Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Ode to the Humble Lesson Horse

The other day I wrote about what different aspects of mental and physical preparation have on becoming proficient in the saddle when beginning to ride.  Today I'd like to explore the other half to the riding equation - the horse.  In order to create a great partnership while riding, you must have a willing and engaged equine partner.  When starting out as a riding student, you probably won't know all the differences in horse behavior, other than extreme cases, and therefore must rely on the honesty and trustworthiness of others to give you a fair assessment of your potential mount.  I hope to arm you with some things to look for so that you can make decisions for your own safety.

Having lived my entire life in the horse industry, and giving lessons for close to twenty years, I have found that nothing will stop a potential rider from continuing their riding education faster than a really traumatic wreck on horse.  Keep in mind, there is a big difference between falling off and getting thrown, and for some, falling off itself is too scary for them, and therefore, horseback riding may not be their sport.  Falling off a horse is as much a part of riding as falling is to learning to surf or snow ski, and those sports aren't for everyone either.  What I am referring to is a true wreck - where the horse runs off uncontrollably, the rider gets stomped on, or dumped into a tree, fence, or another equally unforgiving object.  A wreck usually results in a hospital visit and a memory for the rider that causes a fear and distrust of horses that can remain for a lifetime.

My goal as an instructor has always been to prevent that sort of thing from happening and keep those people riding, and thus, in our industry.  Whenever someone comes to me with a scary story of how they once got hurt while riding, and they never got on a horse again, I ask them as many questions as I can.  Whose horse was it?  Were there any adults/competent riders around helping you?  Had you ridden or taken lessons prior to your accident?  Overwhelmingly, the wreck was a result of people riding horses that they shouldn't be riding, without any instruction or oversight, and riding them in a manner that just begs for them to get hurt.  For example, I have a very close friend who has told me over and over how she just loves horses, but is terrified of them.  Come to find out, when she was a teenager, she and two friends decided to ride one of the friends horses bareback - all three of them - all around a farm, all day long, by themselves.  Eventually, the poor horse got sick of carrying the three of them around and dumped them, and my friend was stepped on in the process.  Can you blame it?  Clearly, an adult should have stepped up and told the girls to give the horse a break.  There are thousands of similar stories out there, and they represent a huge loss to the horse industry in potential horse owners.  All of those people wanted to be a rider, but their initial interactions scared them off.

So, one preventative is to take lessons from a professional instructor.  Do not assume that your neighbor, who can ride really well, in your eyes, is capable of teaching you or your children to ride.  Nor should you assume that the horse or pony that someone else's kid can ride all over and run barrels on is a safe mount for you or your children.  There are many, many gradations of training for horses, and just because it is impressive to see a little kid jumping fences or loping around, doesn't mean that that horse is quiet and responsive enough to gently and conscientiously carry a beginner.  Taking lessons, rather than jumping in and buying a horse right away, also gives you the advantage of trying different lesson horses and figuring out what you want in your own horse, and could save you a lot of money, time and heartache.

Lesson horses are a breed apart.  They are tolerant of beginner mistakes, obedient in the face of temptation, and do not spontaneously follow an urge to flit off on their own accord.  It takes many years of experience for a horse to be seasoned in this way.  While younger horses may provide a fun challenge for intermediate and advanced riders, the best horses for beginners are generally over the age of ten, and have a long record of taking care of their riders.  I personally think that fifteen is a golden number for beginner horses; they are calmer, still have plenty of life left and by then, have proven themselves in what their personality is like. 

When you are investigating possible riding instructors, you should be asking lots of questions about the lesson horses you will be using.  How many are available to use?  The more, the better, as not every horse is going to fit you personally, and the more you have to choose from, the better the odds of finding one that makes your riding experience safer and more fun.  Also, how often are the lesson horses ridden, by students and by the instructor themselves?  Lesson horses that are ridden more than an hour daily by students tend to get sour; it is challenging to carry someone around who has no balance and is accidentally jerking your mouth or whacking you indiscriminately with their legs!  Also, after being ridden day after day by beginners, they may fall into bad habits and really benefit from an occasional ride by the instructor, or equally qualified advanced rider, as a tune up.  The frequency of these tune ups will vary by horse, but my opinion is that they should get a tune up once or twice a month minimum.

When doing your investigations, take a good look at how the lesson horses are kept.  Do they get frequent turn out?  Turn out in a large paddock or pasture is like a little mental vacation for a horse, and the more they get, the quieter they are.  Are they in good flesh and are their feet taken care of?  You should not be able to see every rib and hipbone; the horses should look muscled and fit.  And their feet should have a cleanly trimmed appearance, without ragged edges or cracks.  Does the instructor insist on using fly spray, for the comfort of the horses, and for your safety?  Horses being bothered by flies stomp, toss their heads, and frequently kick and buck to get rid of the bugs, and can endanger anyone close by.  Fly spray isn't just a comfort, it is a safety device.  Horses cannot do their jobs well if they are not physically well-kept, nor should anyone be supplying income to instructors that don't do right by their horses.  If they can't do these simple things for their horses, what other shortcuts will they take, with their equipment, facility and with you or your child?

Please do not judge your lesson horse by what color they are, or how pretty (or not pretty) they are.  Pretty is as pretty does.  I have seen the plainest, most non-descript grade horses that were fabulous to ride, because they were compliant, handy, and, most importantly, gentle to their riders.  Keep an open mind as to what a good horse LOOKS like, but scrutinize closely what a good horse ACTS like - it will serve you much better!

Take care and have fun!

PS - You have heard me say it before and you will hear me say it again - wear a helmet!  If you fall off (which you inevitably will) you can recover from a bruise or a broken arm, but a head injury can be catastrophic.  A good instructor cares about the safety of their riders and requires helmets of every minor, and may require, or at least strongly suggest, them for adults.  For more on my stance on helmets, read this.