Why Novice Riders Get Hurt, and What We Can Do About It
In Part 3, I said that fear was the basic cause of bad and thus unsafe riding. There are two separate fears. The first is of the horse himself—many beginners, coming up close to a horse for the first time, say “I didn’t realize they were so big!” The other fear, which is rarely considered consciously by either the student or the instructor, is the body’s fear of being trapped 7 or more feet in the air, with no apparent safe way to get down.
These should be dealt with in the very first lesson. Not that the student will conquer her fears in one lesson, but unless you deal with those fears right from the beginning, eliminating the tension which they cause becomes much more difficult. We will cover the first part here, and the second part next time.
Before we begin, there is one thing you need to know about fear, and in fact, emotions in general. Emotions all originate in your reflex brain which responds by affecting your body in some way. There is no direct communication between your conscious brain and your reflex brain. Therefore, saying to your student, or for that matter, to yourself, “Get over it,” is a waste of time. The only way you can reach the reflex brain is through the body. So in this case, you must demonstrate over and over to the student’s body that there is nothing there to be afraid of. If you are careless in the beginning and the student becomes frightened, it is very hard to undo that. Hence the necessity for proceeding very slowly and carefully.
(I precede the first approach to the horse with some relaxation/fear management techniques called the ‘Seven Steps.’ I’ll cover them briefly in another article, and they are fully covered in my books.)
“The first basic [in horseback riding] is to develop a relationship with the horse based on mutual caring and trust, which will eventually lead to mutual respect”
When introducing a student to the horse on the ground for the first time, your goal is to help her feel comfortable with him. Since she—consciously or otherwise—has the same emotional response as you would to a tame bear (!) she should feel that you will protect her. So you begin by having her first meet the horse from behind a barrier such as having him looking out over the stall door.
You then, standing back from the horse, chat with her about him; i.e. “This is Billy. He is 18 years old, and has been with me for 14 years. His color is called chestnut and he is 15 hands tall.” while she looks at him and listens to you. Then, after demonstrating how to allow the horse to sniff your hand, (that’s the way you introduce yourself) your next step is as follows. Standing between her and the horse’s head to protect her, cover her hand with yours—fingers open so she can feel the horse sniffing, but still protecting her from actual contact. Then, unless she is very tense, you show her how to stroke the horse’s muzzle with the backs of her fingers, in that soft spot in the corner of his upper lip, and help her to do so herself.
The next step is to bring the horse out of the stall onto the aisle. (I would never bring a beginning student into the stall with the horse. Think of how you would feel going into the cage with a ‘tame’ bear!) The student should be told where to stand to be safely out of the way, in a place where she will be facing his head when he is on the crossties. You can make a little conversation about halters and lead ropes and such. Not that you expect her to learn all this today, but just putting things into her mind.
Now, with her still standing safely away you show her how to approach the horse and where the ‘safe place’ is to stand. That is, you walk quietly and non-aggressively towards his left side. If he seems unsure you stop and let him sniff your hand before carefully raising the crosstie and ducking underneath. You would never try to pat his face, unless you knew the horse well and knew he liked having his face patted—which most horses don’t, any more than you would. Then you proceed to his left shoulder and quietly place your right hand on it, up near the withers.
You explain that you do this because the shoulder is not considered personal space. In human interactions, doctors, for example, if not familiar with you, will often place a hand on your shoulder first before beginning an exam. Your hand is also not personal space since you use it to explore anything unusual. A horse uses his muzzle in the same way, which is why you approach him there first.
Now you invite the student to come and stand with you. And again, you protect her by keeping your body slightly between hers and the horse. Then you step back to make room for her and ask her to step close enough to the horse so that she can pat him on the shoulder, but not to touch him yet. This is because the beginner’s body doesn’t want to get really into the horse’s space, so her tendency is to stand a little too far away and then lean forward to reach him. This of course puts her out of balance which is scary in its own way.
The solution to this is to have her step into his space, and then step back. That way her body learns that there is an easy escape. After she does this a couple of times and seems comfortable, that is, she is standing close with her feet, not just her hand, you have her put her hand on his shoulder and stroke him gently. At this point it is handy if the horse you use has an ‘itchy spot’ of the sort that causes him to make funny faces to indicate his pleasure in having that place scratched. This makes a great connection with the beginner—this big scary animal is really kind of cute and silly!
The last part of this introduction consists of ‘hand grooming,’ which is actually an introduction to moving around the horse. You demonstrate with your hand how you would follow the grain of the horse’s hair when you brush him, and you explain that some areas are more sensitive than others. Then, staying close and guiding her, you have her ‘groom ‘ his left shoulder and neck, explaining that his ears and head are ‘personal space’ that you will work with later. For this section, she keeps her right hand on the withers and brushes with her left so that she is facing his head. Then, back at the withers, she faces his tail and grooms his barrel and quarters with her right hand—in this case the flanks are personal space.
The reason for this positioning is that if the horse is uncomfortable he might try and nip with his head, or cow kick with a hind leg. If she is facing the part she is near, she can with luck avoid the danger. Not that the horse she is using will do this, of course, but it’s best to develop safe habits from day one.
Having finished the left side, you show her how to walk around the horse’s head and lift the cross ties in such a way that she doesn’t pull on his head. Then she walks to his right shoulder, faces forward and repeats, now using the right hand on his front end and the left on his rear end.
And that’s the end of the groundwork section of the lesson. I generally leave walking around the hindquarters to another lesson, because most people find that quite scary, and it’s very important to learn how to do it safely. In any case, at the end of this ground work the student should feel reasonably comfortable standing close and working with the horse with you nearby.
In Part 5, we begin to teach the rider to be comfortable on the horse.