I remember nothing of learning the very basics of how to ride a pony – this is what happens when you’ve reached the stage of jumping courses of miniature fences before the age of eight, and have gone on to do many other things with your life since – but I know that to process would have been sensibly linear. It bears little resemblance to how I’ve gone about discovering horsemanship theories and exercises, so one of the challenges when preparing to teach these things to others has been to figure out the order I should be teaching things in and what those things should even be.
Not only were my first few months discovering horsemanship developed in a pretty much need to know style, but they’re also based on over 20 years of horsey knowledge and understanding, as well as being conducted with the help of several experienced equines. I’ve since been thrown into the position of teaching to children who are keen but, like myself, complete beginners in this area, and we’re using horses who have no idea what to do when you wiggle a rope under their nose.
Prior to arriving at camp, I tried to break everything down – I thought about not only which basics the kids would need to know, but the background to them. I decided that certain elements of equine biology and psychology would be key, so I made notes on what to teach the kids about fight and flight, how to discuss what about the physiology of horses makes them behave the way they do, and only then considered how to teach them about the use of ropes and sticks.
When I steadily built up a string of students, it felt like I’d done the right thing. I sometimes didn’t have the correct terminology or anything to refer to, but what I had made sense to me and seemed to cover what everyone really needed to know. I had Googled teaching horsemanship during the planning process, but most of what I found in terms of books was about self-teaching, and everything else involved a huge system or ideology and, usually, great expense.
The one thing which nagged away at me as a possibility was something I’d heard about a while ago and, because I couldn’t get it out of my head, I decided to investigate further. I can’t remember how I found Think Like A Pony originally, but at the moment, it feels like a model for how I’d like to teach riding. I’ve spoken to a few people who think that, for insurance reasons, seeking to teach using a horsemanship-focused approach and have clients – both adult and child – ride using halters rather than bridles is impractical, but this organisation gives me hope.
Keen to make sure that my lessons were on track, I sought out the US marketing contact and emailed to see if there was any way I’d be able to get a copy of one of the workbooks. The company were fantastically helpful and offered to immediately send me a book for free in return for a review. The book is everything I’d hoped for: clear explanations, simple but progressive activities and published confirmation of many of the things I’d already learned, plus some bonuses.
Unfortunately, the foundation book was unavailable, so I was sent the first workbook relating to ground work. For those who are completely new to horsemanship – and those who wish to teach it in a straightforward way which isn’t necessarily allied to one of the larger training programmes – the foundation book is probably a good idea. The workbook recaps in bullet points what was covered, and it sounds like very relevant material.
The workbook offers great illustrations and photos of equipment needed and how to use it – from how to hold a rope and practice rope and stick skills, to how to tie a halter correctly and work on defending your space and other basic manoeuvres. The fundamentals of equine behaviour which relate to horsemanship are also explained in an easily-digestible way, in order to clarify the importance of these techniques and the relevance of them. The workbook is well-paced and includes clear instructions, with the step one workbook focusing on the very beginning: it’s ideal for those interested in starting horsemanship skills for the first time – it’s brilliant that there are exercises which are to be undertaken alone or with a human partner, rather than a horse, and it offers step by step instructions for introducing ponies to the horsemanship equipment, as well as humans. For example, rather than simply detailing how to tie the halter and hold the rope, the halter is broken down by parts – in much the same way that saddles and bridles are in many pony books – a children are taught to allow their pony to sniff it and examine it prior to put it on. Readers are then guided through the process of ensuring ponies are comfortable with the use of ropes which are longer than standard lead ropes, and how to go about building up the process of ground work.
As someone who’s learned all ground work as an adult, I wish this sort of material had been introduced to me as a child. Although I admit my previous scepticism about horsemanship, much of that was due to lack of understanding – I thought it was for cowboys or people with seriously troubled horses, whereas this book doesn’t once mention that level of exclusivity, it sticks to explaining the concepts as a standard practice, much like grooming, tacking up and all other learning to ride processes.
I’d be keen to see how the following workbooks progress: the book closes with a list of items covered in the next edition, most of which relate to manoeuvring ponies successfully using rhythm, pressure and feel, as well as introducing concepts such as drive lines. The book also states that further workbooks for riding will be available, which I’d also be interested to read.
The back cover of the book promises to assist readers in creating “the pony of your dreams” thanks to an increased understanding of pony behaviour. I think it depends what your dreams are, but if they’re linked to having a positive, trusting and confident relationship with horses, it’s certainly a good start.