She thought it was a bit weird.

That’s the thing about horsey people. We’re a bit weird. Most of us are nice weird, and some of us are not so nice weird. And unfortunately, I can’t help thinking that I’ve met quite a few not-so-nice weird horsey people, especially among professionals.

It’s true. I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve been unlucky, or whether it’s because I tend to be over-sensitive and non-confontational, but so many of my encounters in the professional world of equestrian sports have been disquieting. Upsetting. Weird in a bad way.

Take riding instructors, for instance. The vast majority of riding instructors I’ve endured have been very scary, right from the time when I was a little girl. I remember having lessons with all kinds of bad-tempered, highly impatient whip wielding individuals whose big booming voices hurled scathing remarks at terrified children struggling with poor, disillusioned, grumpy riding school horses. I can still hear one little girl begging one particularly evil teacher to not force her to canter, can still picture that monster running after her cracking his whip, and still cringe at the image of that little girl’s horse taking off à la Speedy Gonzalez while she clung on as best she could, sobbing with fright, often falling off as her bratty horse bucked and kicked out and torpedoed around the corner. This happened week after week, until, finally, that traumatized little girl stopped coming.

That teacher terrified me, too, yet I somehow managed to get through those lessons, probably because I was so utterly obsessed with horses and had waited so long to finally be allowed to take lessons (you had to be at least 12 years old) and the only alternative was not riding at all. But, seriously, what was wrong with that man? How could such a creep be allowed to teach anyone anything?

A few years later I discovered a farmer who bred Welsh Mountain and Shetland ponies in the village close to where I lived, and who seemed happy to let me ride for free. Another girl, slightly older than me, already had her foot in the door with this farmer, and although she was happy to have someone to accompany her on long pony rides in the countryside, she never failed to remind me that she’d been there first, and basically acted like a right little despot, always putting me down and hogging the best pony. I rode past her house the other day and remembered the thrill of my first slow dance during a party in her living room when I was fourteen. It was Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and I somehow managed to nab the hottest guy there! Ha! Strangely enough, I don’t remember riding with her again after that night! Weird, eh? I wonder if she turned professional!

Anyway, when I finally was lucky enough to have a horse of my own, I endured many more years of obnoxious, neurotic behavior from yet another charming professional horseman. I was 27 by then, and looking back I can’t believe the disparaging, disrespectful remarks I put up with. Not that I was the only one getting crap rap; this guy was rude to everyone except for one young woman he presumably had a crush on and who, in his eyes, couldn’t put a foot wrong. The crazy thing was that I’d actually bought my mare from him, stabled my mare with him, paid a fortune for lessons with him, yet he constantly bitched and scorned and generally behaved like a dog with a smelly bone to pick.

Jumping lessons with him? A nightmare! I’d never really jumped before, and my mare was young and high-strung, charging towards the jumps with her head in the air, sometimes clearing it by a mile, often sliding to a stop and leaving me to do the mile-high clearing. That teacher ranted and raved at me in front of everyone else until I no longer remembered my name, let alone what side to get back on when I came off. How many times did that class end in tears?! Why did I stick it out for as long as I did? Why did it take about three or four years before me and a group of other disgruntled friends moved our horses to another stable, where we inevitably endured a different version of the same old insulting story. Weird, no?

Then, one day, following yet another hour of traumatic destructive criticism on horseback, I met a ruddy complexioned lady who owned two horses who had just started boarding her horses at this stable. She invariably showed up with half a dozen dogs of all shapes and sizes who bounded around unchecked, much to the horror of the crabby owners of the stables, who shouted and complained and threatened until they were puce in the face and smoke billowed from their every orifice, but this ruddy complexioned lady was clearly Teflon coated when it came to rude remarks. She’d just purse her lips, stick her nose in the air and nod, put her dogs in the car for a few minutes until the complainers had gone away, then let them out again and get on with riding her horses! She didn’t work with any of the stable’s bad-tempered instructors, instead she had her own private trainer fly in every six weeks or so from Holland. She was a dressage rider, and from the very first time I saw her ride her beautiful chunky-necked dapple-grey gelding I was fascinated. I’d never seen anyone ride like that before, not at close range, anyway, and I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do.

