Monday, Apr. 15, 2024

We Must Appreciate Excellence In All Forms

From beginner school mounts to top-level competitors, there’s a place and a reason for each type of horse throughout a rider’s lifetime.

I think part of our responsibility as teachers and trainers is to help our students learn to value quality, and this means appreciating excellence in all of its forms. Every horse has a job that it’s best suited to perform, and our task is to evaluate what each horse has to offer and then to find him the right job that will take advantage of his best qualities.

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From beginner school mounts to top-level competitors, there’s a place and a reason for each type of horse throughout a rider’s lifetime.

I think part of our responsibility as teachers and trainers is to help our students learn to value quality, and this means appreciating excellence in all of its forms. Every horse has a job that it’s best suited to perform, and our task is to evaluate what each horse has to offer and then to find him the right job that will take advantage of his best qualities.

As judges, trainers, riders and students, we should learn to recognize the worth in the generous spirit of the beginner-level school horse and respect the consistency of a local-level show horse that can teach the rider the ropes in the show ring just as much as we esteem the top-level show hunter and our international jumpers.

Riding is a unique sport because of the partnership with the horse, a living being with physical and mental strengths and weaknesses. Many people take up riding, just as they might tennis or golf, at a point in their lives when their aspirations are generally to achieve their own personal best rather than pursuing a career in the sport. Gaining skill in any sport is a developmental process, and when you are younger the process of learning physical skills is generally easier than when you approach this type of learning as an adult.

In riding, this is even more likely to be the case because adults are at a point in their lives where they recognize their own mortality. In golf and tennis, you’re dealing with a partner with whom you share a common language, and the element of physical risk is minimal. Not so with a horse. So no matter your age when you begin riding, the most important element of successfully learning the sport is to have the right teacher.

Neatly Packed Bags

Regardless of what we trainers may say, the real teachers in the riding ring are the horses! Every rider is a product of the horses she’s ridden, and finding the right horse/teacher for each part of the educational journey will go a long way in enabling a rider to achieve her potential.

Many of us use the old adage about practice making perfect, but what we really want is for our practice to be focused and successful and a rewarding experience for our horses and ourselves. Focused practice will allow us to achieve safer and better performances that move us toward our goals.

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To experience this type of practice at the entry level in riding, you must have an equine partner who has the temperament and training to allow you to improve your position and your ability to use your aids effectively by tolerating your mistakes and rewarding you with the desired response to aids used sympathetically and correctly.

We have all heard the stories of the parent who bought their teenager a young, untrained horse and how they “learned” together. It’s more likely that they “survived” the experience together, but, in reality, it would be the rare case in which either the teenager or the young horse develops to their potential through this process.

Every trainer knows that riders bring with them baggage packed with their former riding experiences, and it’s often the trainer’s job to help the student unpack that baggage and throw out the dross. How fortunate is the rider who has a suitcase full of good experiences that are neatly packed in an orderly fashion. This is the result when a rider has had the right horse as a teacher at each step in the learning process.

We are fortunate in this country to have wonderful school horses that can help the rider progress in a logical fashion as well as levels of competition that allow these riders to test their skills while also achieving some competitive success.

Unfortunately, some people don’t realize that a horse who is a beautiful type, responsive to the aids and a great athlete is the very last horse in the world that a novice adult or child rider can cope with or learn from. It’s really frustrating when you’re trying to help someone find the right teacher/partner and he or she won’t even consider a horse who is in its late teens, still a wonderful horse in the show ring at 2’6″, or who isn’t the hack winner.

Sometimes it’s the other clientele in a barn—who may compete at a higher level—who have created this attitude. If the parent of a novice rider or a novice adult rider has this perspective, however, then it’s our job as trainers to help them see that it’s not realistic to think that you can purchase one horse that will meet your needs through a lifetime of riding. They will need a horse to begin with and then a variety of other teacher/partners as they progress in their skills and set new riding goals.

The Perfect Balance

The entry-level rider needs a horse whose temperament allows it to tolerate the stiffness, lack of balance and unintended abuse it’s going to receive while the rider is learning to control her position and develop unity with the horse’s motion. An overly sensitive horse at this point in a rider’s career is likely to scare the rider because the horse doesn’t understand the rider’s predicament. In turn, the rider might give up the sport or at the very least learn to ride in a defensive manner. The right horse gives a rider confidence and a sense of security, which will allow her to relax and learn.

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Once a rider develops control of her position, she can start to develop her aids and a clearer communication system with the horse. Now, the right horse is one who’s sensitive enough to respond to aids that are used correctly without being overly reactive to mistakes on the rider’s part.

Even at this stage a horse with great jumping style and athletic movement isn’t really what the rider needs. Horses who have a shorter stride and fold safely but step over the jumps without creating a bascule are perfect teachers for the entry-level and even the low intermediate-level rider. They jump safely but in a manner that’s less challenging to the rider’s balance and security.

One of the beauties of teaching in a college riding program is having students at all levels in the process of learning to ride and therefore having a niche for a variety of horses. Some horses come to us at the peak of their competitive careers, and it’s wonderful to be able to offer our good college riders the opportunity to refine their skills riding a sensitive, well-educated top-level show hunter that they could never have afforded to purchase.

It’s equally fulfilling to have a place for the horse that performs his job safely and sanely when ridden in a field, on the trails and in the show ring but lacks the style and movement to be the winner in top competition.

Additionally, it’s great to be able to give our good show horses second and third careers in the teaching program as they age. With some thoughtful re-schooling and an introduction to the elementary control techniques, these older show horses can have a wonderful life teaching less experienced riders who use semi-loose reins and voice commands as their primary communication tools as they work to refine their positions. This situation allows the rider to improve her skills without abusing the horse in the process. These novice- and low intermediate-level riders gain confidence and skill as well as great competitive mileage on terrific horses that are past their prime, have developed coping strategies and are ready to share their experience with riders of this level.

Horses are such generous animals to so willingly give us their best efforts in performing athletic feats that don’t come naturally to them. It’s our responsibility to recognize what aspect of our sport best suits our horses’ physical abilities and temperaments. Every horse you ride has something to teach you. And having the right horse at the right moment in the learning process can help you become a rider who can bring out the best in your horses. 

Shelby French


Shelby French has been the director of riding at Sweet Briar College (Va.) since 2000. Previously, she served in the same position at St. Andrews College (N.C.) for 16 years. She’s a USEF R-rated judge and has coached and trained hunters, jumpers and equitation riders on the A-rated circuit throughout the Southeast. She serves on the Board of the American National Riding Commission and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association.

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