I have arrived at an interesting time in life, as a trainer of horses and an instructor of riders.
The vast majority of my young friends have all leveled up into middle school, simultaneously!
This is both delightful and terrifying.
This is an age (11-13 for humans, and 5-6 for horses) where you get glimpses of who they are going to be as adults. These fleeting flashes of profound maturity make my heart explode with happiness! And then … there is the other stuff.
1: Spontaneous, jarring emotion.
OK, kids, you are either having a lesson with me (humans) or being trained by me (four-legged friends). I operate on a very even keel, since I am an adult. While I am not particularly fazed by your emotional highs and lows, I can’t help but notice (and comment) when your shenanigans are just over the top.
I must admit, the current batch of 6-year-old horses in my barn are almost as perfect as one could hope for at this age. BUT they are still 6. And this means that sometimes they will be deeply offended by your left leg, even though it was fine to use yesterday. They will be horrified to learn that self-carriage is becoming a requirement, not a suggestion. And they will actually huff in disgust when you say that a crappy, unauthorized flying change is not an upgrade from a counter-canter. (SO. UNFAIR. YOU GUYS.) But some days? Hello, FEI horse of the future! Things fall into place, and you (for a moment) hold a little Prix St Georges horse in your hands. (Then it falls to bits.)
Middle school equestrians seem to operate on the same level. Highs and lows. Yes children, every day you need to clean your horse before your lesson. (And yes, I felt you roll your eyes at me! And no, that does not change the requirement.) And yes, you do need to wear your riding gloves, even though you are having a crisis with your extra-long press-on nails. (How are these still a thing?)
And every now and then, I get a true glimpse of how they are actually becoming little adult humans. After a lesson, one of the kids was cooling out her horse, clearly ruminating over something. I asked her what she was contemplating. “You know,” she replied, “I actually feel like I am figuring this out!”(My heart exploded with pride.) “BUT!” she said, “there is just… SO. MUCH. MORE. TO. LEARN! I know NOTHING!” And then she exploded into fits of sobs. *sigh*
2: Having to deal with grownups who know nothing. Nothing!
It is impossibly hard being a middle school student. Whether you are a human or a horse, you can 100 percent expect to be horribly, horribly misunderstood by the foolish adults in your life. The demands that adults make on you are unjust. The requirement that you should listen and respect (and learn?) is appalling.
I have one particular student who encompasses the real (tragic) toil of being a middle school child. Every Wednesday for the past five years his grandmother has brought him to my stable for a lesson. Since he has become a middle schooler, I have witnessed the horrors that he faces. He rolls out of the van and shuffles over to the barn. He more or less staggers in sideways, usually coming to rest with his head up against the barn wall. #struggle
Our conversation, without fail, goes like this:
Me: Hey. We good?
Him: *mumble mumble Minecraft mumble*
Me: “Listen up friend, it’s time to go!”
Him: (slouching even more, if you can imagine, head practically in dirt) “UGH. I AM. JUST. SO. SICK. OF. LISTENING!”
Me: (struggling valiantly to keep a straight face) We proceed to have a perfectly good lesson.
Now seriously. If this does not also describe every 5- and 6-year-old horse, then I don’t know what does!
Some kids are actual tiny adults in seventh grade. Some horses are national champion at 5. And some? Are not. (Which is not even something that I would consider being worried about.)
Some children call me on the actual phone to talk about riding goals. Some kids spend 78 percent of their lesson on their fidget spinner (not literally, but you get me).
Some horses demand new challenges and thrive on new skills. Some fall over when you attempt a canter to walk transition (literally this time).
And big picture? Eventually, everyone will be an adult, and the playing field levels out. I refuse to put a timeline on horses or children.
Everyone matures at a different rate. I know horses who don’t come into their own until they are 10 or 11 and then go on to have incredible upper-level careers. I have taught children who seem slow to pick up skills but go on to be some of the strongest and most thoughtful riders I know. No matter the species, a teachable student is delightful, but the trickier ones make us better as trainers.
If nothing else, 2020 gave all of us, equine and human, a season to mature. I feel blessed to have found my niche in the equine world, teaching young horses and young riders the ropes. Despite the challenges that the past year has delivered, I have been proud to see the incredible progress that my young ones have made.
I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer (and stall mucker/snow removal expert) from the lovely state of Maine. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and children at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center (and yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well).
When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my stable, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I look forward to competing my young horse, Dubai’s Dream, during the 2021 season, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.