For days and days I sat and watched her ride, then finally plucked up the courage to ask if she could teach me to ride like her, explaining that I had become scared of jumping, and that in all my years of lessons “on the flat” I had never come close to having my mare move with the elegance and rhythm of her horses. Nobody had ever explained the importance of the outside rein in conjunction with the inside leg, all we seemed to do was rush around, our horses hind legs chasing their front legs higgledy piggledy. I knew there would be a lot of work involved, and that my high-strung, thouroughbredish mare didn’t have the big elastic movement of her beautiful dressage horses, but I simply couldn’t take anymore of those rushed, frantic, insult-ridden riding sessions. Could this Teflon-charactered ruddy-complexioned lady with a gazillion dogs give me lessons without giving me hell?

She could and did, and when a year or so later she fulfilled her dream of buying a stable of her own I followed her there, along with a couple of other ladies whom she “helped” ride (she said she didn’t give lessons as she wasn’t a qualified instructor, she merely “helped” us in between sessions with the Dutch instructor, with whom I also trained). For a while it seemed like I’d finally arrived in equestrian paradise, with all these lovely ladies swanning around on prancy horses, all of us a nicely bonded group able to sit down and enjoy coffee and croissants together while conversing about all sorts of things. Pretty soon I got a new horse with a little more movement than my mare. The Dutch trainer would come for two day clinics and we’d all gather around, watching each other’s lessons, as eager to learn by watching as we were by riding. Nobody insulted anyone, nobody made disparaging remarks, everyone was just pleasant and friendly and polite, and, well, normal!

Until, one day, one of the ladies wasn’t pleasant or friendly or polite, and, because of something weird and very unpleasant that she did, the ruddy complexioned lady fell out with the trainer, and all hell broke loose, with some ladies taking one side, and others taking the other. I stayed loyal to my ruddy complexioned friend, but from then on the spell was broken and nothing was the same. And it was sad, because it had been so nice. Or maybe it had been too good to be true. I don’t know. And then I broke my leg by falling off a sledge and was out for almost a year. Meanwhile, a new trainer was brought in, from Germany this time, but he was loud and scary and, in my opinion, rough with the horses. Personally, I never worked with him because by the time my leg was healed supposedly well enough for me to ride my horse again, I almost immediately fell off and shattered my shoulder, which put me out for close to yet another year.

This is when I quit riding. With two really bad injuries in the space of about fourteen months and yet another bad-tempered instructor to put up with, I figured life was trying to tell me something. Besides, with two young children, a husband, three dogs and a big house, and an increasing desire to write, I had enough on my plate. So I gave away my horse (to a great home, where he is still well cared for and loved) and all my tack and equipment, convinced I’d never ride again.

But my daughter also possessed the horse-crazy gene, and pretty soon I was taking her for riding lessons at a series of local stables where the majority of instructors also turned out to be bad-tempered, impatient or downright rude. Eventually, tired of the abuse, we found her a “demi-pension” (I think you call it half-board. It’s where you pay half of someone else’s horse’s keep) and set about looking for a private trainer, and eventually discovered the wonderful Marie-Valentine, who got me hooked dressage again, and later helped us find our now-retired, mega-fabulous Kwintus. She also recently helped me find our new horse, Qrac, and is as excited as I am about driving down to pick him up in the south of France next Thursday!

Marie-Valentine is a teeny tiny person with a big loud voice (a VERY BIG LOUD VOICE!) but it’s a friendly, enthusiastic, passionate big loud voice. She has trained with the some of the best dressage riders in the world (Klaus Balkenhol, for instance), collaborated on opening the first university dressage degree in America (in Ohio), and has ridden Grand Prix. She has a great sense of humor, endless energy and dedication, is never rough with the horses, nor rude or insulting with people, and has become one of the most sought after teachers in this area of Switzerland and neighboring France. She and I have become great friends, I love her to bits and have the utmost respect for her. Is she weird? Well, frankly, aren’t we all?! But like me and most nice horsey people, she’s only weird in the most wonderful ways!

What about you? Have your experiences with horsey professionals been as trying as mine, or have I just been really unlucky?


Tansy said...

Weird and quirky horse people... Yes, there are a lot of them.
My own experience tends towards a rare few excellent instructors (mostly in dressage. Maybe it's just the passion for perfection? Or maybe the focus on how the horse is working, and how to improve that? Or maybe it's just what interests me.) and considerably more lovely and or talented horse people who simply can't teach effectively. You know, the ones that have you go round and round and round in circles while you and your horse get more and more confused/irritated/frustrated to the point of tears?
And yes, I have had one or two occasions with instructors who have simply pushed too damn hard- Keep putting the jumps up until you fall off without providing any sort of feedback. I will never understand how that is supposed to work.
The good news is, I am now in a position to stick with those trainers that have given me more confidence, helped my horse understand what he is being asked, and left us both with a feeling of achievement.

