2009 Talk at Centered Riding Educational Symposium

Gincy presented this talk at Centered Riding’s 14th Annual Educational Symposium, November 7, 2009 at the Putney Inn, Putney, Vermont.

Good morning. Nice to see you all. I hope I didn’t get you up too early!

Well.  We all do it.  When we’re giving a lesson, we tend to focus on the student, what she’s doing, how she’s reacting, and try to make it better.

We also, of course, also notice what the horse is doing, especially if he is really trying to get our attention! But rather than trying to make that better- to help him to perform the task- we are more likely to shrug his ‘bad’ behavior off, or get annoyed with him, or do something to correct him that really doesn’t help him.

But there are some very good reasons not to do this, beyond caring about your horses. Which I’m sure you do.

Safety is the first-uncomfortable horses show their discomfort sometimes rather drastically!

Rider Confidence– the rider knows that things are not working, senses the horse’s tension and resistance, feels incompetent -and is!

And SoundnessIf you don’t put your horse’s needs first, if you don’t make every effort to keep him comfortable, no matter how good a guy he is, it’s going to mean trouble for you in the long run.  And in fact, the more patient and forgiving the horse, the more damage he is likely to have to absorb if we don’t take care of him.

Which shortens his useful life and, even if you didn’t care about your horses (and why in the name of heaven would you do this if you didn’t?) it costs you money. In vet bills, and purchasing replacements, etc. etc.

The Horse is the Teacher

But let’s think about the teaching benefits of listening to your horse. The horse is the one that teaches. The horse is the one that teaches!  [pause]

He is the real instructor.  You and I are the interpreters!  In the beginning, the novice doesn’t understand what the horse is saying, but you do, and you can interpret his responses to the rider.

Pat Parelli put it quite well when he said, “If the horse says no, you’re either asking the wrong question, or asking the question wrong.”  It’s up to us as instructors not to allow our students to keep asking the wrong questions over and over.

Another way to think about it is, if the horse is not happy, that is, if he is tense or disobedient, even passively, he is telling you very clearly that what the student is doing is wrong.

The most important lesson I ever learned is this “What makes good riding correct is that it makes the desired task the easiest, most effective thing for the horse to do.”

You knew that, of course, but sometimes, when the horse is saying ‘I’m not doing what my rider wants because it’s not easy,” what we do about it is wrong too.  We put a stronger bit on the horse and we give him more ‘training’ so that if the beginner hauls on his mouth to make him stop or turn, he does so even though it’s a major-and damaging -effort for him to do so.

Why We Shouldn’t Let Beginners Ride Badly

We tell the beginner, whose balance is so poor that the horse is straining to maintain the gait,  that she should use the stick harder to make him keep going!   Are those things that really good riders do? No, of course not.

‘But,’ you say, ‘these are beginners. They can’t possibly ride like good riders. They have to practice all these things until they learn them.’

Of course they do need miles, but if you let them do things that are essentially wrong, and that the horse is telling you are wrong, just because they are beginners, what are they practicing??  They’re practicing their mistakes!! That’s right; practicing their mistakes!!

And that is the principal reason why it takes most people so long to learn to ride well, and why so many people never do learn to ride well!!

Think about it.  If  almost everything they do as beginners is wrong, they have to unlearn that before they can do it right,  and, as we know, it takes three times as long to unlearn something as it did to learn it in the first place.

‘But,’ you say, ‘how are they going to learn to ride if they don’t work on all these things?’ Do you know what? Every healthy, normal human being is born knowing how to ride!! You heard me-we’re all born knowing how to ride.  I’ve got to be kidding, right?  No, I’m not.

The Three Basics of Riding

Now, when I say ride, I’m talking about what I call the three basics.  Developing a good relationship with the horse.  That just means loving him and trying to please him, a skill we’re all born with.  Life may do things to us that affect that skill, but it’s still there, and horses can bring it out.

Being passive, sitting on the horse and following his body movements so that you are both comfortable. Which is what we call “having a good seat,” and which is the foundation on which all the other skills must be built.

