I was not one of those privileged young riders who competed at shows with a horse of my own that I could ride whenever I wanted. No, my time in the saddle was limited to a single lesson each week, and always on a school horse.
I do understand now, and appre- ciate, how big a commitment it was for my parents to grant me even the one lesson per week. But any extra rides I wanted had to be earned. That might mean hours of cleaning tack and mucking stalls or spending my entire Sundays helping the younger children tack and untack their horses. I cherished every additional ride.
The best part was getting to know the school horses. Every lesson barn, it seems, has a similar cast of characters: the lazy one no one can get to go forward; the ornery one who knows exactly how to send a child flying; the wild one who spooks at the same spot on the rail each and every day.
At my childhood barn we had Pokey, who really did go as slow as possible. Sybil truly had 12 personalities, and you never knew which one you would meet on a given day. Let your attitude turn sour, and Poptart would launch you out of the saddle. It might have taken eight lessons to finally get Bob to canter, but you’d have such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment once you’d achieved that goal.
Each of these horses and ponies taught me something different. Now, looking back, I realize that I owe much of my success in adulthood to those wonderful horses. Here are just three of the skills I learned from them:
Adjust to unexpected setbacks. If my school horse turned up lame the day before the show, I was able to confidently ride any other horse available to me. When you work hard for something in your life, it is so rewarding when you finally achieve it. Yet so often life does not go as we’d planned—so we need to learn to just roll with the changes and take what life gives you.
Keep it positive. I started instructing straight out of high school. I did not have the most show experience. My resume was not impressive. But I was able to ride any horse given to me. I could ride through the bucks, the stops and the spooks with a smile on my face. No one can teach you how to regulate your emotions better than a school horse. Let yourself be scared and you will scare your horse.
Be flexible. There is no one right way to do anything. An approach to communicating that works perfectly for one horse might completely confuse another. This is not because they are stubborn, lazy or ornery. All behavior is communication—and we all communicate in different ways. It is our job to learn the best way to communicate with each horse. I have worked with youth for my entire professional career, and this principle could not be truer for children as well.
And so, I’d like to offer a word of advice to all the show riders out there: Next time you take a lesson, try a school horse. You may not be able to maintain perfect form the whole ride. You will not get to practice your most advanced riding skills. You will not jump the biggest jumps. But you just might experience something priceless.
This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #481)