5 Pet Peeves: Riding Schools

Shows, camps and lessons have taken me to a number of different riding schools, and there are definitely good ones, bad ones, and ugly ones. A shocking number of them are bad, considering that the kids enrolling in them are the future of horse sport; but thankfully there are a lot of good ones out there.

I’ve been blessed to have private lessons on my own horses for the past six years, having only learnt the basics during two years in a riding school, but I’ve spent some time teaching in one. And so without further ado, my five least favourite things that some riding schools do – along with alternatives, utilised by the better schools.

In jodhs for a show
In jodhs for a show

1. Jodhpurs compulsory. Horse riding has a reputation for being expensive, and certainly the upkeep of a horse could feed a small family, but just taking lessons needn’t come at an exorbitant price. However, any parent who has to fork out at least $10 a lesson once or twice a week, and has probably already paid in excess of $50 for a riding helmet (compulsory by law, and rightly so), is going to shy back at having to spend even more cash on the various trappings of riding gear. I spend three or four hours in the saddle every day, and I can successfully conclude that jeans are much more comfortable than jodhpurs. Jodhs are more expensive and for touch-sensitive kids, unbearably uncomfortable; or for the occasional well-rounded figure, tight jodhs can be embarrassing enough to turn them off horse riding. There’s also boots, chaps, and gloves; gloves are only necessary in extreme cold weather or on specific horses with bad pulling habits, in which case the horse should be corrected, not the rider’s attire; and boots and chaps are undoubtedly safer and more comfortable, but you can pay about $100 for a decent pair. Alternative: Helmets should invariably be worn by riders of any skill level, but boots, chaps, gloves and jodhs shouldn’t be compulsory. If they are, it’s probably a bid to look smart on the school manager’s part. Any closed shoe with a low heel, three-point helmet and pair of long pants complete a safe riding outfit.

Jumping in a standing martingale for training purposes
Jumping in a standing martingale for training purposes

2. Running martingales on all the horses, no matter what their training or way of going. Why, I hear you ask, make all the horses wear this expensive, annoyingly difficult to clean and put on, and occasionally even harmful piece of tack? Because the neck strap element of the martingale is a handy thing for unbalanced riders to cling to. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against martingales, nor against the desire to prevent a beginner from balancing himself on his horse’s mouth via the reins. Martingales have an excellent role to play in the schooling of some horses. However, that relaxed old schoolie who goes in a good frame all the time has no business wearing a martingale. Riders should learn to balance with their bodies, not their hands – whether that’s on the reins or neck strap/martingale. The trouble with this technique is that the martingale becomes a sort of security blanket. Should anything go wrong, the rider will automatically grab onto the martingale, effectively rendering his hands useless for rein aids. Not a disaster in the case of a rearing horse or merely a panicky rider, but should a horse bolt with him and he just clings onto the martingale, it can end in disaster. Alternative: Fit the horse out with the minimal tack necessary to make him safe and easy to ride, and teach the rider to balance without holding on with his hands. Should he need something to hang onto, such as when introducing canter work or jumping, let him hold the mane. It won’t do the horse any damage, and it leaves the rider at least some control over the reins.

At a gymkhana
At a gymkhana

3. The typical “bratty school pony”. Most riding schools have one; many are composed entirely out of whole groups of these uncooperative equines. To my mind, the beginning rider should learn to ride on a true schoolmaster. Learning to ride is hard enough without the horse making it any harder; and dare I even suggest that the typical schoolie should be responsive enough to comply to even the timid little aids of a beginner? Instead, most schoolies are notorious for second-rate conformation, bad schooling and worse manners. Many are a collection of bad habits, from bolting to napping to leaning on the reins. No horse is perfect and even the finest old schoolmaster is going to have issues, but schoolies should be well-trained. Alternative: Have fewer schoolies with better training. They may well work harder, but with the right feeding and management, they’ll be fine. Riding school horses should have regular training sessions with an experienced rider/trainer – if possible the instructor.

Jumping Arwen armed with a dressage whip
Jumping Arwen armed with a dressage whip

4. Equipping all riders, on all horses, with riding crops. This is much the same as the martingale scenario. I have no problem with whips; I never ride Arwen without one, because she needs it. I even gave my students a whip when they rode her. Some horses just need it, especially with really tiny tots who can’t squeeze the horse’s sides properly because their legs aren’t long or strong enough. However, whips should not be a permanent feature for every single horse and rider. Legs are there for a reason; if the horse is properly trained and the rider knows what to do, there is absolutely no need for a whip. Alternative: Have schoolies properly trained and teach riders to use their legs. Also try to put small kids on small ponies if possible.