Sally herself pointed out that if you put a very small child on a pony and lead her around, she has a naturally good seat.  And there is science behind this as well. Therapeutic riding is therapeutic primarily because the activity of the horse’s back under the rider’s seat  exactly duplicates the movements  that the rider’s own legs send  when she is on the ground.  Therefore, at least in theory, you don’t have to teach a person to have a good seat if she can walk normally.

And third, communicating with the horse. It may seem that we don’t have that innate skill, but I think we do.  Penelope Smith, the animal communicator, maintains that all children can communicate with animals, until they’re told that that can’t be true, and that they’re making it up, and shouldn’t tell lies!

Also, as Centered Riding instructors you all know about what I call ‘muscular telepathy’, the ability of our bodies to communicate with the horse’s body, and if you read my books you know that that means emotional communication as well.

So it’s all there, just waiting to be used!

Good Teaching is Like Good Training

Okay, how does this thinking affect the way we approach teaching? I think we should approach teaching in the same way that good trainers approach training good horses.

They don’t try to hurry the horse. They’re not looking for a ’30 day wonder!’  They look at his needs and his weaknesses,  take them into account, and, as slowly and carefully as necessary, build a solid foundation and build in such a way that the horse is secure and comfortable at each step. Even if, say,  the horse shows talent and courage as a jumper, they don’t start jumping him mounted until he is secure with the rider on the flat.

Now, what are the needs and weaknesses of the rider? Once we understand that the body knows how to ride, it becomes obvious that something must be getting in the way, preventing the body from doing its thing. And that ‘something’ is fear.

Understanding Fear

When Sally was talking about the very small child with a natural good seat, she also said “when she is too young to feel fear!”  Fear makes a person tense, and then her body does all the wrong things.  That makes riding even harder, and her body gets tenser, and all this very quickly becomes fixed in muscle memory.  So she spends the next ten years trying to unlearn what her body learned in the first couple of lessons!

Now, what exactly is your student afraid of? Basically, two things, which people like you and me, if you grew up with horses, never even think about.  The first is the horse himself! Sweet old Bucky, or Lady, whom you’ve had for years and who wouldn’t hurt a fly! You know that, and you tell the student that, but that doesn’t keep her from being afraid.  Fear is not logical, and doesn’t listen to reason. The student has to learn from careful, successful experience, that the horse won’t hurt her.

Just to give you an idea of how she feels, suppose it was you, but instead of it being a horse, it was a bear. A big bear.  A trained bear, with a leash and collar and muzzle, but a BIG bear! How comfortable would you be walking up to him, and patting him, or worse, being given the leash and told to take him for a walk!!!

And the second thing the student is afraid of, once she is way up there on the horse, is that she’s trapped up there, and if she tries to get down, might fall. Now that may sound unlikely to you, unless you climbed trees as a kid. It’s a lot easier climbing up than climbing down, and I remember being stuck up a tree once until my big brother helped me down.

And your body doesn’t distinguish between horses and trees. They’re both scary if you don’t know what you’re doing.

So that’s what novice riders are afraid of.  Now let’s talk a little about fear itself.

The Two Kinds of Fear

If you were here when I spoke a couple of years ago about fear, you know that there are many different kinds.  I’m not going to go into detail this morning, so to simplify it, let’s just say there is conscious fear, and unconscious fear.

Conscious fear is the person who is obviously scared, and says so, and needs encouragement to try the slightest things.  In many ways, this is the easiest person to teach to ride well.  She is more than willing to go slowly, and learn things correctly the first time.  In fact, if she isn’t doing things fairly correctly, she immediately feels insecure, and she doesn’t want to try them at all.

If you listen to her, and take her at her own speed, she may appear to progress slowly in the beginning, but in the end will become a good rider much sooner than the person who is allowed to hurry on to the ‘fun stuff’ before she is ready.

The other fear is unconscious, what you might call ‘body fear’. The timid rider has it as well, but the difference is that she recognizes it! The bold rider seems fearless, and is willing to try anything.

