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

There are students who like horses, and there are students who love/eat/sleep/breathe horses. Is it possible to accommodate both?

From The Riding Instructor:

I am, as, I think, all good riding instructors are, a bit of a horse fanatic. I’m in my forties with a barn full of horses and yet I still wanted to pet the carriage horses when I was in New York last week. I’ll read almost any book with a horse in it, fiction or non-fiction; my DVR is on permanent search for anything with “equestrian” anywhere in the title; more than once, I’ve almost been in a car accident because I was craning my head to see a horse or, even just the possibility of a horse, behind someone’s house. I truly wish they had “Horse Trivia” night at my nearby bar, because I would kick some a**. I love the smell of barn and would wear riding clothes pretty much all the time if my husband and “real job” co-workers wouldn’t object. (Bless his heart, my husband tries to be diplomatic when I ask his opinion on my new Ariat breeches: “It’s not you, exactly. I just don’t think those are really flattering on anyone… [quickly recovers] but for breeches, they’re pretty good.”) And I love to learn: I still take lessons, go to clinics, read books and articles, participate in bulletin boards. I was delighted this morning when my lunch break coincided with the last minute of Alison Springer’s beautiful Rolex dressage test, streaming live online into my classroom computer (high school student response, seeing this on coming in from lunch: “Watching horse videos online again, Miss?”)

But my students, not always so much. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of super horse crazy kids and adults running around, feeding their obsession. While I sympathized for the parents whose daughter would hide somewhere in the barn when they came to pick her up, secretly, I was on her side. But the bread and butter of the riding school is the weekly lesson kid and they don’t universally adore all things horsey and desperately want to improve their skills so that someday, maybe someday, it could be them riding down centerline at Rolex (Can you tell I still have dreams?). Sure, they like horses. It’s fun to trot around, jump a crossrail. But they don’t understand the deep-seated desire to ensure that every shaving has been removed from the tail or the quest to be able to name every single part of the horse. And manure is gross. And riding without stirrups is hard.

This realization was difficult for me; most people become teachers because they passionately love their subject and the recognition that others don’t feel the same can be heartbreaking – just ask me how I felt when I realized other people didn’t love books the way I do. But I came to terms with it after taking guitar lessons with a terrific instructor. I felt about the guitar the way some of my students feel about riding: I wanted to learn to play, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do every moment of every day. He respected that and met me on my terms.

So when I’m working with my riding students, I differentiate instruction. I want everyone to get a good, solid foundation so that if, later in life, they discover Rolex dreams, they have some of the tools to get there. But I don’t expect all my students to have the drive and passion I do. I concentrate on keeping students in what education folks call “the zone of proximal development”: providing assistance and scaffolding necessary for a student to successfully complete a task she might not be able to figure out on her own. So for one student, the one who can’t wait to do more, I draw a figure 8 and have her ride it, giving advice as she goes – she’s got the passion to try again if it doesn’t go well, plus, she probably read about figure 8s in her pony books. For another, one who might give up if she didn’t get it right the first time, I demonstrate it on foot, then have her walk through it, then trot. I have them teach each other (“What are three things we could do if we get too close to another horse?”). And for everyone, I spend a lot of time emphasizing the life skills that riding fosters. All my students, even the five- and six-year-olds, know what “persistent” means and that I prize it. I will never forget listening to one of my little ones, engaged in a serious battle with Lightning about whether they were or were not going to trot on the rail, telling the pony, “You are being persistent, but I am more persistent than you are!” Even if that little girl gives up riding, she’s still learned something of value. Or maybe, like me, she’ll remain a little horse crazy.

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