Jumper loved attention.  He tried hard to be good and wanted love so badly that when you’d go into his pen he nearly put on his own halter.  At the time, we didn’t have a rider for him and since he’d turned 18,  we thought we’d 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 was a C3 horse; better than a novice event horse and would try his heart out at training level but, like I said, he was 18; sound and sane but soon would 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  through bad weather to our house.  She showed fortitude coming to ride in the middle of a blizzard, outdoors, in the mountains.  That was a plus for her.

Jumper had been our horse for 10 years. and we knew he was a relationship guy, so we wanted the C1 to catch him herself, groom him, take time messing with him to give them time to interact before she rode. 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 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.  A couple of minutes later, I looked and she’d haltered the horse, but the two of them stood 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 told her to get her saddle.  And  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 physically examining Jumper 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 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 tried 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 depended on the leg to hand support.  He warmed up nicely and she got to see him go well.

Since Jumper was an ace lunging horse and Cs to lunge for ratings, we figured that would be a good place to start.  Wrong.  The gilr had no idea how to lunge, 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 were not brakes.  Poor Jumper.  If he could have screamed for relief and help, I’m sure he would have.  Apparently her own horse rushed fences badly, because when she she jumped, she grabbed so tightly to Jumper’s face,  he could barely get off the ground and crashed the jump. She improved a little on the next couple of jumps.

At this point, we were sorely disappointed in the C1 riding ability but we still had hope that time and a little instruction would develop a nice combination.

She dismounted and brought Jumper in, took off his saddle and bridle, 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. She and her dad left, him saying they would be back to ride again tomorrow.

That evening Alisha and I discussed the situation trying to make a recommendation. It disturbed us that this girl lacked initiative and seemed unable to self start. 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. As hard as we tried to give her freedom to ride around in the open she  stuck to a twenty meter 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 don’t develop a relationship with the animals or learn 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 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.  The following morning, the dad  said he’d buy Jumper anyway and if his daughter didn’t like him, they would sell him to someone else in their club. When we realized Jumper would not be loved and fussed over we declined the sale.

We learned a lot with this event, mainly  that when the soul is not connected to the horse, riding just becomes mechanics. We learned that instructors thinking for students instead of teaching them to think produces auto-bots. And we know that we’re in this business for the long run; for the deep, abiding, healthy relationship that comes from being involved with the horse.  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

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  • Well, this story makes me sad. I ride at a local barn in Romania, and since I’m a begginer (6-7 months of riding) I ride oftenly on the most quiet horse, 14 years old. She is ridden by most begginers and is a bit deaf to feet aids and she does the most of the work with all young riders. The look on her face makes me sad, she is happy when she gets a whole 24 h break from being ridden. Most people don’t like her cos she’s old and obedient. I just love her. I bring her carrots, applrs and sugar every time I come to the barn, I pick her hooves and groom her daily if I get the chance. I’m not wealthy enough to have my own horse yet, maybe never will be, but I consider her as my best friend. I think we developed a pretty good relationship together, when she’s out of the barn in the field and i park my car and get out she comes galloping towards me and I consider this one of the most rewarding things.

    • Jojo
      It sounds like you’re a real bright spot in the life of that horse. I love that she recognizes your car and you. She sounds like a great horse to learn with. By the way, 14 is not that old. Best of luck with your riding and thank you for sharing your story.

  • I was free lunging my TB the other day and one of the “advanced” students of the student coach was sitting in the stands doing her homework. I use the free lunge time to bond with my horses and for us to get a little exercise without to much empahsis on work. The mare was trotting/cantering around having a blast kicking up her heels. The “advanced” student looked up from her books to watch us. I was turning my mare with my body back and forth in different areas and different speeds. I heard, “come on horses name why wont you just keeping running” and some clucking. I couldn’t belive that this “advanced” student that is now leasing to buy her own horse didn’t see my moving/ driving her with my body, she honestly thought that my horse was being lazy!

    Don’t worry though, she sure looks pretty on her horse. Big bit, bad hands, and no feel!

  • Dear Barbara,
    I just started last year to give instructions for beginners and I’m so happy I found your website! I’m planning on getting certified and I’m taking lessons to achieve my EC (Equine Canada) rider level 6, which is the pre-requisite for Instructor for Beginners certification. Your ideas about beginner riding lessons are exactly what I promote here, and at times I feel I should rush the riders to higher levels, just because the stable nearby got the kids to jump in the 4th lesson. I believe in lunging, lots of explaining the theory behind things we do, grooming before each lesson, leading the horse correctly and good horsemanship in general. So now, if I feel like I’m not keeping up with the competition, I’ll be reading some of your blogs to remind me why I’m doing this: for the love of horses and the people who share this love!

    Thanks again, Christine

    • Thank you Christine! It’s so nice to know that my blog is helpful. Keep up the good work and the very best of success on becoming certified.

