Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Riding Lessons

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?


Mel said...

I partially agree with you. I learned to ride by riding. Most of the time bareback. If it worked, I stayed on, when it didn't, I didn't. I had a good friend who was a good rider. Sometimes she would offer suggestions like you give your son, but most of the time she just let me figure it out.

It worked. I felt confident to deal with most situations, I had a solid seat, good hands, and my horses didn't hate me. I knew how to get out of my horse's way and let it do it's job.

However, now in my mid 20's I've decided to take formal riding lessons - dressage. Yes I know how to ride the gaits, stop, turn, go. But I don't know how to tell the horse to travel more efficiently or effectively. I don't know how to do lateral stuff, although I've played around. My horse has an awful canter because she's not built for it naturually and she needs some help in getting her hind end under her. I didn't know how to help her. So I took lessons and it's been amazing. I have a trainer who focuses on my horse not my position, and occasionally makes suggestions about my position and voila! my riding ability and my confidence in it has improved dramactically. My trainer also tends to make general comments such as - your right leg tends to come forward and your right arm is straight. This is useful because then I can "watch" for this and correct it. Because of my background of riding, I have enough feel to recognize when it's happening if I know I should watch for it. What she doens't do is say "put your leg back!" or "bend your arm!".

I wouldn't ahve my riding experience be any other way than what it was. I have family members who were lesson intensive in the beggining and were rarely just allowed to "ride". Their riding is Prettier and more correct at this point, but I feel something lacking there that is only gotten through experience, hours in the saddle, and experimentation.

Just my 2 cents.

OneDandyHorse said...

Totally agree with Boots and Saddles 4 Mel! I learned to ride on some sort of Halflinger cross. My friend who owned the horse was a pretty good rider, tought me basics, legs to go, turn and such, but the rest came from me... I learned all that I know from what I have experienced. A lot like Mel explained! My friend would occasionally give me tips on posting the trot, etc. I learned to canter while turning bareback! We were mostly left on our own to ride. I had a solid seat, could hardly be unseated... today, I've gained a little weight and am no longer so secure, but I'm working on it! All the while trying to train my mare to be the best.

Laura Crum said...

Boots and Saddles and One Dandy Horse--I have taken many, many lessons in my life, and I will be the first to admit that (particularly as an adult), I learned a lot from riding with various trainers. And some stuff I then needed to unlearn. In the end I feel that I've learned the most from unstructured time horseback, where I've been free to sort out what works for me. I won't say that this will always lead to winning in the show ring. For me, its been a path to being happy with my horses and feeling that they are happy, too. If my son ever wishes to excel in some competitive event, I do believe that formal instruction is inevitable. And if he chooses to go that route, it will be fine with me. I'll support his interest every step of the way and be his biggest fan. Thanks for the insightful comments.

Mel said...

I'm not sure it matters, but FYI my chosen competitive event is endurance. I think endurance rewards the feel you get from "figuring it out", but I think some formal instruction to build on that is useful.

Laura Crum said...

Boots and Saddles--That's interesting. I never did endurance, though I love to ride the trails. I came to riding in a two pronged way. I spent lots of unstructured hours as a child riding the horses out at our family ranch, and I also (being a determined kid) took endless riding lessons. The lessons were not that much fun, but I believe they did teach me a lot about form. I'm not sure without the unstructured hours on horses for balance if I would have been able to sustain my love for riding. As an adult I took many formal lessons (reined cowhorse and cutting) before going to work as an assistant trainer (which was one big lesson). By the time I learned team roping, I was pretty burned out on formal instruction. My friends basically helped me...and I did a lot of figuring it out myself. I never was really competitive at anything other than a beginner I guess that tells you something. In the end, as I said, my approach works for me to create happiness in the way my horses and I relate. So far its working for my son, who rides pretty well for a nine-year-old, but who would not be competitive in any horseback discipline that I can think of. We'll see what the future holds.

Anonymous said...

I think much depends on the rider's situation. If you have unlimited access to a horse and a lot of time, the unstructured way can work. But as an instructor, I find most of my child riders are squishing riding between other activities. They don't own, and may never own, a horse. They get one hour a week for their experience, and they need formal instruction to help make the most of that time. If you intend to pursue a specific discipline and show, formal lessons are necessary to be competitive.

I also teach beginning adults, who, in addition to the limited time mentioned above, have also learned how to be afraid. I find many adults enjoy steady feedback, they want to know they are doing well, and they want to have an understanding of how and why something works. Most adults will listen to instruction and concepts, then get a big boost when the intuitive "feel" side kicks in for them, and they really get it!

All that said, I find that with children, the skill of figuring things out is lost! I often have to tell their parents to sit back and 'let them do it' - everything from using a hose without soaking their feet to figuring out a buckle. Many people are in too much of a hurry and would rather take something out of a child's hands (because they can do it faster!) than allow them to learn to help themselves. As a result, so many children don't try, they simply hold something out to an adult for help, right away. I am always saying, "Take a good look at it - how do you think you would (untie it, put it on, get around or across it, etc.)?" And given a moment to think, they DO know the answer!

I think helping children become confident and independent thinkers is just as important as the other skills they need for riding, and those can and should be taught in formal lessons, too.

gillian said...

I believe thats how the cavalry folks did it. Roughly, anyway. They just kept people on the lunge, no stirrups no reins, until they figured it out, and then started adding more things. They turned out excellent riders (obviously) but it took some time.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--I certainly agree with you about kids having no time and no space in their lives to figure anything out for themselves--let alone enjoy what they're interested in. That's the biggest problem, in my opinion. Obviously my son is lucky to have a horse, and to be homeschooled, so that he has time to enjoy riding that horse and learn in an unstructured way. His horse has been an incredibly good teacher--much better than I am.

And Gillian--yes, I think the big downside to my method is it takes longer, and requires more constant interaction with horses, as Anon pointed out. It won't work out that well if you are taking a one hour "lesson" once a week. Thus, as I began by saying, I no longer give "riding lessons".