Teaching on my two giant colleagues from the riding school
Teaching on my two giant colleagues from the riding school

5. The great hypocrite instructor. We’ve all met some of them. They are very quick to assess and criticize riding, and generally very vocal in lessons; also, they would rather be seen dead than seen without their jodhs and boots. However, you hardly ever see them actually riding – and in actual fact, they don’t ride very well. A good instructor should be someone that prompts young riders to whisper, “One day I want to ride just like him.” Alternative: If you can’t do it, much less understand it, don’t teach it. Learn to do it, understand it, and then teach it, and teach it with all your heart. Teaching someone is a mighty privilege. Seize it with both hands and don’t let it go.

Riding schools are the foundation of our sport. This is where people come to learn about the wonder that is horse riding, and a good school – or shall I say, a good teacher – can teach more than just riding. They can teach life lessons, touch hearts, inspire souls and raise hopes. We as experience horsepeople owe it to the elementary and aspiring riders out there to teach them well. They are the future of horseback riding, and without them, it would all die out.

Do you agree? Disagree? What are your pet peeves about riding schools? What have you seen riding schools do well?

2014: The Year Ahead

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. Jeremiah 29:11

I suppose I’m not the only one quoting this Scripture at this time of year, but it’s worth quoting again. I love to set goals, if only to keep myself on track; and yet so much of my life is entirely in God’s hands. I can do my part; get up every day, feed the horses, ride my best, look for better ways to train and care for them, strive to become a better horsewoman, a better rider, but ultimately – a better student, a better daughter, a better girlfriend, and a better child of the only Living God. Yet my Lord can flip my whole world on its head with just a flick of His little finger. He did it last year, and it was so much better than it would have been if the year had gone the way I planned it.

So I place this year in His good Hands; my plans are like the flowers of the field, here today, gone tomorrow. I will try hard and work hard to meet my goals, but ultimately, only God can decide. Without further ado, my equestrian goals for 2014:

I love to see the world between a pair of chestnut ears
I love to see the world between a pair of chestnut ears

Skye’s the Limit. I have to admit that my fine brave charger has no real training goals and has never really had any. She’s my pleasure horse all round; I don’t make her do anything she really doesn’t feel like, and she doesn’t push me around. I would be ashamed of handling a training project like that, but Skye’s not a training project, she’s my friend. She’s the horse I get on when I’m so tired of fighting youngsters that I’m on the point of hating riding. Skye’s goals: Stay healthy; get fit; get a Western saddle. (Western saddle!! Squee! 😀 )



Yes... he really does think this is a buck
Yes… he really does think this is a buck

Thunderbird. Baby Thunder met his goals for last year with spectacular success. My goals for 2013 with him were: “… I’d like to have him walking, trotting and cantering in the arena without bucking me off or doing stupid stuff like that by the end of the year. I would also like to take him on his first outride or two, if possible.”

Thunder has never had a bucking fit in his life, in fact he might be the only horse I know who hasn’t done a proper handstand. He walks, jogs and lopes in the arena without any issues apart from the standard lack of balance of a young horse. On outrides, he is reasonably reliable; I wouldn’t like to put anyone else on him, but he mostly behaves with me. He doesn’t nap or run home at all, but he can be quite spooky and has bolted once or twice when I was caught unawares. His spooks thankfully never include bucking and he does have brakes, but I don’t like it very much and took my first fall off him the other day (to be fair, an old girth strap snapped, so it wasn’t really Thun’s fault). He canters calmly alone and in company on outrides in any direction, as well.

This year, I’d like to spend some time working on Thunder’s physical strength, since he is old enough to handle heavier work now. Lungeing in side reins to build his loin muscles in balance, particularly in canter, will help. I would like him to lope slowly and on the correct lead (using simple lead changes for now), understand the basics of neck-reining at all three gaits, learn to stand squarely, and turn on the haunches by the end of the year. Outrides should also still be done at least once a week; I would like him to go out consistently without bolting, alone and in company, by the end of the year.