However, our bodies are very protective of their own safety, whether or not we are aware of it.  For example, I like the idea of sky diving.  It looks like a wonderful experience.  But I doubt very much if I could make my body step out of an airplane, no matter how much my conscious mind wanted to!

Or think of people on roller coasters.  Their bodies are frozen in fear, they are screaming and terrified.  Then the ride is over and what do they do?  They go back and do it again, because they are addicted to that adrenalin rush.  The fear doesn’t affect their conscious thinking, only their bodies.  So that fearless rider may feel good, but ride badly!

I call that the ‘roller coaster mentality’, and it’s fine with me for people to be that way. In   any   other   sport   but   riding!!!

Why? Because the roller coaster doesn’t care if your body is gripping and hanging on for all it’s worth, or thrashing around and screaming. But the horse does!! The horse cares!!

And that’s why you can’t allow your students to ride that way, no matter how badly they want to.

Selling the New Approach

I know a lot of you are thinking that that sounds pretty good, but how do you sell it? You sell it just like that. Put briefly, if you tell people, up front, how you teach, and why, and why the ‘learn to gallop in your second lesson’ system doesn’t work-putting it in print in a handout works very well-people who really want to learn to ride will want to ride with you.

You can even offer to give them one trial lesson, either free or ‘money back if not satisfied.’ And once they try it, if they’re the right kind of student they will stay with you, because they will feel successful, and they will appreciate that the horse is enjoying the lessons as much as they are.

If you’re an ARIA member, my column in the next issue is on just this topic, and after publication it will be on my website as well.

I’ve also had instructors tell me that their more experienced incoming students think that learning the basics is boring.  That’s at least partly because most stables have their least experienced, and often immature, instructors teach the beginners.  And generally those instructors are not very good teachers yet, and also don’t have much of a fund of knowledge to draw on, so their lessons tend to be repetitive and, yes, boring.

But let’s take another subject, like math.  A lot of people think that math is boring, but if you’ve ever had a really good math teacher, math becomes a game, and is a lot of fun.

Boring math is a teacher who doesn’t know how to explain the basic concepts so that you can understand them, or explain why you need to understand them, so the average student gets lost, doesn’t understand what she’s doing or why, and of course is bored, and also discouraged.

If you think riding basics are boring, try writing down everything you know about working with the horse on the ground, and why you do it that way, and how it affects the horse and your relationship.  You’ll find that it’s far more material than you can cover in one lesson, since after all, you learned it over many years!  And it’s also pretty interesting.

Now, if you try to teach it all in one lesson, it’s going to be just like that boring math class. The student will get lost and confused, and shut down.  But if you take it slowly, teaching only what the student needs to know for that one lesson and making sure she gets it, and especially, if you the instructor are interested in what you are teaching, the student will enjoy it as well.

I have an introductory ground work lesson that I use with new, experienced students, whom you would think the most likely to be bored.  I begin by saying, “Of course, you’re experienced, and you probably know most or all of this, but there is such an enormous amount to know about horses, and I have no way of knowing what you know and what you don’t know.  So I’m going to go over the things that I think it’s essential to know.”

Then I go through the routine of approaching the horse, and safety and all that, and almost invariably, at some point in the lesson, the student, no matter how experienced, says, “Gee, I didn’t know that!” or “I never thought about it that way!”

I also have a fund of little stories to tell, to emphasize safety points, like the time I was kicked by a horse whom I’d had for years.  He couldn’t see me entering the stall because he was looking outside, and didn’t hear the very noisy latch and my voice, because, unbeknownst to me, over the years he had gradually become deaf!  Which is why you should always wait until you see the horse respond before you approach him!  The student will probably remember the story, and the rule.

A Brief Outline of the First Lesson

I’d like to finish with a brief outline of the starting lesson plan for a beginner, and the approach to what we now call “How Your Horses Want You to Teach.”  Virtually all the material will found in my books, and it has been tested over and over again both by instructors and by riders working on their own.

The horse should be one that stands very quietly and still on the crossties.  He should also stand still at the mounting block during the entire mounting process.

