Moving Forward

C. S. Lewis wrote that it doesn’t really matter how many times we fall; it’s the getting up each time that counts. Some days I feel very like those “muddy and tattered children” he wrote about, but I still know my heavenly Daddy is just waiting to wipe the mud and tears away and welcome me Home. Every day is one step closer – sometimes a stumbling, fumbling, floundering step. But a step nonetheless.

So, too, our journey to excellence in horsemanship is heading tangibly in the right direction, marred but not stopped by the odd mistake or bad day.

In anticipation of one day finally moving up to 90cm, I’ve been slowly picking apart my fears and working on them one by one. I’ve found myself almost entirely comfortable at 80cm at home, but absolutely entirely uncomfortable at 90cm. It’s all in my head, of course, but that’s fine. So is all my skill, dreams, and resolution to stick with my God. One’s head is a valid and important place for something to be. Abba is being patient with me and so is the horse; it’s the least I can do to return the favour.

In the past if I wanted to move up I’d set up a course at that height and jump it. It hasn’t worked. Right now I’m taking the idea to pieces and tackling each one individually. The first order of business was dealing with my thing with combinations, starting with this gymnastic line – pole, bounce, one stride, one stride. The ones were very long and the last oxer was about 75-80cm. I had to ride Jamaica forward at this or he’d throw in a nasty chip or a valiant leap to try and help me out. So that helped for my terror of getting the horse forward (which I must do because I can’t expect him to keep saving my bum at 90cm).

Then we jumped a single vertical in my comfort-zone dressage arena at 90cm. Then an oxer, only 60cm high but 100cm wide. So far, I’ve been OK. Not quite comfortable, but definitely not in the fear zone.

The horse is wonderful. I want to poke my eyeballs out with a fork when schooling him on the flat sometimes – but that’s also improving. Over fences he just goes in the same rhythm at every single jump even when I’m messing up and it’s amazing.

Savanna started to be very cheeky with her teenager, so she has been dumped into boot camp with mean Auntie Firn, as naughty ponies are. She is very sweet and levelheaded (especially for a 6yo thoroughbred) but there’s just no real schooling here at all. We spent a whole session just talking about rhythm. Then we spent another session trotting the same 50cm fence. She had two options: run sideways from a mile away, or gallop at the fence. The mare is not spooky but she doesn’t know where to put her feet and the running out has caused her rider to chase her at everything, so now she chases herself.

I explained to her that she really just has to go quietly over and by the end if it, she did. Then she went dramatically lame with an abscess. As thoroughbreds do. 😦

Miss South Africa here has settled in much better and seems quite happy and relaxed in her stable and field these days. Work, regrettably, is another story. This horse’s anxiety levels are through the ceiling and she seems completely uneducated on how to actually deal with it. She is nice to ride in her comfort zone with three balanced, obedient and connected gaits, but we have just been walking and walking and walking. Trying to show her where to find the stillness in the storm. I should know. Her ground manners are getting better (it’s amazing what a well-placed elbow can achieve) and we’ve come to an agreement: I don’t push her into the fear zone, she doesn’t rear up and strike at my face.

Liana has also developed a cheeky run-out at oxers. Only at home, of course – this pony doesn’t know how to stop at shows. I’ve passed Midas on to a new little rider so I’m giving Liana to Vastrap’s kid to school a bit. Her little girl is doing better and better, and always manages to get her over on the second or third go despite being very little.

Lulu has been having a bit of a break after working very hard for the past two SANESA qualifiers. Much pampering has helped children back into her good books.

Magic is so well and happy. He was a bit lost without Exavior for a while, but I moved Nugget in with him and he is now back to full happiness again. He was wonderful to ride last week and much better to lunge – we can now canter on the lunge without having any wild moments.

Faith’s front end is finally catching up to her back end. She’s become so trusting of people. Definitely has an opinion and can be spooky, hot and quite pushy – but we’re working on that. This unicorn has an inner dragon. Besides, so far my spooky dressage horses have done all right.

Destiny’s focus has been on hacking. He’s nice in company and manageable on the trail alone, but nappy heading out. A well-placed dressage whip has sorted some of that out, however.

