It seems that every introduction to horses or horsemanship must begin with some mystically beautiful scene: wild mustangs charging across the open plains, jaw-dropping feats of disciplined horsemanship, or breathtaking leaps during a majestic steeplechase. It is unfortunate that such beginnings often reek of propaganda and those who use them double as slick salesmen. Instead of the reality, such individuals choose to promote a beautiful mythology – which like any good mythology has elements of truth, but which have been distorted and manipulated.
Yes, it is true that horses are deeply beautiful creatures: majestic, graceful, intelligent, and wonderful; even spiritual. Nevertheless, they aren’t mysterious or magical. Most who start out with horses often abandon the pursuit within a year, and even fewer remain after five years; and while I somewhat doubt some specific numbers I once heard cited (which claimed that the disenchanted were as high as 80%), I believe the trend. I also believe that an important reason why so many leave in frustration is that they never found the promised vision of sublime mystical perfection. The first time you mount a horse, the perfect moment immediately cracks and you are left with the grittiest parts of reality: horses are big, they have their own ideas, and those notions often don’t match ours. Further, when you sit on their backs, you are utterly at their mercy. This, of course, is to say nothing of the mud, dust, shit and miscellaneous smells. That can be a lot of reality to absorb in a single session.
Nevertheless, even among those who passionately pursue horsemanship, there is often a tremendous degree of stagnation. In my late teens and early twenties, I spent some time as a traveling horse trainer. In three-day spurts, I would work with five or ten people at a time. We would talk about concerns or problems and together we would struggle for a solution. From this experience, several things became clear: many people struggle with a few simple issues, and nearly all of those issues arise from a relatively small number of fundamental behaviors. The particulars were always different – which was what made the job interesting – but those behaviors arose from gaps in foundational knowledge. What is regrettable is that the holes were so unnecessary. At some point, I decided to try and do something about this (which is how this screed began life). Since good beginnings predict successful conclusions, I thought I might share a few observations that I wish others had levered at me. These include a few rules, a few guidelines, and more than a few relatively good suggestions.
A Few Rules
In horsemanship, there are few hard and fast rules. However, after careful reflection, I was able to produce three: 1) Don’t fall off. 2) If you do fall off, don’t die. 3) Remember that it all depends.
The first and second of these rules are self-explanatory. Horsemanship is a physical skill, and any physical skill carries with it the risk of injury. As a result, a shocking bit of good horseback riding is directly related to learning to maintain balance, control and position. In addition, like learning to ride a bike or play a sport, while some things of value come from contemplation and planning, at some point you simply have to participate. This might sound like an incredibly obvious point, but many people stagnate due to a fear of doing something wrong. They might be afraid of hurting their horse, or don’t trust the horse enough to let him mange his bit of the partnership. Either way, they’ve created an impenetrable roadblock to advancement. Improvement requires practice and practice will result in improvement. It’s a wondrous cycle. Even so, you will make sloppy mistakes. Just get over it and try harder next time.
The third rule is a bit more esoteric, but nonetheless, extremely important. In fact, it may be more important than the first two. You see, everyone has notions about how horses should be trained. Some are complementary, many others are not, and still others directly contradict the first set of notions. What is bizarre, however, is that most of these ideas work and just about all have a place in a successful toolbox. Some tools might not make sense except in a set of circumstances so remote that you will probably never use it. For example, during my first year of college, I worked in a veterinary hospital. One of the head technicians thought it important that everyone knew how to restrain a seriously injured horse. He also said that we would likely never use It since medication was substantially more effective. Well, about a year ago, I was staying in Western Wyoming. Sometime during the day, one of their yearlings became entangled in a nasty strand of barbed wire. Using my technique, several lead ropes and a great deal of care, we were able to restrain the horse and remove the wire.
Respect for the ideas and notions of others is a part of becoming an excellent horseperson. Merely because an idea or notion contradicts how you would do a task does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. Over time, you will develop the necessary experience, feel, and timing to determine which tool applies in which circumstance. At some point, it will be as natural as breathing. But even at that point, keep your mind open and evaluate the ideas of others. While not all ideas are equal in merit and importance, they all have value. As you learn, remember that most things in horses are relative. They depend on circumstance, background, current events and future goals.
