Teaching Riding and Learning to Ride
A Dialogue Between Instructor and Student
By Paul Kathen © 2005
The question is often asked as to who is more responsible for learning, the teacher or the student. As you may already have guessed from the title, I believe that it is a shared responsibility. While in the case of children the instructor carries the greater share, but with junior riders and adults the burden of learning is divided about equally. The ability to teach is a special talent that actually is a combination of several talents. In the case of teaching riding, the teacher does not necessarily have to be a great rider, however, she should at least be a good rider with a great deal of experience. She also must have a perfect understanding of horses, the theory of riding, and people. Next she must be able to communicate well. She should be a big picture person, yet see all the details. I overheard one trainer say, “You have got to be a perfectionist to deal with horses and students.” I agree, but in order to survive as a teacher and not give up in frustration you also must be able to compromise and let an imperfection slide in order to deal with it at a later and more opportune time. It is obvious that not all teachers are equally talented in all these areas. That is why some teachers fare better with one student than with another, or why a student learns better with one teacher than another. To me the most important talent a riding instructor has to have is the ability to adapt to the many personalities she encounters during a busy day of teaching.
Riding students come in all sizes, shapes, and forms. Some are very young and some are old. They are male or female. Each one is unique in his or her background. They all come with different dreams about their riding and how they see their future on a horse. Some overestimate their natural athletic ability, yet some are better than they expected. One thing they all seem to have in common is that they did not anticipate it to be such hard work. That means that the riding instructor has to be a motivator also. To be effective in teaching such a variety of people requires such a great deal of flexibility from the instructor that she has to have a strong personality in order not to lose her own identity and with it the respect necessary to be successful in her profession. Now add the horse to this already uncountable number of different situations a riding instructor faces and the number grows exponentially.
Quite frequently riding instructors hear the comment, “I did not know it was going to be this hard.” Riding appears easy when observed from the sideline but students soon find out that it is not. Dressage seems the hardest riding discipline to learn. It lacks the excitement of jumping and cross country riding to motivate children and young riders. Adults soon realize that Dressage is a sport and, therefore, it takes an athlete to excel at it. They soon wish they had spent more time playing outside when they were young and in school. It would have been better for them to have tried out for the team instead of sitting in the bleachers. College, and later the job, started bad habits in terms of good posture, an unbalanced approach to the further development of the body. This imbalance turns out to be a handicap in riding. Bearing and raising children did not help the athlete in the student either. Chiropractors, personal trainers, health clubs and many other, “help to keep you moving,” specialists have more work than they can handle. I am glad for them because they help us keep our students ready to ride another day. I am only sad that such treatment becomes already necessary with many at such a young age where neither accidents nor the wear of time can be blamed.
Statistics show that today’s children and youth spend more time inactive than any generation before, and instead of being lanky and uncoordinated as their parents were at that age, many of today’s children are fat and uncoordinated. Growth spurts made both generations of youngsters uncoordinated. The skinny one, however, will soon be coordinated again because she moves a great deal and she becomes acquainted with her body and learns to control it. The fat one will not even get to know her body since she rarely uses it. Now they are adults and the diets begin. The weight comes off but the body as a functioning machine still is a stranger. The only way a person will learn how her body works is by using it. Unfortunately, what the child learned while playing, the adult must learn through hard work. Not many riders are, “gravity challenged,” but many are still too heavy. Many seem to think since the horse actually does the moving, a few extra pounds do not matter. A few pounds do not matter much. A few more matter much more, and then comes the point where breathing becomes harder with just a little exertion on the rider’s part. Now you must ask your partner, the horse, to do the job without your help. The best riding instructor giving it her all cannot help such a situation without the rider’s desire to slim down in order to improve fitness and riding.
Let me give you a quick overview of the situations with which most riding instructors are confronted every day. There are playful children that just love horses, playful children that just love horses and are afraid of them, teenagers that clearly have talent and want to work hard to go as far as they possibly can, spoiled brats, teenagers with ADD or teenagers that are constantly distracted by raging hormones, adults who have always loved horses but their parents would not let them near them, ladies who rode as children but quit riding because of college, who married and had two children and are now ready to ride again, older folks who want to learn to do it right, and older folks who finally have the time and money to enjoy their horse without any pressure of winning at shows. The instructor must teach them all, especially when she is just starting in the business of teaching riding.
There is a revolution in the horse world. Riding instruction is shedding its old ways and moving on to better methods for today’s challenges to bring horse and rider together. In this article I would like to examine the three major reasons that, in my opinion, are fueling this change.
