I believe that we need to reverse the way that we approach and teach horsemanship. The majority of beginner riders start taking lessons in which they are taught to do things right off the bat. They learn how to catch and halter a horse. This is followed by leading and safe tying methods. Then the brush box comes out and they are taught to groom and tack the horse. Then down to the arena they go where they are taught to mount, go, stop, and turn. After that, they learn to trot and canter and so on. These are your basics.
What if we have it all wrong? What if we first taught student how to do nothing? Of course, I’m not suggesting that you sign on paying clients and then teach them nothing. What I mean is that in order to be an effective horseman or equestrian you must learn how to have no impact on the horse before you can learn to have a positive impact on the horse. You have to learn how to read the horse and interact with confidence before you can influence their behavior and actions. You must first learn how to be around the horses before you can learn to do anything.
There is pressure to get students onto horses and proficient enough to do the basics in a short amount of time but is that beneficial to the student? And is it beneficial to the horse? Would riders be better off, in the long run, if instructors were to take more time in the beginning to first teach riders to do nothing? I feel as though we would have more confident, competent riders and calm, content horses if we redefined the basics that need to be learned first.
We know that you cannot use your aids effectively and subtly if you do not first learn how to sit on your horse without interfering with his movement. If you want to ride with an independent seat you must first have balance. We know this, yet we put beginner riders on horses and teach them to steer by pulling the horse around with the reins rather than teaching them how to sit on the horse in a balanced manner. Our approach is a bit like trying to teach a toddler, who is still wobbly and unsure on her feet, the steps to the waltz. You have to learn to walk before you can learn dance steps. Once you have balance, you can learn the steps, and then perfect the steps over the years to be a graceful dancer.
With this approach you could adjust your beginner lessons to create a solid foundation of trust, balance, and understanding before teaching the student how to communicate and positively affect the horse. There are endless ways to accomplish this. I will give you a few basic examples of changes to get you thinking:
- Before you teach a student to approach, catch, and halter a horse, work with her on observing horses, body language, and herd dynamics from afar.
- Before you teach a student how to lead with a halter and rope, show her how to interact with a horse at a distance using her energy and encourage her to get the horse to follow without a halter.
- Before you teach a student each grooming tool and technique, teach her how to safely touch, massage, and interact with the horse in the horse’s personal space.
- Before you teach a student how to mount a horse, ensure that she has built a bond and level of confidence and comfort with her horse.
- Before you teach a student “kick to go and pull to whoa”, allow her to feel the movement of the horse and find her balance and connection while mounted.
There are many more examples of how you can reverse the traditional approach to teaching a beginner student. Initially, it is beneficial for students to learn how to sit on a horse without a saddle. You can use a vaulting pad and surcingle for extra comfort and security while allowing the student to find her balance without relying on the stirrups and tack. I also think it is beneficial for students to learn the basics – walk, trot, canter, jumping – without reins. Again, give them a hand hold at first if they need it. Until beginners can balance without holding on they should not have reins to support them. I think your horse will agree that the bit is not designed as a handle bar for unbalanced riders!
We tend to give beginners all of the tack and send them out on their own with little understanding, balance, or confidence. We teach them how to steer the horse around the arena at all of the gaits. Then we spend the next decade undoing all of their bad habits and teaching them how to ride without a reliance on the stirrups, bit, or whatever other crutch that we initially gave them to facilitate learning. Why don’t we just teach our students a solid base – to ride without impacting their horse – and later introduce the positive use of aids and equipment?