By Paul Kathen
Schoolmasters are the riding instructors’ best tool available; however, I believe they are often used too early in a student’s career.
Before I explain this theory I would like to show how I see a student progress from a new beginner to an advanced level. This will also demonstrate why many books have been written about the subject of teaching riding and it has still not been completely exhausted. The reason is simply that every student is different and therefore requires a different approach to teaching her. For the purpose of this writing we will look at the progress of a typical ten-year-old girl learning to ride. She will start on a school horse that has helped many young ladies before to get their “feet wet” in the saddle. Since so many different factors determine the amount of progress made by the student, I will not use time spent in the saddle, but her ability to decide when she is ready to move to the next phase of her trip to the advanced level. In this, the first step, the most important goals are to develop in the student confidence, a secure seat, and the most basic aids to control a horse.
Phase two means much more work on the seat, refinement of the aids, and an improvement of confidence in the student so that she can now leave the arena and feel competent to deal with problems that might arise. Once this has been achieved, most school horses are no longer the best suited to continue the job. This is why I, at this point, recommend that the student purchase her “first horse.” Many times there is also the possibility of a lease horse to help the student fill the gap between the school horse and the schoolmaster . This horse must be well trained, sensitive to the aids and able to do the tasks expected of him. At the same time he must be tolerant enough to accept the mistakes this student will make without protest. Many students instead look for the schoolmaster. I believe for most of them, particularly the future pros, this is too early. The schoolmaster, usually a retired FEI horse, propels the student into a level of accomplishment that is undeserved and leaves holes in the student’s education that are difficult to fill later on. This “first horse” must help the instructor deepen the basics of riding in the student and also develop in her the skills and knowledge to improve impulsion, straightness and collection. Outside of her skills in riding this student has also matured physically and is now ready for “more horse.”
To me this is the right time to find that special horse that will teach the student to feel correctness at the higher levels. Feel is the operative word here. Up to this point the student is riding mechanically and with a great deal of thought about every step of her ride. This part of her riding now must become automatic; the job of the subconscious mind. This means taking a giant step forward and requires a horse that can develop in its rider the knowledge of the correct feeling, especially for the movements of the upper levels. Let me repeat that this is a very special horse. It can not be too old and tired, nor too strong and inexperienced. It must be very well trained and willing to work even with minimal help from the rider. When a horse is this special, it is also very expensive. Furthermore, like any horse, it will want to return to its natural way of going; onto the forehand. Since it is the purpose of such a schoolmaster to bring the student up to its level of training and not to step down to the student’s level of experience, the student must at least be able to maintain in the horse a level of collection that allows the horse to do its work correctly. It also clearly shows the need for an experienced trainer to make sure the horse does not lose its skills. I like to compare such a rider to a cook who can only prepare a meal by following a recipe. The advanced rider controls her horse by feel, like a chef who creates his meals by taste.
The point I have been trying to make here is that the ideal horse for a student to learn to ride on is not the best horse the student can afford but the best horse the student can ride. The reason why I am so adamant about it is that I am often looking for horses suited for my students and therefore realize the difficulty in finding one that fits the need, is healthy, and affordable. The right horse is the one that is well ahead of the student in its skills and yet can be ridden by the student - with the help of a professional trainer - to its level. In the sport of Dressage for a rider who is just past the beginner stage in her riding it would be very difficult to ride any FEI test correctly, no matter how advanced the horse is. Her minimum skill level must be that of second level.
Sometimes it is possible to talk a great deal without ever being understood, just simply because people do understand the meaning of a word differently. To avoid such a misunderstanding here, I would like to explain exactly what I mean by the term “schoolmaster.” Let us just look at the term SCHOOLMASTER. It consists of two words, school - a place of learning, and master - someone who is expert in his field. That describes our horse as an expert who teaches. It is obvious that a horse can not teach like a professor would. He acts as an assistant to the professor. He must without hesitation do as asked even when the communication is at times a bit fuzzy and often inconsistent. In order to show the difference between a “first horse” and a “schoolmaster” allow me to tell you about an experience I had as a young man preparing for my assistant teacher certification in Muenster, Germany. On the last Sunday of a three month course I participated in a music ride to exercise some of the boarders’ horses. I was given a third to fourth level horse. To best describe the impact that ride had on me, consider this happened forty years ago, I have ridden many very good horses since then yet I have not felt that good about a ride again. It was sixty minutes of total harmony. For three months Mr. Stecken and his assistants had explained to us the importance of lightness and harmony in lectures, dressage lessons, and jumping lessons and had given us a very good idea what these mean for the success in training and showing. Within one hour this mare showed me that everything we had been taught was absolutely correct. It also showed me that I had greatly underestimated the quality of such training and the lift such a ride can give to a person.
This horse was a master in the subject of harmony! I will never give up conveying to my students the importance of striving for and improving upon it. I just wish I knew who trained that horse. I would want to learn more from him.
There are very few horses that can be considered masters at everything, so in your search for the horse that will take you to your potential you must first evaluate yourself, determine where you need the most help, and then look for the horse that is especially strong in that area. Try this horse and make sure you two will get along, and with a little fine tuning he will respond to you correctly. It has always been my belief that the responsibility for learning lies - at least in the case of adults - with the student. You have chosen the professional you are comfortable with and whom you trust so you should follow the professional advice you receive. Please keep in mind, however, that the value of this advice depends upon the correctness of the input coming from you. Please be honest with yourself and your instructor! After all it is your progress, your enjoyment, and your money.