The main reason is that there is such a change in the rider population (see the above list of types of students today’s riding instructor works with.) Since the beginning of the twentieth century riding as we know it today has done a complete turn around and most of it happened after World War II. At the Olympics in 1912, that introduced riding to that event, only military officers were allowed to compete. In 1936, civilians and women competed but an all military team of German soldiers won every gold medal available. In 2004, no member of any military competed and the winners were mostly women. Such a change in students had to bring with it a change in teaching. Look at the faces in a military school at work preparing the riders for a drill on the parade grounds. They were all men, they were all between eighteen and twenty years old, they were all athletic, and all had an extensive prior knowledge of horses. All came from rural areas where horses were the main means of transportation. Many grew up on a farm where the work was still done with horses. The task of the instructor was to mold them all into a unit that looked uniform. They were soldiers and the common language was the command, short and precise to bring about instant and uniform reaction.
Today’s instructor sees very few eighteen-year-old males that have grown up with horses. Instead she must deal with a seven-year-old girl who is still struggling to get all the parts of her body to work as a unit, an older person whose parts do work together but not all at the same rate, a professional or business person who cannot move forward fast enough but whose hackles go up at being barked at, and a timid mom who would rather take it slow. Listen to many instructors and all you hear during an entire lesson are commands like, “heels down,” “head up,” “fingers closed,” etc. In the latter part of the last century the former military instructors moved into the civilian world and became the role models that shaped many of today’s instructors. Their methods of teaching were perfect for the cavalry but they are no longer the best in today’s riding arenas. There are moments in a lesson, however, when such a command is still the best form of communication to bring about the desired change. When something has to be repeated over and over again change obviously did not happen. That would indicate that the instructor worked on the symptom and has not identified the cause so she can eliminate it.
It should be clear by now, that the traditional way of teaching (military style) no longer is the most effective approach to teaching riding to today’s students. Since we have to deal with such a wide variety of students there is no longer a one best way. The most successful instructor will be the one who adapts her lessons to the students she is teaching. My good friend, Eckart Meyners, is the driving force behind this revolution in teaching. In his book, Effective Teaching and Riding, he explains the development of fitness and coordination in children and teenagers. He then goes on to show the decline in physical agility once we are past thirty years of age. That part was depressing and encouraging at the same time since it also indicates that through fitness and practice we can prolong our time as effective riders for many more years. Looking at the past Olympic winners we notice that many of them are between thirty and fifty years old. This would demonstrate that besides fitness and agility, experience plays a great role in successful riding.
We might as well join the revolution and change the way we teach. In watching trainers coach their students at the shows it becomes clear to me that many are well on their way of doing just that but not all seem comfortable with it. The old, “Shut up and ride,” comes through every time the situation becomes tense. This would indicate that the trainer has not yet quite internalized her new way of communicating with her student. Sometimes I wonder whether Eckart and other revolutionaries are aware of what kind of a challenge they have thrown out to us. To be fair, the challenge actually does not come from them but from our students and the competitive nature of our sport. Fortunately, along with the challenge, the revolutionaries have provided us with a great deal of help. There are many books written about the subject. Eckart and other experts in teaching Sports Physiology are available for clinics and lectures to educate us about their approach to teaching sports. We must make ourselves available for these opportunities and participate. Listening to instructors talk about their frustrations and many of their students’ inabilities to follow the simplest instructions makes me wish that more of my colleagues had attended a recent seminar in Dallas. It would not have made their students ride better by itself, but it would have shown the instructors why the students have such problems and what they can do to help their students overcome stiffness and lack of coordination. With this knowledge also come patience and a willingness to look for different ways to help students achieve their goal.
When I met Eckart for the first time, he taught Sports Physiology to the class I attended at the Harburger Reitverein in preparation for my exam to become a certified riding instructor. This was almost twenty years ago when Eckart and I were both young men. Also young at that time was the idea of making Sports Physiology a requirement to prepare for our profession. It did catch on and now most riders have one or more books regarding the subject in their horse library. I already did mention Eckart’s book, Effective Teaching and Riding, and would like to also recommend, Balance in Motion, by Susanne von Dietze, as excellent resources to catch up on today’s teaching.
