Emma first brought my attention to the discussion of the various trainers – instructors, in the more British dialect we use in South Africa – we’ve chosen, and why we picked them and stick with them.
If you’ve been around Riding on Water for any amount of time you’ve undoubtedly become acquainted with the quirky but inimitable Horse Mutterer, my instructor of eight years – amounting to the vast majority of my riding career and not far from half my life. Geez, the Mutterer has been teaching me ever since he was just a pair of nostrils and a ponytail floating somewhere above my head. Although, come to think of it, that’s still a fairly accurate description of my view of him, minus the ponytail (to my mother’s unspeakable dismay).
My mom first recruited the poor unsuspecting young Mutterer – then only a few years older than I am now, but already boasting a total of over 700 horses he’d put under saddle and innumerable blue ribbons won in the showing arena – to teach my sister and I when I was ten years old in the spring of 2007. How exactly she stumbled upon him, I don’t remember. I was too little to care.
We then owned two horses that had been running around in the veld for several years; a goldenhearted old chestnut gelding by the name of Rivr, and Skye. Poor Mom had been dragging Skye and I around our little round pen (the remains of which my current ring is built from) for months and I was still refusing to suffer her to let go of Skye’s bridle. I also rode (for want of a better word) bareback, mainly because none of us had the foggiest idea of how you put on a saddle. The Mutterer arrived and promptly strapped his virtually indestructible trail saddle onto Skye’s back, plonked me unceremoniously upon it and sent us forth, sans lead rein. I was much more afraid of the Mutterer than I was of falling off, so I obeyed, clutching poor Skye, doing splits on his saddle (I was much too small for it then, and always will be) and, after a few minutes, enjoying myself hugely.
Whereupon the Mutterer summed up what has been basically my entire riding career to this point, with characteristic accuracy and economy of words: “She rides good, but she’s scared.”
In a matter of two years, buoyed by a tide of my unquenchable enthusiasm, under the Mutterer’s guidance I went from jumpy beginner to fearless kid who could, and would, ride anything with four legs and stay on top. It was four years after my first lesson with him that I landed my first paycheck – from one of his clients.
The Mutterer is about as atypical and yet exemplary a riding instructor as you can get. At shows people don’t spare a second glance for this tall, silent man leaning on the rails in jeans and sneakers while everybody else’s trainers are running around screaming “MORE LEG!” in their white breeches and long boots. Shouting has never suited either of us well; it makes me nervous, and it makes him hoarse, besides which the Mutterer seems to consider that once I’m in the show arena his job is done – it’s up to me then. He was also deeply disinterested in teaching me forward seat, rising trot without stirrups, or diagonals as a novice. Instead I learned how to warm up and cool off my horse by myself, how to mount without a girth (the one lesson where I came perilously close to finding a ladder and strangling him), how to work my horse equally on both sides, and what to do if she started bucking. Later on he would never teach me the aids for shoulder-in, travers, half-pass, or turn on the haunches. He taught me how a horse responds to pressure, and how to teach him to do so, and from that I’ve often believed that I could teach my horse basically anything.
Why do I stick with the Mutterer when I think I could learn more about seat and technique from a top competitive rider? For two main reasons; the first being that as a horseman, and in his understanding of the mind and body of the horse, I consider him utterly unsurpassed and have never had a reason to revise this theory. And secondly because the Mutterer and I just really get along. Over the years we’ve built a student-teacher relationship that blurs the line into friendship despite the gap of thirteen years between our ages. His oddball teaching methods are absolutely compatible with my even odder learning methods. A lot of students who would have been surprised by how far he could have taken them have quit after a few months of lessons because it’s just too hard. You need to half kill yourself trying before he considers you worthy of any form of encouragement. He doesn’t want you to ride for his praise, but because you cannot imagine not riding. For me, who rides for pretty much this reason, and to whom praise in the mouth of strangers always tastes of arsenic’s sickly tang, it works.
And I thank God that it does.