What Children Can Learn From Good Horsemanship
Published in the March 1995 issue of The Trail Less Traveled
Copyright © 1995 Leslie Desmond, Diamond Lu Productions. All rights reserved.
I donít encourage competition in my students because Iíve noticed that most children want, more than anything, to feel at home around a horse. Once they feel at ease on the ground and can move a horse around in a pasture or on a halter rope, they set more realistic goals for themselves on horseback, and enjoy the process of reaching them.
Most of my students, no matter what their ability when they start, have some fears or misconceptions about horses that should be worked out before theyíll be safe around a horse on their own. Unfortunately our society promotes aggression and competition at a very young age. Winning, at any cost, is usually rewarded.
The lessons students learn by trying to improve with the horse, in having the desire to do well and even to lose graciously, donít seem to get much attention from the riding instructors I have known. The cost of win-for-the-sake-of-winning approach is high. It builds a brace into both kids and the horses that can taint their experience unfavorably for years to come.
These days I am able to learn and teach without much of a brace, but it didnít start that way. From experience, it takes a lot longer to erase a brace than it does to have one installed!
Iíll never forget the way I felt as a clock-watching schoolgirl, when the little hand crept toward 2 and the big hand seemed to stick on 10. Those painful minutes before I was free to spring home to the horse I had behind our house were as hard on me as oak chairs. Iíve met and taught a lot of horse-less kids, and they all agree the only seat in the world thatís worth a whistle is on the back of a horse.
Several years before I enjoyed those long afternoons and dawn-to-dusk weekends on the bare back of a horse, I tried figure skating, ballet and finally piano lessons. Piano wasnít hard. I was able to memorize the scales in their entirety by simply zooming my thumb up and down the ivory until I drove the music teacher absolutely nuts. She gave up, and that marked the joyful end of time wasted. My commitment to horsemanship began in earnest from that day on.
As far as the adults in my life were concerned, there were a couple of hitches. First, they didnít know beans about the huge horse the neighbor lady gave me, nor were they inspired to find out. That suited me fine. What did trouble them was that, at the mention of a riding lesson, Iíd vanish.
They had convinced me that teachers of any stripe didnít know much and cared even less, especially when it concerned me and what I thought was important, which was horses. So I was left to sort out the whole works for myself. It was the ďstaying onĒ part of it that had me stymied in the beginning.
Learning by experience
Brown Jug was over 16 hands and came complete with razor-like withers and a jump like a jack rabbit. He bucked me off all the time, but I never held it against him: he always waited. I would get up, gather my reins and lead him home. We did that for a year or so until one day it got harder for him and easier for me. As things between me and Brown Jug continued to improve, I officially expanded my riding ďbusinessĒ to include horse training. By this time, most of my friends in the fifth grade had learned how to stay on.
Under my ďdirectionĒ we all tried to unravel the mystery of diagonals and leads. Looking back on it, I cringe for poor old Jug. We spanked him for missing his leads at the trot and for picking up the wrong diagonal at the lope.
Then one day, and none too soon, an old Irishman named Joe Small came by. He trained horses at Green Mountain race track in Pownal, Vt. He had some things for sale and some free advice. He was the rural horse-ownerís Fuller Brush man, and he slipped me a lot of helpful pointers as I poked through his inventory.
Several visits later he concluded that my enthusiastic response to his frequent visits would only lead to one sale. Our final exchange of $4 left me with a beautiful 30-foot canvas long line that I got tangled in for years afterwards. Had I taken Joe Smallís advice, Brown Jug and I would have been better off. But Small spoke quickly in soft tones, so I missed the part about not tying Jug the full length of my canvas line. It wasnít our first wreck, nor our last, but it was memorable. And so were the words Small spoke to me on his last visit, ďI think youíll find those diagonals a little easier to notice at the trot,Ē he said. ďAnd those leads youíre after, they might turn up for you one day while youíre cantering down that trail.Ē This advice got me thinking that somewhere, someday, there might be another person who could teach me something worthwhile about horses.
In the meantime, I would be the teacher, right or wrong, and with that brace as my credo, I rode and taught, got thrown and fought with all the might a 75-pound kid could muster. By the age of 11, I had a rocking little horse training business underway.
Since then, I have come across some excellent teachers, and Iím sad to say I had to cover many miles and confuse many horses before I found them. If I have come to appreciate one thing about learning, it is that I canít learn much from an uninspired teacher. I have learned the same thing about teaching: that I am not able to teach effectively if my students arenít prepared or inspired to be with me mentally. For best results, the two need to go together.
I hope that my enthusiasm for improving my own horsemanship rubs off permanently on these kids. I try to ensure this by letting them get to know me as a fellow student. I think itís important for them to see that I make mistakes and get corrected, that I need to have things simplified and re-explained until I ďget it,Ē just like they do. A lot of them ride alongside me in clinics with Buck Brannaman, Brian Neubert and Joe Wolter. They pack along with me to lessons with Tom Dorrance when weíre able to arrange it, and theyíve watched, for days on end, Ray Hunt start colts and work out the braces in his students and their horses.
How fortunate these kids are to have parents that care more about their childrenís safety and confidence than they do about competition. Itís terrific to have their support for my quest to find better ways to help these kids develop patience with themselves and their horses and to keep their appetite for new information growing all the time. In a broader sense, I hope itís a sign of changing times.