University of Vermont AAHS

If You Could Teach Only One Skill ...What Would It Be?

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

What is the most important thing a riding instructor should know? Is it ground handling safety? Is it how to mount and dismount correctly? Could it be safe riding on the trail. Is it how to stop a horse, or how to keep one moving?

Ground handling safety is important, no one doubts that. But ground handling accidents only account for about 20 percent of the total horse-related injuries. The majority result from falls from horses. In the ground handling situation the riding instructor always has the option of stepping in and taking over. He or she can always take the horse and lead it or tie it. Stepping in when a mounted rider is having difficulties is a little more difficult. Often it is only the voice of the instructor that can reach a mounted student having a problem. The instructor has to depend on the student's being able to follow the instructions.

Sometimes following instructions is easy and sometimes it is impossible. Why impossible? Because if the student is having a hard time staying on he or she may not have the option of following the well intentioned instructions. There was the case of the riding student at a posh east coast stable whose horse was beginning to go to fast. The student had lost her position and her legs had slipped back behind her body. He body was pitched forward over her hands which were holding the reins back at her waist. The instructor's exact words were, "Keep your heels down and shorten your reins."

With all due respect to the instructor, those words were too little too late. Once the body is in front of the hands it is rarely possible to do anything with the hands until the body is fixed. Once the body is forward of the lower leg it is extremely difficult to bring the body up before the leg goes back to the correct position. It is also difficult to bring the leg back if the body is already way out in front. So what does that tell us?

The most important skill that a riding instructor of any level will ever teach is the correct and secure position of the lower leg. Once the rider is on the horse, all else comes second to the position of the leg. The leg is the anchor. The correctly placed leg allows the rider to move and/or correct the upper body. The riding instructor's motto should be: Lose the leg; lose the rider.

Think about it. How many times do we watch beginners bouncing at the trot while holding on to the saddle horn, or going over ground poles with their feet out in front or behind. These errors should be corrected immediately because nothing will work safely (or sometimes at all) until the correction is made. We must understand that in order for a rider to fall off the horse the feet and lower leg must come out of position.

Seen from a slightly different perspective we must accept that the feet and lower leg must come out of position in order for the rider to fall off. When the importance of the leg position is seen in this light, the safe instructor, English or Western, will teach a correct, secure leg before he or she proceeds beyond. The safe instructor will also know that before the student can progress to a more advanced level the leg will have to be corrected. Isn't it easier to teach it correctly the first time?

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