We Never, Really, Do Stop Learning About Horses

Aug 12, 2004 - 10:00 PM

Every day we spend with horses can be an education, if we’re paying attention, about their habits, their training or their care. Like college, the effort you make is directly proportional to the depth of your learning. And it costs about the same. It’s just that riding education doesn’t have a formal curriculum (except, of course, in college), and you write checks to so many people and places that you don’t notice quite how it adds up, unlike that giant check for college tuition.
Yes, good trainers do have a sort of unwritten curriculum (or system) to guide their students from level to level, but even the best teachers don’t pretend to have a yearly, lockstep progression from Introduction To Riding 101 to Advanced Riding Practices 490. That’s why Erin Richards’ personal account “Studying Abroad In The Saddle” (p. 16) reminded me of how richly different the education that we do receive from our trainers can be.
Erin wanted to find a new educational challenge while in college, and she wanted it to involve horses. But she didn’t expect to have to learn a whole new way to ride. After all, she thought she “knew” how to ride. Her experience struck a familiar chord for me, because I too thought I “knew” how to ride, until a few years ago.
My childhood riding background and instruction weren’t too different from Erin’s. In the late ’60s and ’70s in New Jersey, the word “dressage” was just beginning to be accepted as a plausible concept, not a dirty little secret. But, honestly, we didn’t really know what it was. We thought we were “doing dressage” because we’d gotten our horses’ heads down (let’s not talk about how), and we were making them bend (well, sort of) around the corners. And we’d even taken the pelhams and martingales off to do it.
Anyway, our reason for riding was to jump. So we fully accepted that the dressage could make the horses soft and light and relaxed and smooth, because, after all, that was what jumping was supposed to be like. So I learned to do as little as possible on the horse, to let the horse do his job before and over the fences; really, to stay out of his way as much as possible. For years I thought the horse was on the bit whenever he responded to an aid. Hah!
Many long conversations with my wife about riding philosophy have shown me that she learned rather differently, 15 years ago, from her French trainers in California. She spent years working on her seat on the longe line, on developing the feel of putting the horse on the bit, of correctly riding half-halts, and (eventually) of riding every single stride. And only then did they start to jump!
So she shakes her head in amazement when I say, “How can I push his shoulder in and his haunches out while I’m doing a canter transition? I can’t do all three at once!” And then her eyes bulge when I tell her not to worry about what her horse does every step around a jumping course. He’s the one who has to jump the fences; she can’t do it for him.
Horses’ dynamic nature is what keeps many of us addicted to them. Every day is, quite literally, a new day, even though sometimes we wish it weren’t. And, if we keep our eyes and our minds open, we can, like Erin, learn all kinds of things from our horses and the people around them, whether we’re trying to or not.
John Strassburger

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