Arwen and I headed into the woods for the first time in – well, long. A year or more. I used to ride in these woods all the time before old Skye retired, but the string of young and/or spooky horses that have followed have kinda ruled that one out for me. But Sunè’s kid and I finally did it again and it was really rather amazing. You’re in another world in the woods. And even with Ice bounding in the bushes, Arwen never turned a hair.

As for Sunè and her kid, what more can I say? They’re a match made in heaven. She’s developed a cheeky little run-out, but nothing a session with me won’t fix.

Champagne makes for amazing photos.

I love how the trees dapple her twice in this one. Also she is now OK with chickens.

Last week ended refreshingly slowly, with dressage to look forward to, and lots of these special little moments scattered throughout. Chocolate froyo and my loony sister – as well as finally making my first foray into Francine Rivers when I found Redeeming Love on special for peanuts – are a good combination.

So are cats in boxes,

and rare moments of creative energy,

and dogs on laps,

and perfect plaits,

and dressage-sculpted dragon butts all in blue.

Blessed beyond all expectation. Glory to the King.

For of Such is the Kingdom

Back in September, just after Magic’s colic, I was forced (by an all-knowing Hand) to turn back to teaching lessons. While the wonderful vet that saved Magic’s life earned every cent of the bill she sent us, it was a massive bill, and I had to find some way to pay it. Lessons were the quickest and easiest way to do so.

As it turned out, a little while later, my amazing parents talked to each other and then to me and offered to foot the bill themselves. I was and still am incredibly grateful for this – it was a hit that would have given the budding stableyard a tremendous knock. Thus God pushed me ever closer to what He wanted me to do with apparent hardship that turned to joy. How great is our God!

For once I had taught for a couple of weeks I found there was no leaving it. I’d forgotten just how fulfilling teaching can be, and no instructor has ever been so blessed as to teach such well-mannered, kind, hardworking, wonderful kids as I have. It started with a trio of older kids and then a whole crew of little ones came pouring in and all in all I have eleven lessons to teach each week. They are the highlight of my week. My kids are amazing.

No music has ever fallen so sweetly on my ears as the high-pitched voice of a shining-eyed little boy, perched upon a pony, clutching the reins in white-knuckled hands as he felt the slow power of her walk: “Oh, tannie!” (they all use the Afrikaans term of respect for me; it also means “older woman”, but I couldn’t care less) “Oh, tannie! This is so, so fun!” The exclamation was utterly spontaneous; so was the smile that burst across his little face and shone a light into my world.

Oh, Lord Jesus, how right You are! Of such, indeed, is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thus, Thunder has also found his niche in life. At five years old he is the schoolie to end all schoolies: the very definition of trustworthy. He’s one of those rare horses that really cannot get enough of human contact, likes absolutely everyone, and never gets bored of people. Most horses merely tolerate the tiny, noisy, smelly, busy little children, but Thunder genuinely loves them. He was never as happy as my hack as he is as the lead rein pony and he merrily packs my little kiddies around, obeying their commands when he understands them and plodding over to me when he doesn’t. Outrides are still a problem because he is so sensitive to the rider’s feelings that a nervous kid makes him spook massively at everything, but in the arena he is pretty much bombproof.

Flare was also roped in as a schoolie and has turned out to be a perfect all-rounder. She’s not fabulous with the older kids as her trot and canter still need a ton of work, but she’s as willing and patient as the day is long without a malicious hair on her head. She’s extremely responsive, making her perfect for my poor little kiddies that have just gone off the lead rein because she actually responds to their little aids. On hacks she is as reliable as they come; she’ll go in front, behind, in the middle, with a newb, with me, whatever.

I missed this so much. Glory to the beloved King.



In Which Baboons Beat Dressage

Bear with me. It’ll make sense eventually.

This Saturday I was at a biomechanics lecture given by a well-known biomechanics specialist and horsewoman from the USA, which was so interesting that I knew I had to squeeze my way into the riding clinic she held today. It was a bit of a mad scramble and my poor parents just about stood on their heads to get me there, but somehow we turned up at the Friesian stud where it was being held, Arwen in tow.

