I’ve never had any intention of being a trainer. I’ve always joked that I’m better with small animals than I am with small humans. So, imagine my surprise when I find myself with a my very own group of what my barn calls “up-downers” to teach on Friday evenings. As the lesson kids trot around a large lunge-line circle, I hear myself chanting “up, down, up, down, up down” for the majority of our time together. This doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Well, now imagine my surprise when at the end of every week I realize I’ve probably learned as much as I’ve taught. And now, in an attempt to feel like I’m teaching someone something, I’m sharing those lessons with you.
Harper is my oldest student who had a few lessons under her belt before coming to me. At a bold 7 years old she carries herself confidently and doesn’t question whether or not she CAN ride a pony, only how quickly she’ll learn to ride it WELL. She’s a spitfire who had no trouble kicking a pony to get going, and from the start I worried she’d be a bit of a handful for me. I kept our lessons as interesting as I could with mazes, obstacle courses, and patterns to steer and walk through. However, I kept her on our smallest pony so that if Harper got too gung-ho I could easily grab the pony and put on the brakes for her. A few times I watched Harper give a small resigned sigh when I got out the lunge line for her to trot on, but she never once complained or asked to go by herself. She put her best foot forward no matter what exercise I put in front of her, and she thanked me politely at the end of every ride.
Finally, I asked myself if Harper was still on the lunge line because she was a handful or if because I was scared of letting her off. That next week, I got out our bigger pony, the one that you can trot on all by yourself, and I watched her light up. She sat tall in the saddle, waited quietly until I felt she was ready to trot without me, and then gave her cues gently but clearly- just like we talked about. Harper trotted all the way around the arena in a perfect up-down rhythm before letting her pony walk with a big pat and bigger smile. I shook my head that day. I really had thought I was going to need to teach her to have patience, but instead Harper reminded me that when you love something, like REALLY love something, you’ll wait until it’s the right time no matter how long it takes.
While she’s not the youngest, Claire has to be one of the most fragile-looking kids I’ve worked with. With teensy little bird-legs, adorable pink glasses, and boots that are always seem to be a touch too big, she’s a sharp contrast from Harper’s self-assurance. That being said, she’s always the first one to pat her pony after finishing an exercise. We spent a few weeks working with our most sensitive pony. With Claire being so soft spoken, she was a great match for the pony that trembles at loud noises! However, I couldn’t quite get past this feeling that they were both still a little wary of each other, which made me uncomfortable and didn’t help their own nerves. They did plenty of activities like around-the-world, obstacle courses, and nice long walks at the end of the ride to take a deep breath, but there was still something missing.
One week, Claire ended up being the last rider of the day, and at the end of our ride I gave her the choice- we could trot again or we could cool our pony out bareback. I didn’t have time to get out a single word, the moment the pony was unsaddled next to the mounting block, Claire instinctually slid right on, gathered her reins, and sat taller than I had ever seen! We did a lap with me walking beside, just close enough to hear Claire talking to her pony about their ride and all sorts of adorable things. I realized this kid wanted more than just riding, she wanted the whole experience. I had her help me untack and brush and taught her to lead her own pony back to her stall and take the halter off for the night. Since then, she’s been a new rider. Still soft, but with a quiet sureness that puts her pony (and frankly, me) at ease. I heard an old trainer’s voice in my head tell me again that confidence in the saddle often comes from what you do outside of it. My kids were 2 for 2 on teaching me when I was trying to teach them.
We all know as horse people that riding takes an immense amount of dedication if you want to step in to the show pen, clinic arena, or unknown trail. I’ll be honest, though, I forgot how much dedication it takes just to show up and learn during a weekly lesson. Christine is the last student I’ll tell you about, and I know I’m not allowed to pick favorites, but if I was, I’d pick her. At our first meeting her mom gave me the low-down on all the sports Christine tried and hated and how Christine doesn’t really like learning new things. I smiled and tried to explain that it’s okay, and we can go as slow as she needed. Christine’s mom explained to me that Christine can do it and I can get her to do it. So that’s how that was going to be. Unfortunately for both Christine and myself she wasn’t exactly a natural her first time out and mom picked up on that. We talked about a few exercises she could do at home, all the while thinking to myself that if this kid doesn’t like any activity she tried so far, no matter how many exercises mom told her to do it wouldn’t change a thing.
Week after week Christine has come back telling me all about the books she’s read, videos she’s watched, and the exercises she’s done to get strong. Just last week, Christine nailed her posting trot without hands. This was a kid who wasn’t sure she felt balanced while walking, and she took my know-it-all attitude and turned it upside down. She puts in 120% every week and oftentimes I’ll get texts from her mom’s phone from Christine asking if I’m free to squeeze in just one more ride that week. This is the “up-downer” that inspires me to be more than just an “up-downer” in my own rides, and I can’t wait to see what she brings me each following week.
I’ve changed the names of my little riders out of respect to the kind families that trust me with their safety, but I could never change the impact they’ve all made on me. I’ve heard the phrase that if you can’t teach it to a child, you probably don’t know it well enough yourself, and I can now fully agree with how true it is and how far I still have to go. I’ve learned how much I have to share with the next generation of lesson kids and how much more I want to know. I’m sure some of those gaps will be filled in by new young riders, and I look forward to my lessons from them.