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

Up this week: the camp instructor’s “secret weapon” for educating and entertaining.

From The Instructor:

As Wylie pointed out last week, summer camp time is on us again and we instructors are scrambling to plan our days and think of new ways to teach the children while keeping them engaged and entertained… without, perhaps, resorting to what one of my beloved counselors once did when we had already mastered parts of the horse and the tack. Here’s the dinner table conversation as I remember it from that night:

Non-horsey parent: “So, what did you learn in camp today?”

My eight-year-old self: “I learned how to clean a horse’s sheath.”

Non-horsey parent, not really listening: “Really, dear? What is that and how do you do it?”

Me, with relish: “Well, you stick your hand all the way up….”

(An important job, sheath-cleaning, but maybe not for the eight-year-old campers…)

So let me share with you my secret weapon, the very best $100 investment that you will ever make in stocking your instructor’s toolkit: the vaulting surcingle.

If you’ve never seen one, it’s basically a lunging surcingle with handles on top and it’s the single best teaching tool I have. That’s not because I’m training my students up to be future Devon Maitozos (I don’t even really know the rules of competitive vaulting), but because a little vaulting can really help students develop confidence – and secure, independent seats – while being very low impact on the school horses.

Here’s why:

* Students can develop a sense for all of the gaits long before they would be comfortable doing them on their own. You can pretty much let anyone with reasonable balance canter on the lunge with a vaulting surcingle the first time they sit on a horse. Without stirrups, riders can’t push themselves away from the saddle; the handles keep them sitting up and give them security. And since they aren’t steering or desperately clutching on the horse’s mouth for balance, the horses rarely get offended or angry and tend to canter like little angels.

* Once you’ve ensured that your chosen vaulting horse is tolerant of children clambering around up there, you can teach some of the basic positions of vaulting: the kneel (rider upright on her knees, arms to the side), the flag (kneeling position, opposite arm and leg extended towards the head and tail respectively, holding the handles with the other), around the world (we all know this one) and the stand. Just standing up at the walk is really challenging for a student, but little to no stress for the horse. Physical stress, anyway!

* Kids can ride together, which they love to do, but which I feel is a little risky when they have to steer as well, since so much can go wrong.

* They love watching each other and cheering each other on.

A few tips:

* Be sure your chosen horse is tolerant and patient before you put children up on him and keep your eyes open for any signs of grumpiness as they work. Almost all school horses that lunge well will happily trot and canter with the surcingle, but not all love the standing up, etc.

* No riding boots on the horse’s back. I ask camp kids to bring tennis shoes, but have also just taken a kid’s boots off once she is up on the horse and put them back on before she gets off.

* Competitive vaulters don’t wear helmet, but my students ALWAYS do – it’s about the habit more than any actual danger.

* The most inexpensive and commonly available vaulting surcingle is a little big for ponies; I took mine to the shoe repair and had the straps moved so it fits all sizes.

So if you are looking for something new to spice up the life of camp, invest in a surcingle and watch the campers’ confidence soar. And you won’t have to have the uncomfortable conversations with parents that come after, say, introducing sheath-cleaning as an activity.

For more information about vaulting, check out the American Vaulting Association’s website – they have helpful videos that can get you started, as well as other resources.

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