The first challenge was getting her into a stable to wait for our turn. The second challenge was keeping her in it. Luckily, the very kind stud owners allowed us to use a box usually belonging to a formidable stallion; it had a bunch of different bolts and a weaving grille across the top door, so she theoretically couldn’t jump out. I slammed the grille on her and gave her a bit of alfalfa courtesy of the owners, which she found so fascinating that she licked the floor for the last scraps and forgot to jump out.

Pretending to be a Friesian stallion
Pretending to be a Friesian stallion

She was still a bit fussy when I went to saddle her up, but the moment she had a bit in her mouth, it was like flicking a switch. Calm, focused dressage Arwen returned. She stood like a stone while I saddled her up and walked patiently beside me to the arena, chewing her bit and flicking her ears nice and calmly.

I got on and we started to walk around to warm up while the instructor finished her previous lesson. At first, Arwen was her usual self; head down, mind on the job, relaxed and forward. I walked some circles, some shoulder-ins, leg-yields, a bit of free walk, the usual stuff to get her brain working. But after a while she started to get tense for no reason I could find. She’d drift out on one corner and feel like bolting down one side; I tried a trot and instantly got a very panicky, rushed gait. Something was spooking her, but for the life of me I didn’t know what.

The instructor called us over and I rode up to find her smiling all over her face and exclaiming, “Wow! What a cutie!” Apart from not being able to pronounce Arwen’s breed name (sorry Americans, but “Nooitgedachter” apparently was not designed for your tongues), she was super friendly and helpful. We talked briefly about Arwen’s musculature and she felt my ideas were pretty accurate; she has an okay back and is generally fine, but the bottom muscle of her neck is too big and she needs more side muscles. Since we’re only just sorting out her frame, it makes sense.

Talking to the instructor
Talking to the instructor

We started to walk around the arena and Arwen was a raving lunatic. She leapt, she bolted, she reared, she bucked, she plunged and she did not give one brain cell to the job. I was frankly shocked. She’s never been like this away from home, ever. It’s just not her. I explained that this was totally new and the instructor suggested I do what I usually do to calm her down, and I tried; trotting figure eights, serpentines, lateral work, all the mind-on-the-job stuff. Nothing worked. Something was obviously bugging her.

The instructor got to work on helping us get calm without having to pull her around so much, mostly by a useful exercise I’ll definitely use in future – disengaging the haunches, by doing pretty much a bunch of turns on the forehand, making her cross her hindlegs. A horse with crossed hindlegs can’t buck or bolt or rear or do anything stupid. “It’s like putting her in neutral,” the instructor explained.

Oh, we're having a dressage lesson? I think I might be a giraffe today
Oh, we’re having a dressage lesson? I think I might be a giraffe today

Several minutes of this later, Arwen started to yield and relax, but was still pretty freaked out. She was staring into the distance when we finally got it: baboons. I hadn’t noticed them, but there was a whole troop of them running around next to the arena. Frankly I don’t much like baboons either and I can only imagine what the smell, sound and sight of them was doing to my poor horse.

Nooo! Baboon monsters!
Nooo! Baboon monsters!

Unfortunately, this meant that we spent the entire lesson just getting Arwen to switch her brain on and stop freaking out. It was kind of a let down for both of us since I was really hoping to get some help with Arwen’s on-the-forehand habit, and even the instructor seemed a bit disappointed that we couldn’t do anything more complicated than trot in a circle, but it was definitely a good experience. In the end we were doing walk serpentines on a loose rein all the way down to the end nearest the baboons and all the way back without breaking into a trot, so she calmed down eventually.

There we go, that's more like Arwen's game face
There we go, that’s more like Arwen’s game face

If the instructor comes back to South Africa I’ll definitely be going to a lesson, this time minus baboons. She was really good and gave me a bunch of awesome groundwork exercises I’m going to try with the horses. I asked her about the on-the-forehand problem and she suggested lots and lots and lots of transitions, so next time we hit the arena Arwie will have a lot to think about.

Relaxation at last
Some relaxation at last

President’s Park XC Schooling

Those readers who remember my post back in April where I decided to give eventing a go must by now have despaired of my ever trying it, since I’ve just been blogging about showjumping, Western and dressage ever since. Fortunately, I haven’t. I’ve been keeping an eye on the eventing world and thinking that it looks more fun every time I see it, and when the opportunity to have cross-country lessons with an esteemed trainer nearby came up, I latched onto it.