First you explain the overall plan, and the reasons behind it. That is, the three basics, and the concept of body fear. Then, throughout the lesson, you demonstrate everything first yourself, one step at a time, then physically help the student with each step by holding her hand or shoulder, or having her follow you.

Teach the Seven Steps on the ground.  This is the essential tool which allows the student’s brain to communicate with her body when tension arises (and believe me, saying ‘Relax!’ doesn’t cut it!)

Show/help the student in how to approach the horse from outside the stall, with his head over the door or stall guard. Teach her how to introduce herself to the horse.  Do not take the novice student into the stall with the horse!  (Suppose somebody tried to get you to walk into that bear’s cage!)

Meeting the Horse on the Ground

Bring the horse out onto cross ties, repeat the Seven Steps, and show and help the student to approach the horse, standing close to her and the horse at first to give her confidence. Show her where and how to first touch him, how to stand and where.

If the horse responds to withers scratching, demonstrate and have her try it. (A horse who really responds is a very quick way to get the student to realize that horses have personalities and to relate to him.)

Demonstrate hand grooming. That’s having the student stroke the horse in the same way that she would brush him, so that she learns how and where to stand, which she needs to know as a separate step from using the tools.

Get the student comfortable with the horse, walking around him, etc. and start to teach the student how to make the horse comfortable.  Things like, when you walk around his head, don’t pull on him as you lift the cross tie, and when you walk around his tail, stay close and keep a hand on him so he knows where you are even when you’re in his blind spot, but don’t run your hand against the hair when you’re walking back towards his head.

Take her carefully, don’t push the information at her too fast. Over time you will teach her to recognize the signs that the horse is uncomfortable.

Don’t ask her to control the horse in any way until she has learned correct techniques under supervision.  That means you don’t ask her to lead the horse, or even hold the horse by herself for several lessons. Remember that bear!

How many people have you seen over the years that lead a horse like this?? [with a stiff arm]  That’s because they were given a horse to lead at their first lesson, and they were terrified of what he might do, so they tried to keep him as far away as possible.  And that first-time fear sometimes never leaves the student’s body unless it is directly addressed.

First Lesson in Mounting

Now that she is comfortable on the ground with the horse, with you nearby, she’s ready to get on him.  The horse does not need to be wearing anything except a halter and lead. No reins, no saddle or bareback pad.

That’s because the only things she is going to learn today are how to mount bareback with assistance, how to get off easily and safely – That’s the biggie!!!- and how to sit comfortably.

You demonstrate the mount one step at a time, (there are as many as eight steps to a bareback mount, depending on the size of the mounting block,) having her try each step as you demonstrate it.

The first time that she gets all the way on, move immediately to the off side yourself, help her to swing her leg over and immediately dismount.  Repeat this a couple of times-on and immediately off again-until she’s doing it pretty well and smoothly.  If  the horse is very tall or the rider very small, support her a little as she slides down.

Finally, have her stay on the horse and go through the first five of the seven steps, keeping at least one hand on the horse’s withers or mane, while you have one hand on her thigh just above the knee to stabilize her.  Check her position and make sure she’s sitting evenly on her seat bones.

If she still looks a little grippy, have her do a thigh/buttock squeeze followed by a leg shake-out.  If she’s really soft, her foot will be hanging out in front of her a little bit, and if you take her foot and move it, it will swing easily, showing that all the muscles from her buttocks down are completely relaxed, as they should be.

Help her dismount once more, tell her how well she did, thank the horse and go home happy and satisfied. Then just ‘keep on, keeping on!’

The next lesson will be a review of this one-with more information added-on the ground.   Then, after a review of the mounting/dismounting,  she will sit on the horse with a bareback pad and neck strap, and be introduced to following seat and longitudinal and lateral balance on a moving horse, always being led, and with a sidewalker holding her thigh to keep her centered until she finds it herself.  And so it will go.  Step by gradual step, each one of which she can learn to perform fairly successfully in one lesson, so that she is ready for the next one.

And so she learns, in a way that almost never disturbs the horse, and so that, as our vision statement puts it, student and horse can be comfortable, confident and competent all the time. And what more could you ask for?

Thank you.