LIKE IT OR NOT, YOU ARE THE TEACHER
The conversation between rider…and horse is never-ending; always, during every stride, the rider asks little questions. The horse may query, the rider will explain, then the horse understands and improves his answers day by day, until gradually the mutual conversation reaches higher and higher levels and becomes more interesting, light, and pleasant for both participants.
There may be an instructor (someone who tells you what to do) or a teacher (someone who guides you with explanation in doing things) on the ground giving you riding lessons. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, you are the teacher for the horse. You are the only one physically (and hopefully mentally) connected with the horse. It is you, all by yourself, even with a teacher present, who interprets and translates what the instructor/teacher, is saying to you and it is you, alone, who conveys it to the horse. So, as much as you may not want to be, you are the teacher. You and you alone are responsible for the development of the horse. – to improve and build up his physical condition, to increase his understanding of what you want him to do (which involves clarity of thought and purpose giving the horse direction), and to develop in him a genuine desire to work for you. You and you alone, are accountable for all his actions and behaviors –good or bad. You may love your horse all you want to (and you should) but horses want and respond to someone who is a leader and in whom they can trust (meaning, by my definition, not being afraid) and respect to help them build up their confidence and understanding. You must determine whether you are capable of undertaking this task and whether you have the desire and commitment to do so. A great riding master once said “Horses go as they are ridden”. Another said “We ride like who we are”. So make yourself worthy of the horse and give him your very best effort each day you are with him – he deserves it and you owe it to him!
If, on the other hand, you do not want to take on this responsibility, then perhaps some other form of recreational activity would suit you better because the horse you mount will not be the same horse you dismount from. He will be better or worse from your time together but he will not be the same. So you have a choice. You can either STEP UP TO THE PLATE and do your very best each day (not just “try” which leaves an option for failing) or sit in the DUGOUT and do little or nothing. If you choose the former there will be days of strike-outs, hits and misses with an occasional home run but you will still be in the game. If you chose the latter (no hits, no runs, no errors – but stay safe) you will be cheating not only yourself but more importantly the horse, and that is the worst of all.
How do you cheat the horse you might ask? By not developing him correctly and making him physically fit. Do not confuse being healthy with fitness. Health is a result of taking good care of the horse by feeding him the correct type and amount of food, looking after his feet and teeth, having regularly scheduled vet care for shots and parasite prevention, and bathing him when required. But having done all that you could still end up with a horse that is not physically fit and/or correctly developed (two different things) to perform and sustain the demands we place on them. Like humans, horses tend to use their strengths and protect their weaknesses. This means that the strong parts tend to get overused and overdeveloped and sometimes the human adds to the problem by constantly favoring one side of the horse over the other when riding – because it goes easier. It is a shame to see a horse made useless (lame) by habitually overusing one hock before the other one gets activated. The whole purpose of doing gymnastic work with the horse (correct lateral movements and transitions in a connected frame) is to fix the asymmetries in the horse so he becomes equally developed on both sides. This means building up his muscles so he gains strength and suppleness in order to relieve the burden on his tendons, ligaments and joints. The result is that he increases his ability to respond to our signals and meet all of our requests equally well – and as an added bonus it has obvious safety consequences. In other words, when gymnastic development of the horse is pursued with diligence; accuracy and obedience and therefore performance and safety will improve as the horse becomes more physically able to comply with our signals. Then we can use their talents to the fullest.
This means that developing a horse’s full athletic potential begins with identifying any tendencies to move at all irregularly, right down to how each foot operates in each stride, i.e. alignment with each of the other feet, placement on the ground relative to the movement requested, length of stride, and regularity of footfall in each gait. Inconsistencies in the basic footfall can almost always be traced to some physical limitation which can be identified both from the ground (visually) and while riding (feel). This is accomplished through objective measurements of performance which will help keep you focused on what is before you jump to what should be. Then a plan can be developed setting out what particular gymnastically beneficial exercises are best suited for the problem and therefore should be used in order to strengthen the weak parts of the horse. However; an important element in all this is to NOT focus on what you do with the horse (circles, shoulder-in leg-yield, etc.) but rather focus on how he is doing it, i.e., his correct structural alignment and placement of the feet. So through these developmental exercises, as the horse’s spine gains in suppleness and strength, he will be able to perform movements with more balance and with speed and fluidness. As an example of a sign that the horse is gaining suppleness and strength in his topline is how elastically his back, neck, and poll can transmit his body’s forward motion to the bit. A word of caution is warranted here. Namely that the development of the horse is not a casual deal and that always being “easy” on the horse under the mistaken notion that he needs a rest or a “soft place to go” after a few minutes of schooling is , in the long run, doing more harm than good to the horse. His “soft place” and “harmony” will come as you help him build his physical stamina and help him to correctly align his body structures so he can carry himself with better balance.
So in order to help the horse you must reach beyond your grasp and be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Your confidence level can only grow when you step over the line out of your comfort zone and into that other place where new knowledge is waiting for you (don’t worry – the horse is already there waiting for you). If you practice what is uncomfortable for you until it is not, then the new experience and knowledge can become an expanded part of your working repertory, and you will have more freedom to continue on and grow. Many times freedom is just over the walls we build around ourselves and are then to afraid to climb over. But, this is not to say that all will be smooth sailing. There will be days or even maybe weeks of teeth-clinching, nail-biting, hair-pulling, head-banging utter exasperation, but that is alright and is to be expected. That is part of the growing and learning process. You just need to be consistent, insistent and persistent in your work. But don’t fall into the abyss. Remember where knowledge ends, frustration (different then exasperation) begins followed shortly thereafter by force and/or violence.
So what does it take to be a good teacher (at least, of the horse)? To be a good teacher you must want to be one. You must want to be good both in your mind and in your heart. And then you must pay the price – and keep on paying the price. You must study and work hard and never become complacent, because the worst kind of teacher is the one who believes that they can never be taught anything more. A good teacher is one who always remains a student so that they can become a better teacher. Further, a good teacher” takes the wider view”. This means exploring all disciplines in their particular field (horses in this case) in order to glean the best from each one of them for incorporation into their own methodology of teaching. If you, the teacher lack the needed depth of knowledge then you won’t understand the horse’s problem and you’ll end up not being able to help him.
When all is said and done the reality is that riding is essentially a physical, practical endeavor and must be practiced with diligence. You must ride (and teach) the actual horse you are riding on, not some imaginary one in the textbook. Because when you are on the back of a horse everything happens for real, in real time, and very quickly, so you have to act quickly also, and in an appropriate way, otherwise you will cause, or worsen, a problem. This scenario is continuous; the horse looks to the rider (teacher) for leadership – and if the leader (you) doesn’t help, then both are in trouble. So both theoretical knowledge and practical experience must be sound and consolidated if you, the teacher, is to succeed. Hans van Manen said it best when he said “It is hard not to act, but it is easy not to educate”.
Perhaps, after reading this, you may decide that with a little luck everything will work out – and I agree with you. But what is your definition of luck? If you can’t clearly articulate what luck is, let me help you by closing this article with my personal definition of luck:
L – Lots of hard work
U – Understanding what it will take to get what you want
C – Combining a commitment to excellence with . concentration of thought and correct coordination of
K – Knowing what you want to begin with
To be successful the rider must be able to distinguish between cause and effect. The effect will be easy to see, but the cause will be recognized only through knowledge, which is supplied by theory. – Alois Podhajsky