That was how my longsuffering family found themselves once again being dragged off to a horse event, and they had to do their own dragging, with my dad towing the box (perfectly, as usual), Arwen doing the jumping, and my mom and sister doing everything else.

I prepared Arwen by doing some more outrides than normal during the two weeks before the time, with plenty of steady cantering to build her fitness (which is the best it’s ever been). On Saturday, we also popped over a few logs and went up and down some banks (banks down = SCARIEST EVER). She was nervous, but behaved fine and jumped everything I pointed her at, so I was feeling cautiously optimistic about our lesson. It was a 60cm lesson, which is the highest she’s jumped at outings, so I wasn’t quite sure – especially given her running out at our previous outing.

No more belly!
No more belly!

To add to my trepidation, Arwen didn’t load very well. She went up to the foot of the ramp and then politely declined to go any further. She didn’t rear or panic, just refused to go forward. The problem was solved when my sister stepped up behind her and clicked her tongue and Arwen marched right on. Still, I’d like her to self-load, so it’s something to work on. And last time she walked on with nobody behind her.

By the way, Arwen’s pet hate? Back travelling boots. She spends the first thirty seconds of wearing them making a spirited attempt to kick them off. Once she realises she can’t, she ignores their existence.

Plaited tail to have a red ribbon put in. Think I'm finally getting the hang of it
Plaited tail to have a red ribbon put in. Think I’m finally getting the hang of it

She travelled moderately well, with little shivering, but she was somewhat sweaty when I unloaded her at President’s Park (once we eventually found it). Several other horses were nearby getting ready, which meant that she was settled from the word go and stood by the box without so much as a whinny, although she was quite lively and alternated between trying to drag me around and eating. I wasn’t too worried, though; she looked excited, not anxious.

We gave her about ten minutes to chill while we found out where my instructor was and what was happening before I saddled her up, popped on her fluffy boots (praying that the water wouldn’t damage them) and set off. She walked and trotted obediently, on the bit, light in my hand and forward but not stupid. She was looking at everything, but most of her attention was on me. The environment didn’t seem to phase her in the least; she had one spook at a squirrel hole and another at the most gigantic and terrifying obstacle I have ever seen (a ditch with at least a 1.30m rail over it), for which I cannot blame her. She warmed up well in a quiet corner of the park and I cantered a few circles just to get the worst of the bucks out before everyone was watching. As usual, she threw me a buck or two, but I just ignored it as high spirits and she cut it out once she had the tickle out of her feet.

All kitted out for the trip
All kitted out for the trip

Then our lesson began and I followed the rest of my small group (two calm grey school horses, a pretty black horse and a green bay mare) and our instructor up to a showjumping arena to warm up. And suddenly I was riding calm, completely obedient dressage Arwen. We rode in a large circle around our instructor at a walk, trot, canter and gallop and even though she’s not used to riding in a group at all, Arwen’s focus was 100% on me.

I was a little wary when our instructor told us to go into a forward seat and lengthen the canter (green horse, new place, and galloping are seldom a good combination) but I had no reason to worry. Arwen lengthened her stride without changing one beat of rhythm or bend and drifted around on the circle at a good clip with no suggestion of misbehaving. I’ll admit it, I was very proud. We were asked to trot again and I sat down and got the trot immediately. She completely ignored the other horses, even though some were having a buck or two out of excitement.

Cantering in the warmup
Cantering in the warmup

Then the fun began. We set off all in a row, with one of the experienced greys leading, to jump a little log. I love logs; I’ve been jumping them on outrides since I was eleven, usually bareback and with limited control, so they don’t worry me too much. I was a bit worried that Arwen would refuse because it wasn’t a tiny log (over 50cm) but she followed the grey in front of us and popped over with no worries at all, although she did have a little buck afterwards. We repeated this in the group and then by ourselves, and the last time she didn’t buck at all.

Next, we were asked to jump a scary-looking upright made of a bunch of logs set at an angle. I’d never jumped anything like it before, and obviously neither had Arwen; it was also quite big – at the upper limit of our 60cm lesson. Once again, I barely had to kick her on. She followed the grey horse and popped over perfectly.