Oh, and he can also wear the Western saddle. (Western saddle!! Squee!! 😀 No, I’m not going to stop doing that 😉 )

OMW! Arwen's ears are up! Never mind the terrible frame, Arwen's ears are up!!
OMW! Arwen’s ears are up! Never mind the terrible frame, Arwen’s ears are up!!

Arwen. Arwen also met her goals last year by competing at two events; a Western mounted games clinic (off topic, but loads of fun) and a jumping schooling show. She was wonderful at the jumping show, rounding off her day with a splendid double clear for a fourth place in the 60cm jumping. I would like to get her on the show circuit more regularly and to raise the bar slightly to be jumping around 80cm competitively by the end of the year. I would also like to enter her in a few dressage shows and see how she does, starting with the Preliminary tests, they don’t look that hard. (Ha! Famous last words).

At home, she can learn to jump 1.10m consistently (whether she will ever compete at that level or not, I’m not sure, but it’s worth a shot). Her canter, whilst good, needs some work; she must learn flying changes. I want her to improve her frame so that she is going in a good outline with her nose in by the end of the year. She must also learn to do all her lateral movements, which she does well in a walk, in trot (starting with shoulder-in and then travers and half-pass). She must also be able to extend and collect her trot. This will put her at Elementary Medium level. I’ll need a pair of spurs, but to be absolutely honest, I love spurs on advanced horses, they really give a lot more precision.

Handsome or what?
Handsome or what?

Magical Flight. My splendid thoroughbred ended the year by injuring himself, not once, not twice, not even thrice, but four times. Yes, four. First his poor little feets didn’t like the mud and went all sore, then he was mysteriously lame for a week, and just as that cleared up, he cut himself. In case he wasn’t getting enough attention, he then cut himself again, almost to the bone, poor baby. Thankfully, all his injuries but for the last cut are healed. This last cut is a nasty deep one on the inside of his front right cannon bone just below the knee. The vet and Mutterer checked it out and agreed that stitches won’t be necessary, but it’s still a gory business of changing bandages and sticking on a homemade but very effective remedy – a mixture of raw wild honey and proudflesh powder. In a few weeks, handsome boy should be back on track.

Magic’s schooling improved in massive leaps last year; by the end of the year he was happy at 90cm, carried himself in a decent frame at all three gaits, led on the correct lead (simple lead changes), and had jumped as high as 1.20m. His muscle tone had also improved, especially bringing out a bit more of a neck and cutting down on that unflattering hay belly. This year, I want him to build even more muscle along his topline and tighten up his tummy. I’d like him to be jumping 1.10m comfortably at home, and also to go to his first jumping schooling shows. His flatwork could do with work – he can still toss his head in the air and rush sometimes. So to wrap it up, this year Magic must go to his first shows, and learn to make calm transitions between gaits, leg-yield in walk, start flying changes, and build correct muscle tone.

Cling to mane like beginner! So pro, right?
Cling to mane like beginner! Stare at floor! So pro, right?

Yours truly. As a rider, I grew a lot last year, but there’s still plenty room for improvement. In dressage: My leg position is fine right now, much better than the chair seat I used to have; but now I need to work on my arms, hands, shoulders and eyes. From spending ages trying to get Arwen and Magic to bring their noses in and lower their heads, I have developed a habit of nailing my hands to the horse’s shoulders, turning out my pinkies (and hence my elbows), slumping my shoulders and staring at the horse’s mane. Charlotte Dujardin does not do this. I wanna look like Charlotte Dujardin. She is a British dressage heroine and she wears a helmet. Viz., she is amazing.

I must get into the habit of riding with a proper upper body: eyes looking between the horse’s ears with chin up, hands a fist’s breadth above and in front of the pommel, thumbs turned up, elbows relaxed by my sides with upper arms hanging almost straight.

In jumping: My position always looks super weird to me on photos; I think I’m nailing my hands to the poor nag’s shoulders again. I must learn not to balance on my hands, but to push them forward and allow the horse to stretch. Oh, and I can stop doing that funky poke-one-toe-out thing. And I must ride right up to every jump instead of sitting there going “you better jump by yourself little pony, I’m much too scared to do anything”.

In Western: Ha! I don’t even know what a proper Western seat looks like. Fix this. Stop leaning forward and gripping with the knees in lope and halt from lope.

So there you have it, readers. Lord willing, this is what I hope to accomplish this year. And everything hangs on those two words: Lord willing. Because His will is pure and right and perfect, and I place everything in His hands.