Why Novice Riders Get Hurt and What We Can Do About It
In the previous articles we talked about the first, groundwork portion of the introductory lesson. The second part of this introductory lesson deals with the second—and rarely recognized—fear; that of being seven or more feet in the air with no apparent safe way down. This results in the ‘grippy leg’ that is the cause of the tense, weak seat that is in turn the underlying cause of virtually all bad riding. Here is a quick way to show your students what that tense seat does to your ability to follow the horse’s motion. Simply start walking on foot—a nice ‘free walk’, arms swinging, legs and body moving as a unit. Then squeeze your thighs and buttocks together hard. Guess what? You can barely move!
So let’s start the beginning riding experience by attacking that problem immediately. With my student now reasonably comfortable in the horse’s space, with me always close by, she is ready to sit on the horse. (The student should not be wearing anything like a large belt buckle or big buttons that might catch or in some way make the horse uncomfortable).
I always use a very quiet, relaxed horse for the first lesson, one who won’t be disturbed if the student digs him in the flank with a heel while trying to get her leg over. I also try to keep the student with the same horse for some time, to build her trust and comfort through familiarity. I use an assistant if at all possible so that I can devote all my attention to the student. (I always found that many of my more experienced riders were willing to assist in return for extra riding, and very often just for their own education.) If I don’t have an assistant, I never let go of the lead rope!
My student’s first introduction to sitting on the horse is actually a lesson in how to get off! I got this idea from one of my mother’s books (Margaret Cabell Self), in which she described a first lesson with a very timid child, telling him that, rather than teaching him to get on, she was going to teach him how to get off. Naturally that involved getting on first, but that wasn’t discussed so he wasn’t concerned. It turned out to be a very effective approach.
The mounted part of the lesson is conducted as follows. The goal here is to show the student’s body that it’s really quite easy to get to the ground safely from that scary place. We begin with the ‘baby-step mount.’ If the student is light enough and/or the teacher strong enough, it’s best done without a mounting block. The horse wears only a halter and lead rope. (A bareback horse is much easier to slide your leg over, which is essential for a smooth dismount.)
First we show the student how to stand for a leg on, with her knee bent and her hip locked so that it doesn’t collapse during the mount. We also tell her that she must not try to put her right leg across until we tell her to. (Doing so too soon is part of a panic reaction when the body begins to feel it is high in the air.) It’s also helpful to do a few practice lifts using a fence instead of the horse so the student gets the feel of it without the worry.
Next the student is shown how to grasp the mane firmly near the withers, with both hands, thumbs pointing up, not sideways, to avoid a sprain during a rapid dismount. You should also mention that it doesn’t hurt the horse to pull hard on his ‘hair.’
Now she is ready to start with the baby steps. I lift her up about 6 inches and let her down slowly and carefully, telling her to wiggle her toes a little, which will make her ankle and knee more relaxed, and the landing softer. Then I lift her 9 Inches, then a foot, and so on, letting her slide down smoothly each time—so that her body begins to realize that the distances are really very short and easy to handle. And having something (the mane) to hold onto with her hands makes her feel very secure about getting down in control.
The next milestone comes when she reaches the point where she can, without letting go of the mane, hook her right forearm over the withers. I then show her—perhaps demonstrating with my assistant—how she can use the support of her forearm to bring her body into preparation for the ‘belly-over’ position, in which she will lie centered across the horse. For this step, she will pull herself up so that her rib cage is over the horse’s back, but she is not centered. I then have her do it herself with whatever assistance she needs.
From that position she is helped to return smoothly to the ground, and then immediately taken back to the position again, and my assistant and I adjust her center over the horse so that she can let go with her hands, let her arms dangle, and stay on top of the horse. In this positon she lies across the horse with her center over the horse’s center, so that she is securely on top of the horse with no need to hang on to anything as long as he is standing still. If she seems comfortable and confident I lead the horse forward a few steps, while holding on to her leg to keep her centered. This seems to give students a lot of confidence in their ability to keep from falling as long as the horse is directly underneath them. When she is ready to dismount, I steady her and have her grab mane with both hands when her arms are in the right place.
In Part 6, we will cover the final steps of the mount, and the dismount itself. I also plan to discuss ‘selling’ this whole approach. I’ve rarely had a prospective student reject it, or lost one because of it.