Loose reins! :D
Loose reins! 😀

At this point I was starting to relax and realise that she wasn’t going to run out and by the time we’d jumped another couple of uprights I was starting to really enjoy myself. So was Arwen. I stopped worrying about running out; she flung herself with great enthusiasm at everything we jumped, and bucked (sometimes quite spectacularly) after most of the obstacles. This worried me a little and I asked our instructor why she was doing it; I suspected excitement, but the last thing I wanted was to give her a bad experience at her first cross-country schooling. And maybe she had back pain or something?

The instructor laughed. “She’s just having fun. If she had a sore back, she wouldn’t be making such a nice jump.” She also complimented Arwen, and seemed impressed with her jumping ability and enthusiasm.

I nearly popped with pride as we proceeded to jump many more logs (some very solid and ominous-looking), some more uprights, a log with rocks under it, a small sunken road, and a brush fence (brush fences are epic!). Arwen charged at everything with her ears up. She jumped pretty much in rhythm all of the time, never hesitated and never overjumped, although she was very careful with her knees, which I loved. She didn’t touch a single fence, either. Although the bucking did scare me once (I had a nice faceplant into her mane) I kept my stirrups and eventually realised that she wasn’t bucking maliciously, so I was staying on just fine. And after that we totally enjoyed ourselves.

Happy Arwen face
Happy Arwen face

We ended the lesson by going to play in the water complex. Before the lesson I had tried to get Arwen in and she had not been concentrating at all and refused, so I decided to have that battle later. We all approached the water in a row with the experienced grey leading again, but the green mare balked in front of us, hunched her back and reversed. Arwen pricked her ears sharply and humped her back, too, which is the Arwen version of saying “Bring it!” so I quickly extricated her from the situation and decided to try the water by ourselves. It was very shallow and clear with a firm bottom. Arwen put her nose down, sniffed it, stepped closer to sniff it again, and basically took herself in.

Once she’d gone in once, she was perfect. She liked the water, pawing it and threatening to roll. It took a few times trotting through it behind the experienced grey to get her to keep her rhythm and impulsion in the water, but she cottoned on quickly.

Next, we tried to trot through the water and then jump out over a log. Arwen ran out once, possibly because I was looking at the water and not the jump, and stopped the second time because she just didn’t have enough impulsion, but the third time I looked up and kicked on and she jumped perfectly. To round it off, we practiced trotting up a bank, then down it and into the water, which she did with no hesitation.

So fun
So fun

I was almost dismayed when the lesson was over and Arwen was still bucking enthusiastically after the jumps, just to tell us how much she was loving it and how she was not tired in the least. We could have kept going for another hour, we were having so much fun.

It’s always fun when your horse is enjoying itself. Even if it gets too fiery, pulls or bucks, it’s not as much of a problem as it would be if the horse was angry or reluctant. There are few things better than riding a good horse who’s having fun over awesome obstacles at speed, and that’s why I am now completely hooked on cross-country.

We do need to work on loading and travelling. None of her issues surrounding it are major, it’s just that she needs somebody behind her to get on and sweats while she’s travelling. She doesn’t kick the sides of the box or try to escape, though.

In the box
In the box

The other issue is the bucking after the jumping. I’d rather she bucked than bolted or refused to jump, but it is a bit of a pain and makes it hard to have the courage to sit forward and release properly over a jump. Over that height, and with a horse who picks her legs up nicely, it’s not an issue but it will be an issue if we decide to go any bigger than 60cm.

I think her problems will resolve themselves with more outings, though. For now, I just thank the Lord for our absolutely awesome day. My horse and I both enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, and only He could have made a world where a huge animal and a small person could charge across country together, communicating in silence, and loving it.

Hope Riding Training Show Recap – Part I: The Preparation

Preparing Arwen started on the Monday, six days before the show. With the help of my sister, who is a lot better at hair than I am, I experimented with Arwen’s mane. She rubbed out about a foot of the middle, leaving a highly unattractive Mohawk between two hairy tufts.

While Thunder is a big drafty type and looks good hogged, Arwen is a Nooitgedachter – in other words, she’s supposed to have long, straight, flowing mane like a unicorn. Ha! Apparently, she had other ideas. We eventually settled on plaiting it in buttons and trying to squash the Mohawk into tiny knobs as best as we could. It looked pretty dreadful, but not quite as dreadful as the tufts.


