Teacher or student

It’s a debate I’ve been having for a while, as I think more and more about when I might be able to take on my first horse: is it better to learn from a schoolmaster or to take on the unknown of an animal who is as green as you are?

It’s always struck me as a little perverse that most riding schools will teach beginners to ride on older plods, choosing to allocate the clients mounts who are safe, but who must be ridden in such a way that all they are able to learn is how to stay on a horse who barely moves.  The clients are essentially taught many bad habits during this process, as the animals are often so introverted, catatonic and dulled to the aids of a human being, and as the clients progress they must learn to break these habits rather than refining the skills they have previously learned.  But I do understand the general logic of teaching people to ride on a horse who somewhat knows his job, rather than a scatterbrained youngster.

I began practicing natural horsemanship skills on a horse who’s mostly been there and done it in terms of the discipline – his owner knows he could still improve, but those improvements relate to more isolated situations or pushing on to a higher level.  The horse could read me like a book, knew I was a beginner at wielding ropes but not new to horses, so he went easy on me for a session and then proceeded to test me.  The experience mainly provided me with an idea of what is achievable, but it didn’t help me in terms of how to start from square one and what I should expect in terms of timescales.

When I arrived at camp, I was faced with a very mixed bag of 30 horses and an enormous challenge.  It seemed daunting enough when my task was to throw all of my spare time and energy at improving the difficult horses, then I was also faced with the idea of teaching kids how to do what I was still learning to do.  There was a lot of trial and even more error.  It’s taken me nine weeks and seven students to figure out what I currently think is the best approach, but things have begun to pay off.  There have been weeks of feeling like the blind leading the partially sighted and deaf – some of the horses may have done this before, but I have no way of telling, so I just encourage the kids to deal with what’s in front of them, rather than trying to guess where the horse has been before or who he had a fight with in the field last night.

Mostly, the kids have picked different horses to work with, but my musings on experience versus learning together have come from working with one horse and child partnership for six weeks and, when the initial child left for the horse to get a new partner for three weeks.  The new child and already-started horse then joined a class with a girl who’d been with me for three weeks: technically the partnerships were at different points, and so were the campers, but the horses were also very different.  It was a juggling act to say the least, and to the untrained observer, the newest student could possibly have looked far more proficient than the girl I’d already been teaching, because her horse had had more training.

In fact, the variety of partnerships I’ve been teaching all peaked at a similar time: each horse and human combination grasped the same exercises during the same week, irrespective of how long they’d been participating in the classes.  By the end of the third session of camp, I had six partnerships (seven if you count the original pair) completing the same level of exercises and more than ready to move on to the next step.  The final girl to join the programme had become more proficient in handling all of the equipment; the flightiest horse was happy not just to stand still for the basic exercises, but also to successfully complete the more complex ones which other horses had accomplished a few days sooner.

As we all progressed as a group, my teaching and organisation came on.  I developed new ways of explaining various elements of the tasks, as well as putting things into context in a different way for myself and my students.  I began to see how different things related to each other, spotting patterns thanks to the different personalities I was working with – both equine and human.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when I figured out how to join a few dots, I saw a faster progression in my students.

Horsemanship is a strange thing to teach because, although there is a progressive nature to it, you can’t really put a deadline on things, or walk into the arena and say for certain that you will achieve something specific.  It depends on the horse.  It depends on the human.  Sometimes, it depends on which way the wind is blowing or who ate what for lunch.  All you can aim for is better.  This frustrates some kids and excites others: for the goal-orientated, it’s hard, as they like to have something to tick off their list; for those who are goal-phobic, it’s great, and the only limit is their imagination.  The more we achieve as a group, the more I have to have in mind – I have a vague and secret plan as the instructor but, like a magician, I don’t show the kids my cards, because I don’t want them to see it as a race.  It matters to me that they get everything absolutely right before moving on, and I find so far that this works better when the next step is concealed.

The – slightly scary – conclusion I’ve drawn is that my preference is to learn alongside my equine partner.  It’s perhaps harder, as if it’s your first attempt at learning something new, you’re teaching both yourself and the horse.  Mistakes will be made, and it’s taking things the long way around, but at least it gives you a model to work from (even if the model is imperfect, or a route you wouldn’t use again).  That said, I think it’s better to learn in this way whilst being supported by someone with experience.  It’s been a long-term dream of mine to have a very young horse and ultimately back it myself, rather than sending it to a trainer, so I think this has always been my philosophy, I just hadn’t fully realised it.  It’s certainly satisfying when you work and grow with the horse, learning together and eventually getting the result you want in the way you’ve chosen.  And it’s definitely gratifying to coach students through the same process, observing and helping as they figure out the way which works best for them and achieve something enormous with the partnership they’ve created.

What are your experiences?  In an ideal world, would you attempt to break new ground with your horse alone, or would you rather learn from an old hand?

