I don’t often work with very, very beginner riders. That sounds snobby, and I don’t mean it to; I don’t have lesson horses, and the folks who seek me out for lessons with their own horses tend to have at least a few years of riding under their belt before they want a specialized dressage lesson.
A few years ago, my fiancé’s kids, then 9 and 11, took their first riding lessons, at a Pony Club Riding Center near me: Misty Brae Farm. Tori Hutcheson, the owner and trainer, has ridden with me before, and she’s produced countless competent young horse people across the English disciplines. (A side note: Pony Club is awesome because it makes kids not only learn to ride but also learn how to care for their animals and take that horsemanship seriously. If you have a kid in your life who rides, they need to be in Pony Club.)
I’d not seen someone’s first riding lesson before. It was fascinating, watching these kiddos just climb right on, brave as anything. It was really interesting to watch their instincts, some of them good (correcting their own balance to keep themselves in the middle of the horse), some of them not (gripping with their legs, drawing the heels up when they felt insecure). Tori and Megan De Michele, her daughter, who also teaches, quietly fixed each flaw and set the kids to riding, walking and even some trotting, posting and steering. In one lesson, they learned a ton.
But kids tend to be brave. They’re little; their bodies don’t hurt; they don’t have preconceived notions of their own mortality. Many of my own students took their first riding lessons as adults, and I knew, conceptually, that that was an impressive thing. But I’d never witnessed it.
And then this year, my fiancé, Ravi Perisastry, said he was going to take a riding lesson.
Ravi recalls going on a trail ride once, as a child, but other than that, he has never been on a horse. He’s been to the barn a few times with me over the years since we started seeing each other, and lord knows he has to endure a whole lot of horse conversation, being in my world. But he’d never expressed an interest in riding himself until this year, just once, to see what it was all about.
Misty Brae offers beginner lessons as well, and so back we went. Watching that lesson was truly remarkable. I have always respected the heck out of my students who start as adults, but now, I’m in awe.
Ravi is more than 6 feet tall. When he lost his balance on horseback, it was a lot of body mass to gain control of. Every time he shifted, my heart caught in my throat, both for him and what that must feel like, but also for the horse, who endured this giant hot mess floundering around on his back. Body awareness is certainly a thing that some people have from nature and some people don’t; and that some people have from having played sports as a kid, and some people don’t; but watching Ravi, who clearly knows where his knees are, have to really THINK about where the heck his knees were and how to bend them, was really fascinating to watch.
It brought me back to a window in time in my mid-20s where, for want of something non-horsey to do, I decided to take some karate lessons. I am an athletic person. I also know where my knees are. But in the moment, the moment of being taught a punch or a kick or a form, it was six to five and pick ‘em whether I could get said knees to do what my brain could clearly understand. And that was all without a sentient being underneath me.
Watching an adult learn to ride brought home to me how incredibly fortunate we are, those of us who were “barn rats” as children. Because learning how to ride is one thing, the hours of saddle time required to build competency and instincts. But just being able to spend time with horses, being able to pick hooves and watch lessons, and mind horses as they interact both with humans and with each other; those hours became my Rolodex of horse body language that lets me interact with my charges safely. In the same way that it’s so much easier for a child’s brain to learn a second language, so, too, is the case watching green adults interact with horses. Ravi is not afraid, but his movements around horses are stilted and cautious, and their faces and movements mean nothing to him.
The humans who teach beginners are tremendous. The range of exercises and activities Tori and Megan had for Ravi and for his kids during their first lessons was extraordinary. As a dressage trainer, I’m trying to be efficient, using the most direct approach for my student to help their horse, and at a nuanced level. But in the process of learning how to ride, there’s no replacement for straight-up mileage, and keeping that mileage interesting is a trick. There were cones. There were poles. There were longe-lesson exercises. There was so much material in the course of an hour that it made my head spin, and I do this for a living. I think Ravi’s brain hurt as much as his hamstrings.
And, of course, it goes without saying that there is a special place in heaven for the lesson horses. A 50-pound child losing their balance or using the reins for support is cumbersome enough. Those who teach adults? They are truly saints. It’s hard, as a lover of horses, watching beginners thump their sides or dull their mouths. Tori and Megan did a phenomenal job keeping Ravi out of his lesson horse’s face, and I’ve seen the clever use of neck ropes, or reins attached to halters instead of to bits, to help protect the mouths of beginner lesson horses. But at some point, a beginner rider must be turned loose with the ability to influence their horse, and the horses who help teach riders those skills are worth their weight—and then some—in gold.
Ravi is not a newly converted horseman, which is fine by me. Only one household member with an expensive hobby is enough, thank you. But it gave me new respect (and I had plenty before!) for all my students who first put their feet in the stirrups as adults, as well as for those who teach them. (And I think it gave Ravi more respect, even though he had plenty before, for what I do, too.)
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.