The Riding School: A column about the people who teach us how to ride

Big Name Trainers are great, but you couldn’t pay George Morris enough money to stand in the middle of a ring and chant, “Up, down. Up, down.” The real heroes of our sport are the overworked, under-appreciated local riding instructors who are tasked with the job of teaching “the rest of us” how to ride. The riding school is the bread and butter of the equine community, and yet it gets very little attention–until now. This new bi-weekly column, penned by “The Instructor,”  is dedicated to the perils, pleasures and practical considerations of the local riding school instructor.

From “The Instructor:”

Lately, I feel like every other word out of my mouth is, “No.”

Let me explain. After taking a break as a riding instructor to focus on my personal life (married – check!), my non-equine professional life (urban high school English teacher – check!) , and my competitive life (homebred brought from birth to solid training level eventer – check!), I decided that I missed my Zen chants of “up, down, up, down, up, down” and started a second job as a two day a week instructor at a local lesson barn. It’s a great place, the kind of barn I grew up at: affordable, easy-going, with a string of solid citizen schoolies.

But… my predecessor did not, shall we say, pay a ton of attention to detail. So as I adjust my students to my teaching style and safety priorities, it seems to be all about NO.

“No, you can’t wear tennis shoes for lessons. Or Tom’s. Or sandals. Yes, I can see that they have a half inch heel, but that still doesn’t make them appropriate for riding.”

“No, you have to wear a helmet. Yes, I saw ‘Buck;’ I know he doesn’t wear one. But Mr. Brannaman isn’t paying my liability insurance.”

“No, not the canter. Posting trot, please.”

“No, you can’t gallop. How about we work on posting the trot first?”

“No, we’re not jumping yet. Still working on that posting trot….”

“No, you can’t ride [insert name of fire-breathing, but very pretty, advanced school horse here]. How about Lightning (in case you haven’t guessed, the name’s ironic) instead?”

“No, don’t throw the crop in the air when you don’t want to hold it anymore.”

“No, don’t just let go of the pony’s reins when your lesson’s over.”

Which started me thinking: How do we balance the knowledgeable instructor’s desire to have students do it, whatever it is, right with the student’s desire to have fun? Because when we get right down to it, most of the people who sign up for lessons at the local riding school don’t have their sights set on the Olympics, or even the schooling show down the road; they like horses and want to have some fun with them. The serious horseman’s credo of “perfect practice makes perfect” doesn’t really work with folks whose long-term riding aspirations don’t go a lot further than keeping the horse on the rail and trotting. But we local instructors have to keep in mind that we are laying down the groundwork for our next generation of horsepeople and they need to possess an understanding of what good horsemanship is.

So, here are a few of the things I try to keep in mind when I’m (frequently) saying no:

  • Be nice. Sometimes the students might want to make you tear your hair out, but they aren’t doing it to spite you. And while the fear provoked by many of the Pony Club drill sergeants of our youth may have kept us in line, pedagogical research tells us that the most important factor in learning is a positive, supportive relationship between teacher and student, especially when dealing with the less pony mad child.
  • Always explain. I’ve developed a nice demonstration about the value of the ASTM-approved helmet, showing the Styrofoam liner and, for the adults, sprinkling in a few statistics about head injuries. And for those moments, when, as in the crop or reins examples above, a student does something that would send a normal horse through the roof, but just causes a sainted schoolie to roll its eyes, I don’t just say that we don’t do this because “it scares the horses”; the student’s own experience has told him that that isn’t true. Instead, I explain that Lightning is a very calm horse, but that I want to teach them to be able to ride all horses, even something like [insert name of fire-breathing, but very pretty, advanced school horse, hereafter to be referred to as Dragonbreath], who would definitely not be happy with a projectile crop launched in her vicinity. You can develop this with a little explanation of equine psychology; students don’t naturally understand that something so big is really just a big scaredy cat.
  • Set clear, achievable, measurable goals to progress further. For example, “You can canter when you can post the trot once around the ring without stirrups.” Then coach the students towards those goals; it puts you in the position of bringing them forward, rather than being the one holding them back. And you can be creative in how you meet your end of the bargain: cantering on the lunge with a vaulting surcingle is safe for almost any rider. Or, instead of trot poles, set a tiny crossrail in the standards. To you, it’s a trot pole, but by school recess tomorrow, it will be a minimum of 3’6” to them. With smaller children, using their age can be a help. One of my best and youngest students often muses, “When I’m seven (or 8 or 10 or 15 or, in my favorite instance, ‘when I’m in college’), do you think I’ll be able to canter?”

It can be very easy, as a local instructor, to either be too strict (“I only want to teach people who want to learn”) or too relaxed (“Well, this one’s never going to be serious, so why bother making him put his heels down?”), but we need to find the balance between the two to keep as many people involved in riding as we can, without sacrificing the well-being of our students or our horses. So while the word “no” has a permanent and well-deserved place in the riding instructor’s vocabulary, softening its impact goes a long way towards keeping everyone happy, healthy, and focused on mastering, yes,  that pesky posting trot.

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