Everyone today is a trainer. Hardly anyone is a riding instructor.
What a shame that is.
I’m both and I enjoy being both. Riding instruction is different from training, even if you’re training both horse and rider. At least, that’s how I see it.
The difference? I think we train horses. I don’t think we train people. We may teach, we may instruct, and hopefully, we’re always there coaching. I think coaching is important — because it addresses the psychological and emotional needs of the student — and it’s important not just for those who compete, but for anyone.
When I was eight years old, I took my first lessons at a “School of Horsemanship.” I had instructors. I went to the stable and not to the barn. I didn’t call my instructors by their first names. Those instructors, who all followed Gordon Wright and the U.S. Cavalry School, put me on Shetland Ponies and off-the-track Thoroughbreds and taught me how to fall off a horse. Every horse (and a lot of ponies) were expected to be able to jump 3’6″. And they did. If your horse stopped in front of a fence, you jumped it from a standstill. And learned to keep your balance in the process.
Instruction was less kindly back in the day. There was a lot of shouting and repetition, but as I recall, you never sensed boredom or resignation or contempt or the tone that my Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend calls “snippy” in any instructor’s voice, the way you so often do now.
Kids didn’t talk back. Instructors didn’t care what they thought, because they weren’t thought to have enough experience to have an opinion, much less take up the air time to express it. There was no whining. You didn’t cry. Even if you fell. Even if you got hurt.
No one talked about how dangerous this and that was. You were riding a horse. Everyone assumed you knew that riding a horse was dangerous, and the only way to mitigate that danger was to work as hard as you could to follow your instructor’s instructions.
Today, there are “trainers” who think that off-the-track Thoroughbreds are dangerous, and not only couldn’t teach you how to fall off a horse by tucking and rolling, couldn’t do it themselves. We live in an age when the “biomechanics” of riding is highly touted by the same “trainers” who will tell you to “make your horse round.” Which is about as far from biomechanics as you can get.
I first heard the phrase “the horse goes the way you ride him,” from Jimmy Wofford, who was quoting Bert deNemethy. I’d been trying to put that concept into words for years, but I’d never been successful. Now I just quote Jimmy quoting Bert.
The horse goes the way you ride him. That’s biomechanics in a nutshell. First you learn how to ride. Then you can train. And you can’t train anyone to ride. You have to instruct them.
I know that my own start as a rider wasn’t the easiest or the best, and it wasn’t the way everyone learned to ride. It would have been nice to be put on the lungeline. Or on “made” horses and ponies, or a gentle Quarter Horse, at least once in a while. But there was a stream of unsuccessful New York-bred racehorses that ended up in my riding school, and they taught legions of boys and girls how to have good hands. In those days, you weren’t thought to ride well if you didn’t have good hands. And riding well was what it was all about.
That’s still what it’s all about. Which is why we need to learn how to ride before we can train, with the help of good instructors and a wide variety of horses. Then, when we know how to ride, we can learn how to train a horse. And only then will we need a trainer to help.