Jumper loves attention. He tries so hard to be good and wants you to love him so badly that when you go in to his pen he just about puts his own halter on. He hasn’t had much attention lately and since he’s 18 this year we thought perhaps we should find him a home in a Pony Club where he’d be adored by lots of kids and passed along as he was outgrown. Jumper is about a C3 horse; better than a novice event horse and will try his heart out at training level but, like I said, he’s 18; sound and sane but soon will need some special consideration.
I was very excited that a 15 year old C1 Pony Clubber was coming to try Jumper. Her DC said she was a strong C1 soon to be C2 needing a reliable jumping horse to take her on to C3. If Jumper’s anything, he’s a reliable jumping horse. Just look at his video.
The girl and her dad drove 7 hours to our house and the weather was bad. I have to say that she really showed fortitude coming to ride in the middle of a blizzard, outdoors, in the mountains. That was a plus for her.
Jumper has been our horse for 10 years. and we know he’s definitely a relationship guy so we wanted our C1 to catch him herself, groom him, take time messing with him and just interact with him in the barn before she rode. So when she arrived I handed her the halter and told her to catch him, bring him in to groom and get to know him. Jumper was hanging just outside the door and all she had to do was slip the halter on and bring him in. But she didn’t. She took the halter and didn’t return. After a couple of minutes I looked and she’d haltered Jumper but the two of them were just standing in the snow. I had to tell her to come in. She did. Then I had to tell her to groom. She did. Then I had to tell her to get her saddle. And then to go get her helmet… I had to tell her to do every step. She knew how to do each thing but just didn’t do it unless she was specifically told.
At one point her dad was going over Jumper with a fine toothed comb and she was cleaning his hooves. She had his left foreleg up, cleaning and meanwhile dad picked up the right hind leg. Jumper had a very perplexed look on his face as he balanced on diagonal legs. Neither the father nor the girl realized what they had done until I pointed it out. Did I mention that Jumper tries hard to please?
We demoed Jumper for her and explained everything we could about him. We emphasized over and over that Jumper had to be ridden in front of the leg into a soft hand because he depends on the leg to hand support. He warmed up nicely and she got to see him go well.
Since Jumper’s an ace lunging horse and she needs to lunge for ratings we figured that would be a good place to start. Wrong. She had no idea how to lunge a horse so Alisha moved her in to riding.
I know that it is very unnerving for some kids to try out a horse in front of strangers, plus the weather was very bad, so we wanted to give her every opportunity to relax. And she did alright with the riding portion, except that she couldn’t grasp the concept of having the horse in front of the leg, nor the idea that her hands are not brakes. Poor Jumper. If he could have screamed for relief and help, I’m sure he would have. And apparently her horse at home rushes fences badly because when she went to jump him she grabbed so tightly to his face that he could barely get off the ground and crashed the jump. She improved a little bit on the next couple of jumps.
At this point we were sorely disappointed in a C1 riding ability but we still had hope that a little more time and a little instruction would develop a nice combination.
She dismounted and brought Jumper in. She took his saddle and bridle off and put him in the cross ties. That was it. She didn’t brush him, didn’t remove his boots, didn’t even pat him. And she and her dad left. They would be back to ride again tomorrow.
That evening Alisha and I discussed the situation trying to make a recommendation. It disturbed both of us that this girl lacked intitiative and seemed unable to be a self stater. We’d run across the same situation with another Pony Clubber a few years ago. This child was a lower D3 level. She wanted to event so we took her schooling cross country on our very reliable pony. But the child could not break away from her embedded routine. As hard as we tried to give her freedom to ride around in the open she stuck to an arena sized circle. We could not picture turning her loose on a course by herself under the pressure of competition.
In my mind this is the result of too many riding lessons, too much structure, to much goal setting and too little fun on horseback. These children don’t learn the correct critical thinking skills. The child that strives to move to the next level as soon as possible and without error, has no room for imagination. They do what they’re told because that’s the only way to get ahead, the only way to move up. When everything a child does with a horse is under the control of an instructor, or club head, or parent they don’t learn much more than the mechanics of riding. They miss out on the opportunity to experiment and try for themselves. They miss the chance to see if the things their instructor says actually work on their own. They miss the chance to develop a relationship with the animals and to work out problems between horse and rider. The well trained auto-bot rider might be quite proper and lovely on a horse but give me the child who has ridden bareback at a gallop by the seat of their breeches, and I’ll use that foundation of feel and adventure to develop a rider who one day will ride with their own grand-kids. It’s the difference between learning a skill and living a lifestyle. Technicians may be riders but their riding won’t be a life long passion.
We didn’t give up hope for this horse and rider combination as we talked that evening. Maybe with time they would become a team, after all she’d only ridden him once. But something else was wrong. It took some time to figure it out but then it became crystal clear. We wanted a loving relationship for this remarkable horse. That we were not giving him enough attention was the reason for starting this quest. And then we knew what it was. From the minute the girl came to the barn until she left she had not petted him, stroked him, talked to him, or made any sort of a fuss over him. She’d made no effort to have a relationship at all. It was as though he was just a means to an end; a prop. That was proved to us without a shadow of a doubt when the following morning the dad wanted to buy Jumper anyway and if his daughter didn’t like him they would just sell him to someone else in their club. The fact that Jumper would not be loved and fussed over was the single reason that we didn’t sell him. We’ll just keep him here and give him periodic hugs until the child that believes he’s Pegusus comes a long.
But we learned a lot this past weekend. We learned that when the soul is not connected to the horse, riding just becomes mechanics. We learned that instructors thinking for students instead of teaching students to think produces auto-bots. And we learned that we’re in this business for the long run; for the deep, abiding, healthy relationship that comes from being involved with the horse. We learned that ratings and levels don’t make horsemen. They just make certificates. We want to see students gallop through the field, splash through the creek, practice hard, understand the theory, and live large with our horses. It’s the only long term, satisfying way that I know.
Thanks for Reading The Riding Instructor,
Barbara E. Fox