  • I love this, thank you so much for sharing your persective. I feel that this “connection” is what had been missing from my daughter’s lessons at the barn where she has been for the past four years. She has learned some basics, and we have come to know the instructor well. But while I was grateful for that, about a year or so ago, I started to feel like she wasn’t progressing. On top of the fact that she was not learning anything new really, still just trotting a few times each lesson and not really being taught in any coherent way, I also felt like she wasn’t encouraged to interact with the horses… I didn’t feel like she was learning to think about riding on her own, or how to ride from her heart. She was just going through the motions and so was her instructor. But knowing NOTHING about horses, I had only pure instinct to go on and so I kept deciding to stay and see if it got better. A few weeks ago, we finally decided to give some new instructors a try, and have found a new barn where I feel everything is clicking in an amazing way. They seem to be very encouraging and thorough, but also I feel a sense of freedom for my daughter to have in individual relationship with the horses (and also the instructor) and room for her to be challenged on a deep level than learning how to steer and post. However, I’ve been feeling very guilty and struggling with how to tell our old instructor. Your words gave a voice to the instinct that I had, and make me feel so much better about our choice. I will gently tell her thank you, and let her know that we’re moving on in a nice way, but I think it’s time. Thanks:)

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I’m always happy when I can be helpful. Your comments were exactly the encouragement I needed this morning! 🙂

  • “Certified” instructors who can’t ride, teaching students who don’t want to work, on horses trained by “Natural horsemanship” hacks who learned by reading a book or attending a 1 week clinic. Parents who drop off at 3 and pick up at 4 and the kid better be ready to show 3’6 after 10 lessons. Many instructors are chasing the dollar and not really teaching. Students come to me after years of riding a packer and they have no idea how to lead, tack up or make a not so cooperative school horse walk around the ring without coming into the center. It is a very sad situation.

    • I agree. Things didn’t used to be like this but making riding and horsemanship all about winning acclaim has sent us in this direction. It began about in the early 70s late 60s. It’s all about the end not about the process. The process is “too hard” (can you hear me whining?), but isn’t it that way with most things now? When was the last time you saw someone get made because the line took too long at a fast food restaurant? (Fast Food! what about making a meal and cleaning up afterwards? It’s too much work! sic) When was the last time you saw someone get mad because their internet connection was too slow and maybe they said “I’m going to throw this computer out the window!”? (We used to use the library and a set of encyclopedias and when you wanted to copy something you got out a pencil and a pad of paper) Our culture has made everything easy. We even have no child left behind in school. My 7 year old granddaughter has been in more sports and activities in her life so far than I was in during my entire life (to this point) . IMO she was too young AND none of them was competitive. Everyone was a winner, everyone got a part, everyone was the cutest. Even in kiddie soccer the goals didn’t count. It was all about feeling good. We have kids who come here for lunge lessons on a 12 hand pony. When the pony wont trot at the first kick the look at the instructor and whine. I’m there with you all the way. But I believe there is a segment of our culture that is longing for the “old ways” and wants value in the things they do. It’s hard to seek them out and it might not feed a big barn but I refuse to believe that doing things the right way and for the long haul is a dinosaur. It’s going to take enough of us sticking to our principals… not that we’re going to turn this ship around … but we can make a path for cultivating the true love of horses and horsemanship and have a situation that’s satisfies us.
      Thanks for your great comment. I can honestly say that “I feel your pain” because I do!

      • I am a riding instructor, teaching local children of all ages. These kids all say that they love horses and want one of their own one day. But….you know, not one of them ever brings any of the lesson horses a carrot or apple (even though I suggest it all the time) and I have to tell them during every lesson to pat their horse after an exercise. Come to think of it, occasionally I bring some home-made cookies for the kids and I don’t even get a “thank you”!!! It’s such a ME ME ME society these days and parents are too busy to teach their kids basic manners….how can we expect them to do right by the horses?

        • Susan – It is a sad commentary and it sounds like some of the children are over due a day at the handle end of a pitchfork. The same children would probably go to the zoo and beg to feed the animals. Maybe you should start a ‘pay the pony” program where they have to bring a treat and feed it before they can mount up until they catch on. It’s OK for you to require something along this line for your students. And as far as students saying thank you to their teacher. . . I think it is perfectly permissible for you to require that they thank you and their horse after they dismount, before they are dismissed. You can instruct how you’d like them to address this. You are the teacher and if you think of it as part of what can be taught in a riding lesson- you will be helping them to improve in other areas of their lives through this one small thing. You are not relegated to only teaching them how to ride a horse. Thanks for your comment. I’d like you to know that as a riding instructor, you have more ‘power’ than you’ve given yourself

  • Ugh! This makes me sad. (And mad! who rated her up? Seriously!)

    Talia has outgrown her pony. She’s just now figured him out, (especially as they, ahem, were learning the D2 ropes together), and we need to figure out what Roscoe’s next job is. He’s too much of an athletic worrier to be a lesson/first pony but he’s a good boy if you’re there for him. I feel your pain: he has to go to someone who will love him, not just get him because he’ll jump the moon.

    Your story makes me appreciate our Pony Club Region. If you can’t explain why something happened, or how to fix it; if your audio doesn’t match your video, you probably won’t get your certificate that day.

    Thanks for this post. It was encouraging to me to stick with the program (of not always having a program. Go ride! See what works!)

    • I’m always amazed at how different regions are and how they change as the leadership changes. USPC used to refer to Ds as being in the kick and pull stage, but anyone entering the Cs should have an idea about beginning free forward movement and getting the horse in front of the leg. I’ve had kids in this region show up for C1 with no pin, dirty saddle pad and not able to tell when the horse had the correct lead…and I was the “bad guy” because they didn’t pass. But even with all that said, do kids really ride without loving horses? When did they become a piece of equipment?

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