The second reason for the teaching revolution is the way our children grow up. The Germans call them the, “Computer Kids.” A study in Germany showed that sixty percent of elementary school children were unable to support their own weight correctly while standing. That causes major posture problems. Lift these children on horses that move, expect to teach them good posture, and you have all the ingredients for the rapid development of ulcers in the instructor. The answer to this problem is a remedial class for these children in, “How to use your body.” How many of us are qualified to teach these skills? The public schools do not teach it. The instructor must do it herself and, therefore, she must learn about it. In other professions it is called continuing education. I call it cross training that I do for myself so that I can teach it to others. Such exercises can be done playfully even with adults. Watching Eckart have us all do some of the exercises and experience the change in our own bodies was quite amazing. It also proved to me that, like with the training of horses, an exercise is most effective when executed correctly. That means that we, the instructors, are not only responsible for the learning of our students while we are teaching them but also in our preparation of ourselves for the lessons. It is, in my opinion, no longer possible to turn a successful amateur or young rider career into a profession as a riding instructor without further preparation.
The third reason that fuels the revolution is the change in our culture in general. We have become so much more competitive and progress has to happen yesterday. Horses have not participated in this cultural evolution and so they force us to operate at their pace. Add to that the many instinctive reactions we have that turn out to be counter indicated when we are on horseback. A prime example of this fact would be us, without thought, assuming the fetal position in case of danger. On the back of a troubling horse, that would turn out to be a fatal position. Many years ago a lady came to me with a horse she had recently purchased and asked for my help in training the horse and teaching her to ride. She also had an older schoolmaster to help with her schooling. Along with these horses she brought a top hat and a Shadbelly. You may call it long range planning, but I thought she was putting the cart before the horse. While I love motivated and goal oriented students, in this case I had to come up with the skill to apply the brakes without appearing to drag feet. What happened with her? I do not know since her husband was transferred shortly after her arrival and they moved away. I have not seen her name on any long list for our teams.
Students look to their teachers for answers since they are the experts. Today’s teachers must not only be experts in riding but also experts in Sports Physiology. Today’s student must not only want to ride but also understand the need to be an athlete if she wishes to be competitive on horseback. Today’s athlete must not only be physically fit but also knowledgeable about her sport and her instrument, in the case of riding, the horse. That would mean that just showing up for riding lessons is not sufficient in the horse world. To become and remain physically fit is much easier and more effectively done in the gym or on a track. The riding instructor will point out the deficits a student has and it would be wise to look for ways to eliminate them. As far as the knowledge of the horse goes, there are four excellent ways to increase that: Ask your instructor during your lessons, read books, hang around the barn and observe, and attend seminars.
Your primary source is, of course, your instructor. In case you want to join an exercise group she will steer you in the direction best suited for you. Please allow her to be honest with you and do not take offense if what you hear is not all flattering. You are with this instructor to improve, not to show how great you are already. If your instructor is good, she will be very busy, so please do not talk to her about your problem while she is working with another student. The best time for that would be during a break in your lesson.
Another way you can help your instructor is by asking questions about the work she has you do. If you do not understand what you were asked to do, if you wonder why this exercise at this time, or if you feel insecure about the situation you find yourself in, please speak up. Your instructor may ask you to please finish the exercise and repeat the question later. That means that she is trying to accomplish something and needs for you to do as she asked to help her do that. That is not a rebuke or an indication that she does not know the answer. Most instructors welcome such a short excursion into the theory behind the work she has you do. In case you felt worried or even unsafe, she gained through your comment a better understanding in your emotional state. That is valuable information because fear will prevent you from learning. I have a book list that I will give to my students. Of course I also have read all these books so that I can comment on the questions about what they have read that will be asked later.
In case you want to attend a clinic, talk to your instructor about it. In most instances she will encourage you to go. If you are a relatively new student and your instructor is not sure about the correctness of that particular clinician, she may ask you to skip that one. I believe you would be wise to heed her advice. Should she, however, say no to all clinicians, the problem may be with your instructor. In the case of “older” students, I rarely advise against attending since they know enough to decide whether that clinician is worth listening to or not. When it comes to riding in a clinic, I am much more selective since a bad ride can do a great deal of harm to the horse and its training. My way to make sure such a bad ride does not happen is to invite clinicians I approve to my farm. Often I also ride in the clinics myself and get to know the person that way.
Dear riding students, I hope I have made clear to you how difficult it is to be a riding instructor who cares about her student’s progress. I also hope to have given you the motivation to take responsibility for your learning and help your instructor to be more effective in teaching you. Horses are very demanding of your time and your resources. They are very complex beings, they have no understanding of you wanting instant progress, they seem to slow down once you move too fast, they also will grow on you and once you know them it will be hard to live without them. That makes all your efforts worthwhile.