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?