Sneak peek from show day - plaits!
Sneak peek from show day – plaits! Photo by Monique Bernic Photography

After that I went through all my equipment to make sure it was safe, legal and at least not too scruffy. With Rain calling my dressage test (and, lacking markers, a hastily memorised dressage arena map in my head) Arwie and I rode through the test. She was pretty good; obedient with nice transitions (apart from one sticky canter transition in the middle of a half-circle from B to E), but not outstanding. I thought we would probably survive the test without getting a 0 for anything, but didn’t have high expectations.

Tuesday turned out to be rather too rushed to ride Arwen at all; I had a very long day at the stables, but did manage to ride my test a few times from memory on Reed (who rides a killer preliminary test by the way). Arwen spent the day eating grass, and I started to think I wouldn’t need a caller after all. In fact I knew the test by heart and rode it in my head several times a day, but I was terrified that I would enter at A and instantly forget the rest.

Wednesday was our lesson. I rode her without any training aids at all the whole week, because I wanted to know what to expect on Sunday. She was a little better than on Monday, still a bit rushy and unbalanced in the canter and rather heavy on my hands. The Mutterer was mostly concerned with making sure I didn’t burn her out before the show, so we just did some low-pressure flatwork and popped around a 50cm course. She was a little off her rhythm and knocked down one pole, but jumped very willingly with no hesitation.

We had the most amazing session on Thursday. We started by warming up with tons of lateral work, which got her really nice and light on my aids; she was so nice that I decided to play with her a bit and as we came around the corner to H in a working canter I opened my inside rein, pressed my outside spur against her side and asked for a leg-yield, expecting two or three steps or a yield to the quarter line if I was lucky. I was instantly rewarded by a forward, bouncy, willing leg-yield that felt so effortless I let her go all the way to F. It was awesome. That was just the kind of frame of mind she was in, which was too lovely for words. Even her canter was rhythmic, steady, light in my hands.

We jumped around the 80cm course, which I had viewed with some trepidation; in light of the approaching show, it suddenly looked about the size of the Berlin Wall. It’s ridiculous, of course, she pops around 1.00m without any trouble, but shows do funny things to the nerves. She was fantastic and jumped foot perfectly, not a single pole down, drifted a bit to the right but overall she was extremely willing and rhythmic. We jumped our 7-effort course three times without any issues at all and rounded off the session by riding the best test she’d ever given me, excepting a somewhat runny halt at the end. I was on cloud nine. If only she would be as good at the show as she was on Thursday, we would do awesome.

I was tempted to give her Friday off, mindful of not letting her burn out and eager to keep our confidence levels up for the show after our great session the day before, but in the end I lunged her for 20 minutes or so. Arwen is just always much better to ride when she’s had a lot of consistent work. She was her usual impeccable self for lunging.

Apparently washing lines aren't scary, anyways
Apparently washing lines aren’t scary, anyways

Saturday was Arwen’s spa day. I was running around like a chicken without a head, trying to rescue my numnahs and things from the washing line, clean all my stuff and prevent her from rolling after her lengthy bath. Arwen was, as usual, very easy to wash apart from her face (which she really hates to have cleaned). I used Trident’s Glistening shampoo (which, despite my sister’s warnings, did not turn my horse purple) and scrubbed her body and hooves well. I only shampooed the mane lightly because I wanted to plait it, but I went a bit crazy on her tail. Arwen has the most wonderful tail ever, and once it’s been washed, thoroughly conditioned and carefully combed out it becomes a wavy cascade of silky wonderfulness. She spent the afternoon grazing in the garden because of the lack of dirt to roll in. I had heard all the dire warnings that grey horses will always roll directly after a bath or the night before the show. Arwen became my heroine that evening because she didn’t even think of rolling, went happily back to her paddock, and judging by the lack of grassy bits on her coat on Sunday morning, she didn’t even lie down in a dirty spot for the night.

Soapy Arwie
Soapy Arwie

I intended to have an early night on Saturday, but nervous excitement kept me awake reading an outdated Manual of Horsemanship until 9:30. It was only a training show, but it felt like it would be a very big day tomorrow.

To be continued…


Supper before show day

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?