With the rules out of the way, let’s move into a few guidelines and suggestions. Horsemanship is comprised of at least two distinct components: 1) the physical skills required to ride and work with horses and 2) everything else. As a result, to be a good horseperson, you first have to be a good rider; and horseback riding is not a skill that you can just pick up by watching or by experimenting alone. Ultimately, you will need someone knowledgeable to watch and provide feedback on what you are doing well and what isn’t working out: you will need to find a good instructor. Once you have found that instructor, then you will need to listen to her. Finally, you will need to take time to practice.
Find an Instructor
There are few decisions more important than choosing who will introduce you to horsemanship. This is not as simple as opening the yellow pages and choosing a person random. Riding lessons should both safe and fun. They should also provide you a good foundation for being around horses. There is more to horseback riding then getting on and learning how to balance, kick to go, and pull to stop. It all starts on the ground. You need to know how to catch your horse, groom him, saddle and bridle him, determine when the tack doesn’t quite fit, warm him up, cool him down, and hundreds of other equally “trivial’ things. Yet, there are few riding instructors who are willing to take the time to teach these minor points. Their inclusion can easily lengthen a thirty-minute riding lesson to well over an hour.
Further, there are no special qualifications to teach horseback riding. Anyone with an inclination can hang a shingle outside their door and charge for their time. Moreover, while there are groups that will certify riding instructors, a certification does not guarantee a quality experience. The worst riding lesson I ever had was taught by an instructor certified by five or six different organizations. A much better way to find a good riding instructor is to ask around. If you have friends who ride, start by asking them. Do they know anyone who teaches riding lessons for beginners? Take a visit to your l
ocal barn and speak with the trainer there. Ask the people who work at your local tack store and peruse the message board that likely hangs in the entranceway. Talk to your local blacksmith and equine vet. Try to find local riding clubs in your area, and then interrogate the members. If all else fails, you can go online and leave messages on bulletin boards/blogs specific to your area. If you diligently do your homework, then names will start to bubble up through the rather murky water of your horsemanship community.
At that point, start to contact the individual instructors. Kindly introduce yourself (or your child) and ask if you can audit a lesson. If the instructor says no or charges you, remove them from your list. If she says yes, however, take a half hour to go and watch. During this half hour, pay attention to how the instructor works with her student. Then think about how you best learn. Know yourself and how you are likely to respond to a situation. Will you be able to get along with this person? Can she engage you? How does she deliver feedback?
Then talk to the instructor’s students. Ask them what types of things they learn. Are they allowed time to practice their horsemanship skills between lessons? What is the barn atmosphere like? Are students allowed to help in simple barn chores like mucking stalls or turning horses out for exercise? What are the barn rules? What is its culture? What kind of events does the barn host? Is it a competition barn or a neighborhood barn? The answers to each of these questions will influence your experience and may even determine the overall direction you take.
Also remember that in the beginning, your ability to get along with the instructor is more important than their level of achievement. While it is always nice to learn from a world-class rider, it isn’t necessary. In fact, sometimes it isn’t even desirable. I’ve been privileged to meet world champions in reining, cutting, and barrel racing; I’ve known members of the Olympic dressage team. Despite their abilities and accomplishments, I wouldn’t let most of them near a novice rider. World-class riders are highly competitive, aggressive and extremely demanding. They have very little patience for error (both in themselves and in others). Combing that type of personality with a raw beginner is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, try to find someone who is both competent and patient. Is she kind, funny, or entertaining? Can she explain complex things in a simple and straightforward manner? Does she avoid highly technical terms and strange words? Do her actions and various habits have a good rationale? Will she keep you safe?
Throughout your time with horses, you will have many teachers. Your first instructor, however, will always be special. You will adopt her preferences, style, and mannerisms; often despite your best intentions. The way I hang my tack and keep my saddle stems directly from the person who first taught me to ride. If you make a good choice in your first teacher, these first steps will serve as a wonderful foundation upon which you can later build.
Listen and Learn
This is perhaps a good time to invoke my third rule, for I am about to contradict something that I’ve already said. Though it is important to respect the opinions of everyone, an open mind can often be a problem while you are first learning to ride. Once you have found the perfect person to teach you to ride, listen to her very carefully. Heed her advice and follow her instructions. By all means, speak with others and solicit their advice as well, but give deference to your teacher.
Back in the days when the foundations of buildings were set with large stones (rather than the steel reinforced concrete of today), the masons would create a pattern that the stonework should follow. These patterns were a self-repeating series that ensured that all of the stones fit together tightly. Occasionally, junior stonemasons might deviate from the pattern in some way. But over time, cracks in the foundation would first appear at the spots where the pattern deviated. It’s similar to the novice horseman, you need a solid and consistent foundation. A good horse instructor will do their best to provide this for you.
