Editorial: How Do You Put On Fly Spray?

“Such a small thing — how one applies fly spray. And here was my student, who had never had a lesson a day in her life prior to coming to my barn, silently demonstrating to me a better method than the one I was using.”

Flickr/Mark Hesseltine/CC

After a few inquiries from friends and acquaintances, I finally took the plunge, purchased the insurance (expensive, but it would be far more expensive not to have it) and hung up my shingle as a riding instructor yet again. It had been a few years since I last had students, working full time as a collegiate coach and instructor at a private university, and while I didn’t miss the hours or the steady grind or the slow sensation of losing my passion for horses, I did miss having a few students, watching them improve and thrive and learn.

My three current students are a fascinating range of experiences and skill sets: a six-year-old veritable blank slate with zero horse experience, a five-year-old growing up in her family’s expansive draft horse barn who has great natural sense around the horses and a newly-minted high school graduate who has been a lifelong horse owner and is currently my “working student,” trading chores and help at our draft events for driving lessons.

Those who love to learn love to teach; there’s also the less generous saying that those who can, do, and those who cannot, teach. I prefer to live my teaching life by the former — there’s so much to learn from the act of teaching another that can only improve my own riding and horsemanship.

During a recent evening lesson with the five-year-old, she peered up at me from beneath the brim of her new Troxel. “Why don’t YOU wear your helmet in the barn?” she asked me, half innocently, half accusatory.

Now, I always wear a helmet when I ride, but admittedly, I’m more lax about keeping it on while working around the horses in the barn — despite my enforcement of that rule for my young students. I could have tried to explain to her the double standard, that I was old enough to not have to wear my helmet in the barn, but it already sounded false in my head. “You’re right,” I replied, ducking into the tackroom to grab my hat. “I should be wearing mine too.” Out of the mouths of babes.

On a warm afternoon a few weeks ago, my working student, freshly-returned from a post-graduation trip to Germany, was hanging around the barn with me while I tacked up my horse for a lesson with my trainer. I thought my student would enjoy getting to see me in the hot seat for once; though she was in my barn to work with my drafts she was a recreational rider under her mother’s rough guidance (in the “don’t fall off” school) and she is absolutely a sponge when it comes to all things equestrian. She was also currently grooming and tacking a horse for my trainer to ride out to the pasture to demonstrate the skills we’d be going over that day.

“Can you fly spray these guys, please?” I asked her in passing, sorting through bridles in the tack room and rearranging reins. I came back out to the barn to find my student spraying down the horses in a slow, controlled motion that had never occurred to me to try before.

Fly spraying is fly spraying, you might be thinking to yourself, and sure, as long as the spray gets on the horse in the end I guess that’s all that matters. It’s a little thing, a minor detail perhaps in the grand scheme of horsemanship, but I was a constant spritzer when it came to applying fly spray: I would spray a few puffs up and down the legs, the neck, the chest, barrel and haunches and if I wasn’t paying attention the horse might have big blotches where it went on a bit heavy. It was never the most even application in the world, but it did the trick.

Here was my student, applying spray in a way that could be described as graceful: as she pulled the trigger, she swept her arm down the leg, down the neck, across the haunches, wherever she was, and the spray would be applied evenly, covering more of the horse than I ever accomplished in one squirt. Even better, the horses stood quietly — well, the Thoroughbred always stood quietly, but our ancient old trail horse would embarrassingly dance all over the barn while I rolled my eyes and continued to chase him about with the bottle.

Such a small thing — how one applies fly spray. And here was my student, who had never had a lesson a day in her life prior to coming to my barn, silently demonstrating to me a better method than the one I was using. I was humbled in that moment, reminded that none of us have “the best way ” to do anything, and that every moment around horses could be a learning experience if only we opened our eyes to see.

I put on fly spray a little bit differently now. And every time I pick up the bottle, I remember to keep an open mind: everyone has something to teach you.

Go riding!

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