Why Novice Riders Get Hurt, and What We Can Do About It
In the previous articles in this series, I gave a step by step description of a first lesson that helps address the causes of beginner accidents. Before I continue with the lesson plan, I would like to discuss the sales pitch for this approach.
Many instructors to whom I describe my approach to teaching riding are sure that nobody wants to learn to ride in a slow step-by-step way. They think that everyone wants to be trotting, cantering and jumping as fast as possible. Well of course that is true of any new endeavor, but as I described in an earlier article, most of those are approached in the step by step way. Why? Because it’s the most effective way to teach. Why riding is approached in the harum-scarum way that we usually see is something I don’t really understand, except that it was not originally a competitive activity, but more a part of general life which you either learned well or you didn’t.
But the fact is that instructors assume that in order to keep their students riding they must push them along as fast as possible. “You have to fall off three times before you can say you’re a rider” is the axiom that is frequently heard with regard to the result of this method.
So, assuming that perhaps this is not the best way to teach, how do we sell the idea of going slowly and getting it right from day one? It’s actually pretty simple, and works with virtually everyone. And the few that don’t respond to this method are people that you really wouldn’t want in your barn anyway.
Here’s the pitch.
“You will find many lesson stables that promise to have you walking, trotting and cantering in a very short time. This might be compared to a piano teacher promising that you would be playing Beethoven sonatas right away. But if you did, you can be sure you would be playing them very badly. Well, so what, you can have fun, and the teacher doesn’t mind, and certainly the piano doesn’t care. Similarly if you play golf badly, and slice the ball into the water hazard, the ball doesn’t care. And this is true of virtually every other sport; If you make a lot of bad mistakes, nobody suffers but you.
“Except in horseback riding! If you ride even a little bit badly, you make it harder for the horse to perform the task. If you ride very badly, you can injure the horse, sometimes permanently. And in any case the horse will be uncomfortable, even suffer, as a result.
“Here at ‘Take-it-Easy Stables,’ we care about our horses. We want them to be comfortable, happy, and enjoy their work. Therefore we use a teaching program in which the student learns her skills one or two at a time, step by step, only moving on to a more advanced step when the basic foundation (on which that next step will be built) is correct. Very much like the time spent practicing scales on the piano.
“Although you will move along slowly at first, because we look for perfection at every step you will actually learn to ride well much sooner, since you won’t be wasting time ‘practicing your mistakes.’ And you will feel successful at the end of every lesson.
“Finally, you should know that this is a proven method of teaching, developed by Gincy Self Bucklin over a 70 year teaching career at the foundation level. It is safe, fast, and horse and rider friendly. You’ll enjoy every lesson and so will your horse.”
That’s the basic pitch. Naturally, you will develop your own version, but it should give you the idea.
Incidentally, with reference to how the horses react, at one point in my life we bought a stable, complete with school horses. When we went up to observe the horses and the farm, all the horses were wearing long-shanked Pelham bits and standing martingales. Most of them had their ears back and would make an effort to bite or kick at any horse that came near. A year later under our teaching program, those same horses, even when ridden by beginners, were all going in mild hackamores, no martingales, and no signs of discomfort or anger.
Enough about selling—if you try the method you will come to believe in it, and selling it will come easily.
Now let’s talk about Lesson Two. For the ground work, we repeat the first lesson with all the precautions, and only adding two things.
The first is the use of a soft brush. The student is shown how to start a brush stroke by placing the brush on its edge, and rolling it as she brushes so that even the most sensitive horse will not feel any discomfort, as he does if the groomer plunks the brush, with all the bristles pointed down toward the horse’s body, against his tender skin. The rolling stroke also lifts the dust up and away from the horse so that he gets cleaner. So the student learns that she should be considerate of the horse’s feelings when working with him, as well as learning a grooming technique that is efficient as well as horse friendly.
The second is how to walk safely around the horse’s hindquarters. This is a situation which most beginners find very threatening. And so they should, because being kicked by a frightened horse is no joke. However, I always begin this part of the lesson by explaining that very few horses will deliberately kick you, any more than the driver of a car will deliberately run over you. However, if you are careless about the way you cross the street, you might get run over by accident, and similarly if you are careless around horses, you can get kicked by accident.
So we talk about things like, horses often sleep standing up with their eyes open, so if you bumped into a sleeping horse he might kick. A horse who is afraid of the horse you are leading might kick at him and get you instead. A horse who intends to kick out behind will first clamp his tail firmly to his buttocks, although the transition between clamping and kicking can be very short, so you can’t assume that if the horse’s tail is relaxed he won’t kick. Horses can kick back, and also out to the side—“cow kicking”. But always emphasizing that well-handled horses are not aggressive, so using sensible precautions will keep you safe.
(In more than eighty years I have only been kicked a couple of times, and always unintentionally. In one case the horse had become deaf and I didn’t realize it, so when I touched him it surprised him. He became aware it was me in mid-kick and pulled away so I was scarcely bruised. In the other, just as I was passing, the horse’s rider dug her spurs into her horse, who was standing at the ingate waiting to enter the arena. The kick was a reflex and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again the horse tried to stop it, so my injury was not very serious.)
There are two safe ways to walk behind a horse. One is to walk quite far away—about ten feet. You can glance at him, but it probably isn’t a good idea to stare at him as though you thought he might be good to eat! The other is the one that you use if you are working around him, especially in close quarters like a stall. Given a choice, you would walk around his head, but if he is tied, or eating, walking behind him is usually the better choice. The important thing is for the horse to know exactly where you are and what you’re doing, which in this case is walking from one side of him to the other.
You begin by standing at his shoulder facing the rear. You put the hand closest to him on his withers, and keep it in contact with him, letting it slide gently along his back and hindquarters until you reach the other side. In this way, when you pass through his ‘blind spot,’ the area directly behind him where he can’t see, your hand tells him where you are and that you are not doing anything threatening.
One other thing to think about is one which many people get wrong. As they walk around the hind quarters, they do so at arm’s length, thinking that they are safer if they aren’t any closer than they have to be. Actually, that is a very dangerous spot if the horse should kick, as the person will get the full force of the horse’s hooves. Instead, you should walk as close as possible to the horse’s hind legs, brushing against them the way a cat brushes against you to get your attention. This tells the horse that you are comfortable in his space, and at the same time, if he should kick, which is highly unlikely, you will get pushed by his hocks, rather than his hooves.
In demonstrating all this to your student, you simply have her follow you around from one side to the other, copying your moves and following exactly in your tracks. Then you go back to the first side, so she goes in both directions. You could do this a couple of times, then ask her if she would feel comfortable going by herself. If not, it’s okay, since this is only her second lesson, and she isn’t going to be left alone with the horse for long periods for a while.
While the student watches and listens, we finish the ground work by tacking the horse up with a bareback pad and ‘grounding strap’—a device to help the beginning student to find grounding and security right away, which we’ll describe in more detail later. The horse will still wear only a halter and lead rope, since the student is not expected to use any aids at all in the early lessons. Again, having a helper to handle the horse makes your task easier, but is not entirely necessary.
In the next article, we’ll show how the preparatory work we’ve been describing will result in your student finding correct centering and grounding in her very first riding lesson. And those are the essential foundation skills, which will stand her in good stead throughout her riding career.