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

This week, “The Instructor” offers some tips on convincing students to ride appropriate mounts.

From “The Instructor:”

A Tale of Two Ponies

In my experience, riding-school horses fall along a spectrum. At one is end is the ironically-named Lightning and at the other is Dragonbreath.

Lightning is nothing short of a saint.  Her four inch long, once-dappled coat has now grayed out to what would be snow white, if she didn’t have a predilection for sleeping in warm pee spots,  but is, realistically, off-white at best and an alarming yellow at worst.  She is probably a pony.  She is older than God (by which I mean George Morris) and knows twice as much about teaching kids to ride.  She will only trot under two circumstances: if a child becomes bold enough to use his entire arm, jockey style, to thwack her a good one, or if an ever-suffering instructor runs along with her.  My particular Lightning does not even require that I take a hold of her bridle; she only asks that I work as hard as she does, happily jogging around the ring after me until I am sweating and out of breath and about to beg for mercy.  She, mind you, is not in similar circumstances, but my inability to jog more than three circuits of the ring gives her clearance to return to a plodding walk, as the small child atop her ineffectually flails his legs and timidly strokes her with a crop, ever hopeful he might be able to inspire some enthusiasm in the old soul.

Dragonbreath is another story altogether.  She is–almost always–very pretty.  She might be a pony too, but she’s the dappled grey Breyer model–no rolling around in waste for her.  She likely has a failed show ring career behind her; the fact that she’s too hot or has no changes or has a miniscule stride that prevents her from making the distances or has some little hinky problem a conservative vet wouldn’t pass has led her to her current reduced circumstances as a riding school drudge.  But, like Cinderella, she has not forgotten that she once had a better life and clearly spends every day just waiting for her Fairy Godmother to restore her former glory.  Unlike Cinderella, however, DB is not content to serve patiently until her prince arrives.  Oh, no.  All must be exactly to her liking.  Child losing her balance?  Panic attack.  That gelding she despises daring to enter the ring?  This means war!  A car drives by? Merciful heavens!  Don’t even mention the UPS truck.  If the stars do align, however, and you put the right child on her back, she’s a doll: forward and capable of jumping more than a crossrail.

The fact that our school horses fall on a continuum creates a couple of dilemmas:

  • What to do when the kids don’t want to ride Lightning anymore, but should, for the time being, stay put.  I have several students who look at DB with such yearning, but all I can see is a vision of their unconscious future selves being loaded into an ambulance.
  • What to do when they won’t get off Lightning.  One of my girls has no business sitting on that pony–her legs hang to the ground–but mention moving onto one of the other schoolies and it’s like you’ve suggested using her security blanket to start a campfire.

While no one strategy will work with all students, I’ve found some that are generally successful.

For the over-eager:

  • I try to find ways to make riding Lightning more of a challenge.  Think she’s easy?  Try steering her through cones with one hand on your head.  Drop your stirrups.  Have an egg and spoon race.  Let’s take off that saddle and learn to ride bareback.
  • If DB lunges well, I let them try her on the lunge with the vaulting surcingle.  It’s very hard to fall off when you have handles and, with no reins and no stirrups, the student is unlikely is accidentally offend the pony.

For the shrinking violet:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare the rider.  That timid student will need to start thinking about another horse well before you make the change.  Stop at the new horse’s stall after her ride and feed her peppermints.  Tell some stories about how great she is.  Drop some tidbits into lesson conversation about the importance of riding other horses.  Plant that seed well before you plan to harvest it.
  • Then prepare, prepare, prepare the horse.  The worst thing that can happen is that the new horse is naughty on the first ride.  So have a more experienced kid ride the horse first.  Back off what the student can comfortably do in a first ride: go back to the lunge for the less experienced, modify approaches for the more experienced.  I recently switched a more advanced kid to a new horse.  Instead of cantering in a group, she cantered by herself; instead of jumping a course, we stuck to gymnastics.  She’s now totally, completely in love.

Above all, for both the timid and the bold, it’s important that the instructor doesn’t run down or overpraise any of the schoolies. Give them credit for their wonderful qualities and what they have to teach.  Try to get the students to see the ponies as instructors themselves; we move from one grade to the next, but that doesn’t mean our kindergarten teacher is less worthy than our AP English teacher.  Just different.

What have you found works in these situations?

Illustration: Wylie, age 10

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