In my younger riding years, I spent a lot of time in the hunter-jumper circuit, only because it was the most popular discipline in my region. I remember my first jumping lesson on a black Shetland pony named Spock. I was seven years old and still relatively fearless around horses. I did as my trainer said: I rounded the corner at a trot towards the jumps along the long side of the rail, sat forward a little bit, and let my horse do the rest. Well, the horse did his part by stopping abruptly; and I flew over his head. Many of you who have ridden ponies will empathize. I hopped back on, repeated the same process, and flew right over his head again.
This is the summary of my lessons from ages six to thirteen. Trial and error, trainers who told me to just get back on, and maybe not do that thing that I did to fall off in the first place. I swallowed my fear and got back on. Week after week, I would show up for lessons with horses I didn’t understand and trainers who challenged me to maneuver them. I would have breakthroughs here and there, where I figured out what exactly my trainer was asking me to do. I learned how to be persistent, and the victories that came were from hard work and learning from mistakes.
Naturally, I’m not all that coordinated. I was a book-smart kid, but connecting my body to what I was trying to accomplish in my mind took much more effort than studying ever did. In my show circuit, it seemed that every trainer I learned from at some point or another would get frustrated and explode in a yelling and exaggerated-hand-gesture fit, either trying to explain to me what was going on or just from general irritation. As much as I tried to figure out what exactly I was doing wrong, I would inevitably find myself in that situation sooner or later.
Around age twelve, I switched from a training program in a show park to a barn that practiced a variety of English disciplines, but still with the intent of learning more for the show ring. I schooled under a short brunette woman who was clearly passionate about riding. She too, had a habit of exploding as other trainers in her discipline. I don’t blame her, I’m not a natural when it comes to horses. All I knew had been hard-learned through repetition, trial and error. Every few weekends, she would be unavailable for my lessons and pass me on to another trainer, Abby.
Abby did things that were strange, like spend a lot of time at a walk and trot just fine-tuning my posture and seat through different exercises. As opposed to all previous trainers, who were just teaching me to get the horse to do something, Abby was focusing on my horsemanship. She wasn’t looking at my abilities—what shows I’d competed in or what I could make a horse do. She was looking at my attitude, my approach, and how that translated in my body and affected the horses. For the first time in my experience horseback riding, I was taught to ask the horse what was going on, and to listen for their response.
By some stroke of divine fortune, I had stumbled upon a trainer who was kind, not just to the horses, but to me as well. She had incredible patience, and took the time to explain to me thoroughly how my body and mind affected the horse’s behavior. I didn’t become a great rider overnight. But she helped me connect the dots from my thoughts and emotions to my body, in a productive way that the horse understood.
Abby continued to surprise me with her strange training methods. Some days, I would show up to the barn and she would inform me that I didn’t get a bridle during that day’s lesson. The whole lesson took place in the round pen, and I had no control over the horse’s mouth. Other days, I’d show up for a jumping lesson, and she told me I didn’t get a saddle that day. She was never afraid of challenging me, and she gave me space to work things out on my own. But neither did she expect me to have all the answers.
All her instruction led back to attunement to the horse, kindness to the horse, acting in the horse’s best interest. I absorbed this new philosophy of horsemanship more quickly than any other technique I’d encountered (especially the “just kick the horse until he does it” methodology). The horses reflected her training methods clearly. She had more even-tempered, sweet horses than I had ever encountered in the show barns.
Even after a few years of riding with her and fine-tuning my seat, posture, and attunement to the horses I rode, I never re-entered the show ring. The victories that I experienced through understanding how to communicate with my horse partners were greater than any feeling I got from ribbons and moving up classes. Don’t get me wrong, I would not take back any of those years of training. I met so many horses that taught me about the nuances of personality that vary from horse to horse.
But only one trainer taught me how to set my horse up for success, and subsequently, have a wonderful riding experience free from fear. Because of what she taught me, I can continue to learn on my own. I know how to listen to horses and develop as a rider and trainer through this attitude of kindness and humility, and to weed out the voices in the horse world that inflict force and resistance in their methods. Out of a whole lot of trainers, it really only takes one delightful one to change your entire experience. Thank you, Abby, for being the one that made all the difference.