I have been a riding teacher for nearly thirty years, lecturing and teaching here in the UK and internationally, as well as writing for most of our national equestrian magazines. I have long been a campaigner for teaching people a 'Kinder Way to Ride', and although I am well known, so that people think that I am somehow above teaching beginners and novice riders, nothing could be further from the truth. Beginners are on the most important rung of the ladder, where the foundations are laid, and like a house, if they are not laid correctly at the very start, underpinning them later is much more difficult altogether.
Learning to ride can seem a daunting task, because unlike learning to drive a car or ride a bike, you are in charge of a live, large animal, with a very distinct mind of it's own! This is the message that I would like to stress from the very beginning. Don't forget that very fact, that the horse is a living creature, with feelings. He was not created for the purpose of carrying a rider on his back, and so it is necessary that we as riders are aware of our actions, and what he is feeling as a result of them. So often the horse is punished for being stubborn, or 'misbehaving' in some way or another.
'we are often expected to learn to
ride on horses that have had their
sensitivity completely obliterated ...'
Very often his so called 'misbehaviour' or resistance is his only way of communicating to us that we are doing something to him that he finds uncomfortable, or even downright painful. Unlike a dog, he cannot yelp or cry out in pain, so he has to try to tell us in the only way he knows how, and for his 'disobedience' is then further punished. Is it any wonder that so many horses end up in the slaughterhouse as being 'unrideable'? If riders were educated in the proper way right from day one, then I can guarantee that there would be many fewer so-called 'difficult' horses.
Sadly, in this country, we are often expected to learn to ride on horses that have had their sensitivity completely obliterated by years of bad riding, that you have to kick repeatedly to make them even move, and pull on the reins to stop or turn. No horse was born like this.
Try this - place the heels of your hands on your own sides and give them a good thump, several times, and I mean a good thump (!) , with a similar force that you would use to ask a lazy riding school horse to go forwards. Now do it again and see how your own body responds. You will feel your ribcage tense right up, and your stomach suck in, more often then not, you will feel your back stiffen up too. The horse feels the same, and all of this makes it difficult for him to use his body correctly to propel himself forwards. In time, he just simply switches off to the discomfort, and allows himself to be kicked, resigned to his fate.
If you can borrow a snaffle bit with a pair of reins attached, try this experiment to see what the horse feels when you pull on the reins to stop or turn. Roll up your sleeve, and place the bit around your forearm. Now raise the forearm vertically, and get a friend to take up the pair of reins. Get your friend to pull back gently on the reins- you will have to resist slightly to prevent your arm from being pulled forward. Now get the friend to pull harder, then harder still, finally sawing on the reins from left to right, as you will often see riders doing to get the horse to lower his head.
'always try to put yourself
in the horse's place'
I have never shown this to any 'victim' yet that didn't yell for mercy after about 10 to 15 seconds. Quickly remove the bit and see the white ring that has formed around your arm where the blood has drained out - and this is only after seconds - think how the horse must feel after an hour or more of being ridden with a strong tension on the reins. The horse's mouth is far more sensitive then your arm. He has many nerve endings in the part of the mouth where the bit lies and acts, and in time, all of these become destroyed by harsh handling of the reins, so that the horse becomes 'hard-mouthed' and insensitive.
Therefore, always try to put yourself in the horse's place. If you do not think that you would like what you are being asked to do to the horse, if instead, it were done to you, be brave enough to stand up to your instructor and question. I am sure that most people who want to learn to ride, do so firstly because they love horses. I am equally sure that they do not want to hurt them.
Having said this, we have got to be sufficiently firm with the horse, so that he knows who is his leader, just as he would in a herd situation. The herd leader would keep him in line with a good sharp nip and flattened ears, so there are times when we must discipline the horse if he does not respond to a gentler aid. I do not like to see the horse kicked in the ribs, ever, for the reasons stated earlier in this article. However, a sharp tap with a long dressage whip, applied just behind the girth, if he doesn't respond to your leg aid, is infinitely preferable to a dunt in the ribs. He soon learns to go forward when the sharp tap is applied smartly after the leg aid if he doesn't react to the leg alone. Kicking the horse along just makes him dull, and totally unresponsive.
There are times when it is necessary to be tough with a horse, but never rough - there is a big difference.
In an ideal world, all beginners would be started off on my Equisimulator machine, on a correctly designed saddle, and then put on the lunge (a long rein which is generally about 21-24 feet in length, which the horse circles around so that the instructor has control of the horse, and the rider can think about his or her riding) on a very well schooled horse. This is sadly rarely the case.
If enough beginners and novice riders start to voice their dissent, then things will have to improve. Don't be afraid to speak up! I am well known for being outspoken in the horse world, and I am still alive!