By Laurel van der Linde
You’ve been thinking about this for a while. The timing is right. Carpe Diem. You have made the decision that you and/or one of your kids is going to get into (or back into) learning how to ride. Congratulations! Working with horses is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. Not only is it a great form of exercise, you will also find that you can develop a unique relationship or chemistry with this animal that is unlike that of any other species – when done correctly. And there’s the rub: when done correctly. It’s a lot easier and safer for everyone and far more cost-effective to learn it right the first time. So, how do you know you have found the right instructor for you and/or your kids?
Good teaching requires patience, perception, discipline, psychology, philosophy, intuition and a high level of communication skills and creativity. It must also be “individualized,” as no two students (or horses) are alike. Augment all of these qualities to the second power if you are looking for a riding teacher for a child. The instructor must also earn the rider’s trust. Face it, you are going to be working with a large, 1,000-plus pound animal and you must be able to put your confidence in your teacher at all times. You want your teacher to encourage you to do new things, not bully you into it. In order to be successful in this endeavor, the two of you must “click.”
Riding instruction elevates all of these requirements to a new level, as it is not just you who is involved here; the horse must be taken into consideration, as well. You are not learning how to operate an inanimate object, a car, a bike, a boat. You are learning how to work in cooperation with a living, breathing, thinking, feeling animal that has its own personality and, yes, opinion about what it does and is being asked to do. (Repeat: being asked to do.) This cannot be stressed enough; horses are not stupid animals. If they were, we would not be able to train them and they certainly would not be able to remember that training down the road. Do not underestimate them, as it is equally important that you “click” with your horse, because he or she will be your true teacher here. The instructor in the arena is the guide on the side.
So, how to find the correct combination of riding instructor and equine professor? First, evaluate your immediate and long-term goals. Are you riding “just for fun?” Good for you. The majority of folks on horseback are recreational riders. Are you content to ride school or rental horses? Do you think you might want to own your own horse?
Then, which discipline will best suit your purpose – Western or English? Under these headings are many sub-headings. For example, in the Western category, you have trail riding, cutting, roping, barrel racing and reining, to name a few. Under English you have hack, hunter, jumper, saddle seat and dressage. What? You don’t just throw a saddle on a horse and simply go? Hmm, no. But before you panic, wondering which way to jump, you want to focus on the one riding application that is the foundation of all riding disciplines and can, therefore, be unilaterally applied. For want of a better term, we’ll call it foundation training.
The premise of foundation riding is that you stay on the horse by balance, not by grip. (Due deference paid here to Sally Swift and her brilliant book, “Centered Riding.”) It is only common (horse) sense, as there is simply no way you can out-muscle a half ton of animal. You want to leverage the weight. This will involve the application of your secondary aids such as your seat, legs and hands, but most importantly, you will leverage both the horse’s weight and yours by working from your core and – sit down for this one – by controlling the way you breathe. Breath control is essential; our human physiognomy dictates that our muscles cannot function properly without oxygen. Your oxygen level will also determine how relaxed your body is. Horses are very sensitive and if there is tension in your body, they will pick up on it immediately. While some horses can handle a nervous rider readily enough, it can be anxiety-provoking in an insecure animal. Remember, this is supposed to be fun for both you and your mount. So, when you are trying out riding instructors, make sure you leave with a positive feeling of accomplishment, a “good” type of tired, and a few sore muscles you never knew you had.
Shop around for a good riding instructor. If you have some horse-y friends, ask them where they ride, and if you don’t have anyone who can offer a recommendation, canvas equine publications at your local feed and tack stores, as well as the internet. A word of caution: Unlike our European counterparts, riding instructors and trainers do not have to be licensed. Anyone can hang out a shingle and declare themselves a “trainer.” You should be able to observe a lesson to get a “feel” for the barn and the manner in which that person works with both the rider and the horse. Is this a class or a private lesson? Which do you think will be better for you? Is the instructor in the arena “hands on,” actively working with the student(s), or sitting outside the ring calling the shots? Both methods are acceptable depending on the level of the rider(s), but which one makes you feel the most comfortable? And safety first. Riding helmets and proper foot gear are requisites.
Are you being taught how to groom the horse and tack up, in addition to how to ride, or is the horse waiting for you at the in-gate? Is the tack (saddles, saddle pads and bridles) in good condition? Is the horse also given protective gear such as splint boots and bell boots? What is the demeanor of the lesson horse(s)? Some may argue this next point, but at no time should the instructor’s cell phone be present during your lesson. The focus must be on you 100 percent of the time. You are paying good money for undivided attention. The call can wait.
Of course, horsemanship is a deep subject. Volumes have been written and will continue to be. Take advantage of the material available to you in books, equine magazines, such as Practical Horseman, Equus, Dressage Today, and instructional videos on YouTube and various websites. Understand, you will never “know everything” about horses, and that’s part of the fun of it. Continue to educate yourself and enjoy the journey.