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10 thoughts on “Teacher or student

  1. At first glance I said to myself “oh no, here is a lady about to make a big mistake and get in way over her head”. Being a caring individual, I decided to read on.
    I’m finding that 80% of the time my advice is going to be this: DO NOT think you and a 1500lb animal are going to “learn together” there is no fairy dust that is going to make the ground hurt less and no magical pixies to wave the wand of “instant gratification”. When you finally get something right it doesn’t mean your horse will at the same time and when your horse gets it right it doesn’t mean you will be capable of rewarding him at that moment. After all, you are still trying to figure out what just happened in the first place.
    In fact, the situation of a green rider with a green horse can be down right UNFAIR for the poor young horse.
    I have had to deal with this more times than I can count.
    While you likely don’t want to be stuck with the old dull lifeless nag that your local riding school can barely afford to feed you would still be best off getting a seasoned and well educated schoolmaster to be your teacher and guide.
    BUT………. (And this is a big BUT)…..
    For the other 20% of you out there….. I say GO FOR IT!
    It will likely turn out to be one of the most rewarding journeys of your life. For both of you.
    Now, which are you?
    The 80% or the 20%
    I backed and broke my first pony when I was 4 years old myself. I have since backed hundreds of ponies and horses. I have had the amazing opportunity to ride and work with just about every personality, size, breed, skill level, and discipline out there.
    Here is my advice to you:
    Ask yourself this…..
    – do I own up to my own weaknesses
    – am I more likely to look to myself to make a change rather then point fingers at my horse
    – do I have the patience of a saint or am I at least willing to learn this level of patience
    – do I have perseverance, commitment, and time
    – do I have an open ended timeline, rather than a deadline
    – can I let go of, compromise, or rearrange expectations to fit both our needs and not just mine
    – am I brave but not stupid
    – do I have a sense of humor
    – am I resilient
    – can I remain compassionate and empathetic to my four legged partner
    – am I a good listener, even when it is not audible words being spoken
    – can I confidently take the lead without being a bully
    – do I know when to seek help when I am in over my head
    IF you said YES to ALL of the above then GO FOR IT! I promise you will not be disappointed. 🙂
    If you said No, don’t be ashamed. You are simply part of the majority and I am still proud of you for recognizing your better fit with a schoolmaster.

    I have a feeling the author of this blog is in the 20% 😉

  2. While I’m not green, I had not owned (or even ridden) a horse in 20 years when I decided to find a share. I did know my way around, you don’t lose that, but you lose the fine tuning you had once. I am a far worse rider now than I used to be when I first started.
    But I guess knowing that is half the battle.
    As long as you are aware of your strengths, your weaknesses, and your limitations, I think you’ll be okay. But it’s better to assess those things beforehand, than when you got the wrong horse and have to work with what you have. 🙂 It can be a rewarding experience, and it can also be a recipe for disaster.
    Clearly you’ve already thought hard about all of the above, and it’s nice to see someone be realistic for a change. There are too many screwed up horses for sale, who now have to find the right person (so much harder when you don’t know how to do stuff), because the human let them down.

    • agreed on the screwed up horses being let down by humans, and it’s nice to hear someone who is calmly analytical of their own situation. It’s also important to note that it’s good for your own peace of mind, pocket and confidence to get this decision right: the detrimental impacts upon horses who are under-humanned are clear, but people forget the negatives which occur in their own experiences – getting this decision wrong can mean you lose time, money and also the joy of the sport. It’s a partnership, it’s always about both of you.

  3. While i like the idea to train the young horse from scratch, i still think that i need more training myself. So my choice would be a school master.

  4. I love the fact that Otis and I are on the journey together – yes when I backed him I made mistakes and didn’t address some issues immediately (I wish my eighteen year old self had been taught to ride long and low and to teach Otis to stretch down because it is so much harder to reduce the bad muscles and improve the good muscles) but I’m pleased with who and what he’s turned out to be (all rounder, safe as houses, confident and smart) so I’m proud of him. I don’t think I’d be the rider I am if I hadn’t had the experience of producing him, but at the same time I do think I’m very spoilt because he is genuine and always gives 100%. It’s very satisfying when you ride a selection of horses and each time you revert to your favourite – your horse!

    No, I’m not biased at all 😉

    • Interesting to hear your thoughts 🙂 one of my friends would remind you not to beat yourself up: you learned the hard way, don’t forget what you got right and did well, and you won’t make the same mistake again! I’m sure nothing you’ve done isn’t fixable and hasn’t hurt Otis, plus you can’t go back and change it. I asked my friend if she wishes she’d done things differently with any of her horses past or present and she said that yes, but she doesn’t dwell on it. She can use those experiences to improve in future, but she’s forgiven herself for whatever she got wrong before.

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