What can be learned through horse riding lessons?

By Danielle Neibling

Special to the Crier

Your body is “The Way” when it comes to horses.  They don’t speak Human.  By realizing that the horse understands body language, both ‘on the ground’ and ‘from the saddle’ we begin to think in a new way.  Our first challenge is adaptation.  “How is this horse perceiving my movements?”  Assessing first, then directing is a great  habit that horsemanship can teach, and that can help us throughout of lives.

We learn in many ways- and teaching recognizes these as “learning styles.”   When I teach riding, I use two approaches.   First I give instructions, and then watch to see if the student translates those instructions and can adjust their body position and movements.  My young students usually find this easy.   However, students with verbal disconnects like dyslexia, need to see first, so they can mimic me.   Then they often surprise me by verbalizing it back very well!  It helps the student to become aware of their learning style and it emphasizes our dependency on speech comprehension.    First lessons focus upon how to sit the horse in balance.  Posture, joint angles, awareness of our crookedness, and muscle control deepen the learning objective, which is: a happy horse is inseparable from a rider’s safety!   Like learning to drive a car: position yourself, make adjustments, accustom your body to specific tasks, put it all together to  operate the vehicle.  Muscle memory develops as our parts must operate independently and simultaneously.

Unlike a car, a horse has moods which come into play like, “Go away, I am stiff and would rather stand in the sun.”   Use gentleness.   Unlike a car, we can  often ease the reluctance from our partner by showing the horse patience and kindness.  Glum creatures perk up when offered a treat, and praised for any right behavior. Students get a taste of teaching when they see through their own training, that the animal becomes motivated by getting it right.  Steady soft pressure on the poll, and saying “head down” then waiting, then “Good girl!” shows the horse learning can be fun.

The time we spend with horses amounts to a relationship. They do recognize us.  Horses have excellent memory.  That’s a sad fact in this world where abuse happens.   Many horses are burdened with behavioral issues that never can be fully erased.   The passage of time is another thing we learn in working with horses.  Hooves grow, winter coats shed, and flesh wounds heal.  We are not so different.  Sometimes new bonds outweigh old hurts.  Horses too are sexual beings and seasons affect them.  In the face of moodiness, practice compassion.   Horsemanship asks “What horse is this today?”  We work with the horse we have now.

Tack:  It hardly matters what gear you use, what style saddle.  What is right is well fitted to the horse and rider, well maintained, and safe!  But we humans think about silly things, like how it looks.  Thankfully, horses are forgiving.  A cranky horse might appreciate a new, softer girth or a wither pad, if he’s older.  While a style of riding reflects different traditions, these days it translates into human retail therapy.  I admit it, it’s fun to flaunt your stuff!

The True Grit:    What have you learned to do?  Through horsemanship knowledge, our confidence increases.    If we care to put our horsemanship learning to the test, there are varied events.  In-hand (unmounted) obstacle courses, Jumping, Dressage, Roping, team penning and Gymkhanas, indigenous to Oracle,  and now Working Equitation, being introduced to us by trainer and arena manager, Jamie Drizin.   This approach to training helps the horse understand why he is being asked to go forward, back up, bend, and pay attention to where his feet are.  To compete, the course is timed, fastest wins!   In any competition, think of your horse first.  Good Sportsmanship suggests that we best our performance each time, not focus on someone else’s! Whatever your equine sport, it’s about the win/win partnership between human and horse, and the satisfaction that both experience in the dance of life.

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