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Rewards of Teaching
This time last year, the vet recommended that, to help with the pony’s EMS, exercise would be a great idea. While that was great in theory, in practice not so much. The pony, having been retired for the better part of five years, and I had definitely outgrown him as he is 14.1hh, and I now ride a 16.1hh.
No matter how I looked at it, it was not going to be a good idea for me to be riding him. And continuous lunging and walking around the field felt like it would bore the poor pony (let's call him Bob) to an early grave.
However, I help out at a local riding school and thought to myself, Surely there is a child that I could ask to take on riding a pony. Seems like a stupid question, doesn’t it? What child, that is already pony-mad and learning to ride, wouldn’t jump at the chance to ride outside of lessons?
Harder than you think when it comes to my standards. My standards are mainly due to helping out at the riding school where I learned that pony-mad children are sometimes loud, annoying and, despite all attempts by the instructor, sometimes not really willing to learn. My standards were thus:
- I needed to be able to get on with both the child and the parents/guardians. (If I couldn’t do that, there was no point trying.)
- The child should be progressing well and clearly listening to the instructor, taking in what they were being told. (I feel this was for my own sanity as Bob had been a fairly difficult pony in the sense that he could be pretty spooky.)
- (Again, for my own sanity) the child should not be loud and annoying to the point where I would want to damage my own eardrums for some peace and quiet.
Strangely, despite my (perhaps) high standards on just who could take over the exercising of Bob, I did actually succeed in finding a ten-year-old who fit the criteria. I had watched her progress in her riding over the last two years and had been impressed by how well she took to it and how she clearly listened to the instructor. In addition, during pony days over the summer, I had noted that while the other pony-mad girls would not shut up and seemed to not get along with one another, she was quiet and sensible. Her mother was great as well, asking me questions to understand horsey things (she wasn’t from a horse background but was clearly interested in learning due to her daughter's interests).
They also lived five minutes from where we kept Bob. It was a perfect solution.
And they leapt at the opportunity.
To begin with, it was literally just walking around the field with Milly on his back, but as he seemed to remember what it was like to have a person sitting on top, it quickly became trotting, going out for hacks, and, after the winter, actual lessons from me.
Now, I’m not a certified trainer (for one, I have very little time, as it is between university, work, and doing my own horsey things), but I have got over 15 years of experience of being taught myself, so I have picked up a few things here and there. So, it started with the basics:
1. Having the Correct Contact
As Milly was used to riding school ponies who literally go anywhere you ask with the gentlest of movements on the reins, having a shorter contact wasn’t something that is encouraged at the riding school. This is mainly due to the ponies having everything from complete beginners to people like myself who have competed at novice level dressage.
This does not work with a pony like Bob. Bob could, and would given the chance, nap when he is not impressed by something.
So, that was the first correction. Her mum and I started by getting her to shorten her reins until she began to have a much better feel for his mouth (this was done over the course of a few months). Now, this isn’t a quick fix, as every now and then her reins are longer than I would like them to be (or as my mum would describe them, washing lines), but her mother has seen a marked improvement as Milly now rides any pony she is put on like this.
2. Her Legs
Don’t get me wrong—kicking can be essential. However, constantly kicking defeats the purpose of any useful kicking. You notice this most at riding schools where kids are told to kick pretty much all the time (which is bad practice—get on my ex-racer kicking like that and you would never be seen again). And with Bob basically coming back into work and being fairly fizzy, this was also not a great idea.
So, over the last few months, I have been teaching Milly to sense when she needs to kick rather than kicking for the hell of it. It’s been slow going, with the most progress being made last month.
While her legs had become significantly stiller in trot and only when necessary in walk, canter was a never matter. She would be riding around our makeshift arena, in the middle of a ten-acre field, and her legs never stopped moving. This was not her being unable to stop them moving; this was her kicking Bob as they cantered.
I tried to different methods. The first being me shouting when to kick a.k.a. when the pony was looking like he was about to break canter, which doesn’t really work once you factor in reaction times. The second, and much more successful attempt included these:
Before I hear any cries of protest of “you monster” and “she’s only ten!” I never actually made her wear them. In fact, she didn’t even lay a finger on them.
What she did do was figure out, by herself, what having constantly-kicking legs in canter with a pair of these things on would mean. All I did was explain where they were worn and why riders wear them.
Funnily enough, twenty minutes later as she cantered around, her legs barely moved.
What have I learned from this whole experience:
- Kids most certainly learn differently. I kept explaining that having a stiller leg looks much better than basically wings for lower limbs but that never worked. I could explain that to her mother and she got it. What it took for Milly to understand was, essentially, a practical brain exercise.
- Her hands will probably always be a work in progress. In fact, a lot of riders do struggle with their hands, whether it's with keeping them still, having the correct contact, or maintaining it, it is a common issue.
- I should not become an instructor. There have been times when I have struggled to explain the most basic of things differently or my patience has been tested. Also, I have minor heart attacks whenever Milly looks even slightly like she may find herself unexpectedly on the ground.
However, I do enjoy teaching. The feeling I get when she picks up something new or manages something without anyone telling her how to do something... it's pretty indescribable. That being said, I will stick to my original plan of teaching history and not horseback riding.