Why Novice Riders Get Hurt, and What We Can Do About It
In Part 2, we said that your goal for your student should be very simple. “You want her to enjoy her lessons so she keeps coming back! What people really want in any learning situation is to feel challenged, interested, and, most important, successful in both the short and the long term.” (And of course, in an endeavor where fear is a factor, safe and confident.)
If you think about it, the standard introduction to riding that we described in the previous article is very similar to the old method of starting a horse. You took a horse who had never been near people, so of course was frightened. Without considering his feelings, you put a saddle and bridle on him and mounted. His immediate reaction was to treat you like a predator—a lion jumping on his back to kill him, to which his defense was to try to throw you off. If you were good enough, and he submissive enough, eventually he would give up, probably expecting to die. In time he might become a good useable horse.
But he might equally become very nervous and inclined to spook, or very aggressive and looking for any chance to throw his rider. The same sort of thing happens with riders. A few can adjust, sometimes after relearning, but many remain timid, or cope by becoming aggressive.
Contrast this method with the more horse friendly approach, which is based on building the horse’s confidence in the trainer. Once his instinctive fears are overcome, the horse then is able to develop his natural skills while adapting to carrying the rider. This results in an equine partner who is safer, because he cares about his rider, and sounder and more correct because he is less tense.
So what would be a more rider friendly approach? Back in the 70’s I had been thinking for some time that there was something that I was missing—too many of my ‘advanced’ students were making the same mistakes that they had made as beginners. So I decided to simplify the early lessons, and try to get things right in the beginning, before moving on.
The first lesson I ever taught using this approach was to the mothers of three of my students. They stressed that they were nervous, especially about safety since, as mothers, they couldn’t afford to get hurt. When I described my proposed lesson plan to my two business partners, they were totally against it. “They (the prospective students) are going to hate it! They’ll be bored, they’ll never come back, and they’ll take their children out as well!!”
But I prevailed and the lesson went something like this. I brought a horse out on the floor, explained a little about horses’ temperaments, had them ‘introduce’ themselves to the horse with my assistance (holding their hand underneath mine while the horse sniffed it.) Helped them to stand close (and grounded!) by the horse’s shoulder (very scary to a novice!) again with my protection. Had them watch me brush and tack the horse while I described what I was doing (and explained that they wouldn’t be expected to tack up for some time. Sighs of relief were heard!) Had them walk to one side while I led the horse down to the ring—quite a long distance during which they could observe that the horse followed willingly but carefully.
In the ring I demonstrated mounting and dismounting, and, using an assistant to hold the horse, and a mounting block, assisted each one to mount, got her sitting as correctly as possible, without stirrups,(we’ll talk about that next time) holding the pommel for security, and had her led a short distance while I steadied her with my hand. Then I helped her to dismount, and after all three had done so the lesson was complete. A very simple lesson, covering only the most basic principles. But covering them very carefully and thoroughly, so the students were able to understand and remember almost everything they learned.
My students were ecstatic. They loved the lesson and wished their children had been started the same way! (They continued to ride for some time, eventually riding at intermediate level, and were safe and happy, and always enjoyed riding.)
That lesson was all the encouragement I needed, and even my partners were forced to admit that it had its advantages. Thereafter we used a similar approach with all students.
This approach has, of course, changed and developed over the years, as my own knowledge has developed. I think the most important thing I have learned is that fear is the first problem that must be managed immediately.
Fear of the horse is not always recognized by either the student or the instructor, but it is always there in anyone who is not familiar with horses, and so must be dealt with, using a step by step approach spread out over many lessons, and based on building a relationship of mutual caring and trust, not ‘mastery.’
But there is a second fear, which I only recently recognized, and which is the basic cause of nearly all bad riding. This is the fear of being on top of the horse. What your body (which is where all emotions originate!) feels is that it is trapped 7 or more feet from the ground with no apparent safe way down (like being stuck up a tree.) Its reaction is to cling to the horse as hard as possible. Since the rider has been told not to haul on the reins, that only leaves the legs to cling with, and that is the cause of the grippy, weak seat which underlies all bad riding.
There is a very simple, safe and effective solution to this which we will describe in depth in Part 4. And it is the principal topic of every first lesson I give.