Fear in beginners usually stems from a sense of not being in control, whether it’s the horse or the student’s own body that causes the problem. It’s easier for adult beginners to understand the concept of being a leader and taking charge but telling that to kids can fall on deaf ears. Kids need to experience being in control.
A grandmother enrolled two 10 year old cousins in a group lesson. One girl was out going; sort of the athletic mini achiever of the family. She competed in gymnastics, had great balance and was all about getting to work. The other girl was her antithesis. She was tall and thin, not very strong, and timid. She was hesitant; fearful of doing something wrong. She was a dreamer. If I could have seen in her mind I’m she would have been riding bareback with a flowing skirt through a field of flowers.
My best – does everything including push the giant ball around – pony for beginners happens to be my pushiest pony on the ground. He’s kind of a ‘get ‘er done’ sort of guy. You open the halter and he crams his head in and is ready to go. If the kids leave a grooming box too close, he’ll step in it. Leave a saddle on the rail within his reach and he’ll probably knock it on the ground causing some kid to have to brush down the saddle pad. Most of my timid, gangly riders end up on this pony because under saddle he’s trustworthy. Not under saddle? He’s not going to bite or kick or do anything to hurt a child but they won’t be gawking off in the distance or chatting with their friends. He expects them to pay attention. He loves attention.
But his pushy, pony personality can be intimidating to an already timid child. And grandma couldn’t help but make comments to this girl during prep time. No matter how often I assured grandma that the girl was progressing well, grandma had her own agenda. One day, grandma blurted out, “Show him who’s boss!”
A knot formed in my stomach. I looked at the 650 pound pony, who wasn’t doing anything other than being a pony and I looked at the 82 pound girl, who needed grandma to back off and let her become comfortable. This is one of the ways violence with horses begins. ‘Show him who’s boss’, or any of it’s derivatives, should be banned from barn vocabulary. It conjures up the image of the tough guy forcing his subject to do his will. When a being, a fraction of the size of another, tries to force it to submit to their will, the only tools at their disposal are violence and inducing fear. Before horsemen used the term ‘leader’, they used the phrase, ‘show him who’s boss’.
I did my best to contain the smoke that had to be belching out of my ears. “We prefer not to use that phrase. Respect is earned and she’s doing a good job.”
So, how does a kid become a pony’s leader? Phrases can conjure up vivid pictures that are associated with life experiences and perception. Tell an eight or nine year old to be a leader and he may picture his class at school following the ‘leader of the day’ from the bus to the entrance of the museum on their field trip. Ponies don’t operate that way. The position of leader in their world is earned. People become leaders with horses through successful practice.
When I see a novice student struggling with confidence while riding, I look closer at what they are doing on the ground. If they are not comfortable and confident controlling the horse on the ground, they probably won’t be confident on its back. Fear in beginners is natural but ground lessons help students gain confidence.
Riding instructors must be observant and adaptable. Rarely do I switch a mounted lesson to unmounted but there are special times, such as weather or problems. I am always ready with a ground lesson when I see it’s needed. Some instructors hesitate making the switch because they are concerned parents will be angry because their kids aren’t riding. After all it is called a “Riding Lesson.” For some reason we do not teach people that ground lessons are every bit as important as mounted lessons and they require practice. Fear in beginners can have a shorter life if we address issues o the ground. If a parent or a student is trusting you to have a plan to develop their riding skills, they won’t grumble over an occasional unmounted lesson, particularly when they see riding improvement at the next lessons.
Riding instructors must also be creative. Choose a plan that your lesson horses will easily accept. When I want to work on a ground lesson I may set up a small obstacle course that I know my lesson horses will manage without hesitation.
If I plan the lesson ahead of time I may number the obstacles. If I make the change on the spur of the moment, numbers don’t matter. The number of obstacles you use will be determined by the length of your lesson and the number of participants. The course might look something like Ground Pattern #1 – above.
I’ll allow ample time for my students to practice each of the obstacles in graduating order of difficulty. I’ve broken down some of the examples to show you more detail.
I utilize my dressage markers as control points to have students walk, circle, halt or wait, etc.
Using the unmounted lesson as a mounted activity for the students next lesson will reinforce their control skills and give them a boost in confidence.
So now it’s your turn. What are some of your favorite ways to help overcome fear in beginners?
Thanks for joining me at The Riding Instructor!
Barbara Ellin Fox