Taking Pride in Beginners
[reproduced from Summer 2004 issue of Caution:Horses]
It is always disappointing to hear the following sentence: He or I only teach beginners. It is just as disappointing to hear a horse dismissed as being “only a beginner horse.” The latter usually means that the beginner riders have been allowed to mangle any training the horse ever had.
Anyone who has been in this business long enough or who has taken the time to learn to ride to a fairly sophisticated level has had the experience of riding with an advanced trainer. This trainer may be an international clinician, a famous reining trainer, a multi-dimensional trainer of jumper riders or a trainer of many levels of eventers. The students in those clinics, classes and lessons all have heard the same thing.
“The problem is with your basics.” That deadly sentence comes in one form or another without fail. It is deadly because we all know how difficult it is to break a bad habit, change a way of doing something that is now ingrained in our riding.
What does this have to do with beginners? It has a great deal. Who teaches most of our beginners? Is it the most skilled instructor or the least skilled? How often are the beginners just taught to start, stop and steer and “have a good time” until they sort it out if they are comfortable riding? How often do we see kids attempting to learn a posting trot by leaning on their hands with their little behinds going up and down? I won’t even mention the safety issue with that.
Is there a point to this? Yes, all of this develops bad habits in riders that someone will have to help them break later. Usually this is where that one bad habit starts that will haunt them throughout their riding career – usually it is a leg position or something related to that.
When I first started teaching seriously, I had only a few school horses. The beginners and the advanced kids had to share the horses. I was forced to learn to teach the beginners in such a way that they did not toast the horses for the others. It did not take long to realize that I did not need to teach anything that someone would have to fix later. I only had to restructure the lessons. It might appear slower at the beginning but in the long run it was much faster.
The horses were Western one weekend and English the next. It was all the same to us.
After a couple of years it became entertaining to take the beginners anywhere because they had some serious capabilities and their horses were much nicer. These riders, children and adult, slid so easily up the ladder because they were not hindered with any of the usual baggage.
I have always wondered since why so many places toss away their beginners. I would think it would be embarrassing. I liked to get them going sooner so they were more fun to ride with and could do more entertaining things. Restricting the lessons only to those things the riders could take with them forever made the lessons better.
That did not mean that the beginners were operating at a sophisticated level, only that they were learning the carefully thought out basics that would have been familiar at any formal riding academy. That is what we are all taught to do and teach but few actually do it.
School figures, drills and transitions are there for specific reasons. Good teaching is tiring and it is difficult to teach well for many hours a day. But teaching is teaching and all riding instructors would be well advised to remember that when we are teaching kids we are teaching professional students. They can tell the good teachers from the bad ones. They can also tell a lesson from a pony ride.
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