Though this might seem obvious, it is frightening how often it needs to be repeated. Here’s why: when I first learned to ride, I was told that a leg aid should be used on the side opposite of the turn. At a later point, a different instructor taught me that the aid should be used on the same side as the turn. It turns out, however, that both are true. A well-positioned leg on the outside of the turn can be used to move the front feet and a correctly positioned leg on the inside can be used to move the hind feet. A third variation can be used for to illicit a side pass, while a fourth can be used to begin a turn-about on the hind legs. In each case, the reins are used in a slightly different manner, which your instructor will also show you. Therefore, while you will eventually be taught the subtleties, that can’t happen until you know the basics.
The alternative is confusion and frustration. At one clinic I recently taught, there was a young woman who was having some major difficulties with her young mare. On the phone, she explained that it would buck, shy, or rear. In order to spend more time with the horse, I spent the day prior to the clinic and the first group session riding her horse. I found it to be a delightful little animal; not only was it well behaved and relaxed but also amazingly responsive and supple. In short, a perfect little animal to demonstrate the various maneuvers and techniques that I was showing the other riders.
In the afternoon, however, the same horse showed the exact behaviors that the young woman described over the phone. It was both tense and skittish. The reason was clear almost at once, as well. The woman was terrified of her horse, and as a result, spent most of her time manhandling the young animal. She used extremely harsh aids to encourage the horse to move while at the same time, keeping tension on the bit and using the reins for balance. This set of behaviors is both extremely common and disastrous. Yet, any attempts to explain why the horse was so different when her owner was riding were met with resistance.
The woman knew her horse and my “prescription was utterly and completely wrong. It contradicted something that she had read and she wasn’t going to hear anything to the contrary. After some time, I found myself wondering, “Why has this person solicited my advice if she isn’t interested in hearing it?” Like this young woman, you will also read and hear things that appear contradictory. If you are confused, it is probably likely that you simply lack the context of when fact 1 is true and when fact 2 is true. Allow your instructor to help you make sense of these apparent contradictions. You are, after all, probably paying for her time.
Just like learning to play an instrument, you’ll never get any better if you don’t take the time to practice the skills you are learning. Practice is different from instruction. Instruction time is carefully supervised; practice time is more free form. That is, you get to pick the direction and goals. If you want to work on your balance, then that is where you concentrate your efforts. If you want to wander around and let your horse smell things, then you just do it.
A good instructor will allow both time for practice and a time for instruction. In the beginning, she may invite you to continue riding in the arena while she teaches another lesson. That way, she can offer suggestions or warnings should something get out of your control. When you become more advanced, however, you
might be given a block of time during the week where you can ride with friends. In some barns, you may be invited to lease a particular horse, or to help with its care in return to riding time. Whatever the specific arrangement, however, you will need to spend time thinking about and putting your new skills into practice. If you never get this opportunity, you are unlikely to improve. Golfers must hit balls to improve their swing and horse people must ride horses. It is simply how it is.
Surround Yourselves with Friends
While choosing a good instructor is important, having a group of friends with whom you ride is probably just as important. Horsemanship at its best is a social activity and it is more fun to ride with other people than alone. Depending on your interests, you might have a group with whom you trail-ride, or you might participate in competitions or shows. Either way, take time to practice with your friends too. Just like your riding instructor, they can help you grow and understand. They can offer input, advice and direction. More often, though, they will offer support.
Horses can be very frustrating. Sometimes they don’t behave, or have their own notions. Just like people, horses often have bad days. Everyone has a story about the horse that decided that it didn’t want to get into (or out of) the trailer. Good friends can prevent such a situation from going all to hell. Alternatively, they can be there to offer congratulations for when you win the big show, or successfully coach your horse across the flooding stream. While success feels great, it is even better when shared by those around you.
A life with horses is a wonderful pursuit, but it is much more than a hobby; and it isn’t for everyone. But in your journey to become an amazing horseperson, remember just these few things: horsemanship is a physical activity and you are going to make more than a few sloppy mistakes, choose your instructors with care and then listen to what they have to say, ride (practice) as often as you can, and surround yourselves with friends. Most importantly though, remember that just about everything is relative; it all depends. If you keep these simple guidelines in mind, you’ll go far.