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

This week, The Riding Instructor offers some tips for helping students work their way through steep learning curves without frustration.

From the Riding Instructor:

A month or so ago, I had a student who was having a bit of a tough ride.  Her pony was pulling and being a little naughty, but not the slightest bit dangerous – just challenging a rider who kept losing her stirrups and not keeping it all together.  After a (somewhat) big jump, the rider pulled up and got off the pony without a word.  It took all my persuasion to get her back on the pony to jump a final fence – and she hasn’t been back to ride since.  She was unable to overcome one of the most difficult obstacles developing riders face: frustration.

Riding is a frustrating sport.  Unlike many other athletic activities, riding requires the co-operation of a large, not exceptionally intelligent animal.  Riders must be part equine psychologist, part athlete, able to figure out how to communicate their desires through their body to their mount.  This doesn’t always work well.  Horses, especially lesson ponies, are very skilled at tuning their riders out and making their job a challenge.  Add in the factor that most lesson riders have, shall we say, a more romantic vision of their relationship to the horse than is realistic and you have a recipe for disaster.  Moreover, riding is a sport of plateaus; the learning curve rises steeply and then levels, then, as the rider transitions toward more advanced work such as cantering and jumping, rises steeply again.  To get better, the rider must be able to work through those difficult moments when the horse won’t listen to them or when they take a tumble.

So how do we, as instructors, help our students through those steep learning curves and keep them riding on the other side?

  • From day one, we must reward and encourage persistence, praising our students for working through something difficult and meeting goals that we set together: trotting three times around the ring without stopping, riding a round circle, achieving a prompt, correct canter depart.  The more riders see their sport as something that isn’t always perfect on the first try, the better prepared they are to cope when things don’t go well.
  • We need to always have high (though realistic) expectations and consistently hold our students to them.  One of the issues the rider mentioned above had was a previous instructor who never pushed her students to move forward or set goals for improvement.  Without a history of reaching high, she was ill-equipped to push herself when things got a little more difficult.
  • We need to use the principle of scaffolding: building a framework in which a student can achieve success.  We need to take our knowledge of the riders and their horses to break down tasks so that riders can achieve something challenging without hitting that wall.  This might mean trotting into a line and cantering out instead of cantering in or using placement poles to help the horse get to the right distance or alternating sitting and posting trot without stirrups.  We need to make every effort not to present riders with something that is too difficult, but not lower expectations either.

So the first student I mentioned was one of my failures; I want to finish by talking about one of my successes.  This student is currently on a steep learning curve, jumping 2’3” courses at home and going to her first away shows over crossrails.  The horse she rides is a little spooky and some “red chairs of death” placed at the end of the ring during a recent barn show caused him to spook and stop, sending her off the side two times in rapid succession.  Rather than give up or get upset, she hopped right back on and just decided not to fall off again.  The attitude of persistence we have cultivated in lessons culminated in a great second round and a real sense of achievement in what she managed to get this more difficult horse to do.  It might not have won her a blue ribbon, but, in my book, it provided a much more important lesson about what success really means.

Top photo: Amy Hubbard

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