Francesca Prescott said...

Tansy: It's nice to hear you've had mostly good experiences with instructors. Like you, I also share a passion for perfection in dressage, which is why I so enjoy my current trainer's consistent, intelligent and extremely pleasant lessons. Teaching is an art, and although I consider myself a pretty good rider, I think I'd be totally incapable of teaching anyone else, maybe partly because I don't like telling people what to do. It makes me uncomfortable. Also, often when people ask you for advice, they're not always open to hear what you have to say, so it can get really tricky.

And I do agree that there's nothing better than leaving a lesson with that elated feeling of achievement.

Laura Crum said...

Yes, yes, yes! I, too, have had the long history with abusive mentors and teachers. Being screamed at until I was in tears was standard stuff for me, from my childhood riding instructor on through the trainers I rode with and for in my twenties. Let alone my uncle, who somewhat "raised" me in the horse biz. I do not get how all that angry yelling was supposed to achieve anything.

By the time I was in my thirties I had developed enough skill to break and train horses on my own, and from then on, I never "rode" with any professional. I'm sure I missed out on some good experiences and learning, but I had just had enough of the dark side. The man who taught me how to rope remains my horse partner, and though we argue and discuss endlessly, neither of us considers ourselves superior to the other. We just provide that invaluable knowledgable feedback for each other. And this works for me.

It is somewhat because of the bad experiences I have had (with people) that I have never gotten my son involved with any sort of formal training/horseshow activities. I've taught him to ride by giving him many hours in the saddle on good horses and just the occasional pointer from me or a friend. Very different from the way I was taught to ride. My son does not have either the anxiety I always had or perhaps the "correct" form I was taught (see the photos in my last post). But he is a confident, happy rider with a good seat. And that's enough for me.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

There are some odd and egocentric people about. I've been taught by some very loud and pushy instructors including one lady so large that surely she could not ride! There are a few good quiet instructors too. We have one locally, a retired jockey in fact. he is brilliant at instilling confidence and good technique.

The weirdest and least pleasant people seem to be the barn owners and managers though. The less competent they are, the worst behaved and least tolerant of anyone successful or knowledgeable. In such barns the worst is brought out of riders.

I've been fortunate to find a barn that is run in a friendly and tolerably competent way, where the boarders are civilised. I know how lucky I am in this.

Alison said...

Such an interesting array of icky horse people! My question is why do horses attract such brutes? Is it because they feel they can 'push' horses and kids around?

I have been lucky enough to avoid them and my tolerance for brutish people is zero, which is one reason why. Francesca, you must be a saint to have endured as long as you did and I am glad you found your 'angel' instructor.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: I think your son looks great on Henry, he looks like a natural rider, which is all that's needed unless he wants to get into something more formal later, such as dressage!

I didn't think I'd be the only one to have had bad experiences with trainers, I've heard so many stories, and witnessed such abusive or arrogant behaviour around here that I doubted it was limited to Switzerland and France. I've riddden in England, too, and remember teachers not being the most smiley people on the planet, but at least they weren't rude to you!

I'm a little envious of you feeling strong enough to tackle any horse issues on your own; I guess it's a confidence thing, and that comes with character. Good for you, Laura!

Francesca Prescott said...

White Horse Pilgrim: it's true that the grumpiest people in the business tend to be the barn/yard owners! I wonder what makes them that way? Private yards are a little better, although I know a place where you're not allowed to speak to the owner unless she speaks to you first!!! Seriously!! That is really weird, don't you think?!

Francesca Prescott said...

Alison: I have no idea why horses attract such brutes. I've often wondered whether the grumpiest yard owners aren't frustrated horsemen who had high hopes to make it on the national or international circuit, but never actually did.

And I'm no saint, that's for sure. I'm just not very good at sticking up for myself, although I'm getting better with age. It's an on-going struggle!

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--I have to admit--it was the years I spent riding with and for (as an assistant trainer) these grouchy horse people that gave me the skills to train my own horses. I did learn a lot from them. And I rode for a couple of guys who were not jerks. I don't train horses any more. I don't want to work that hard! These days I use what skill I have to select horses that will be easy to get along with (see my post on Henry), and just enjoy relaxed rides--whether in the arena or on the trail. Works for me.