Finding a good lesson horse is one of the greatest joys and the biggest frustrations any riding instructor faces. A good, quiet, “bombproof” horse that will willingly tolerate the fumbling mistakes of eager beginners is literally worth it’s weight in gold. Those Steady Eddies become friends as well as co workers and the best business partner you could ask for, but is there a secret to creating one?
A group of French researchers have recently completed a study of how a lesson horses environment, i.e. is he kept in a stall or turned out on pasture; affects their behavior and reactiveness. They also looked at different breeds of horses for the same criteria.
They concluded that horses given access to turnout for several hours a day were less “emotive”, and that there were some distinct differences between breeds of horses.
At the risk of sounding like a cocky little snotrag:
While it’s nice to have some concrete data to quote, pretty much any equestrian professional with varied experience in different situations with different horses could have told you the same thing.
Horses are hardwired by evolution with a prey animal template. That means that their first reaction to any perceived danger will be to flee, and then turn around later to decide if that was the right course of action. The ones that took longer to think about it? Code Name: Lion Dinner.
A horse is physically capable of hitting his full speed in about three or four strides. His ears act like little radar dishes, constantly scanning for telltale sounds of something nefarious and his eyes can see nearly 360 degrees around him. They can sleep standing up. They are also designed to graze nearly continuously, munching along quietly for the majority of the day, keeping steadily in motion. Good luck sneaking up on one.
So when we take that animal, put it into a 14 X 14 stall bring it a high calorie meal a couple of times a day, don’t let it out to stretch its legs, and then expect it to behave quietly for an inexperienced rider when we do get it out?
Put a five year old kid into a dark room for several hours with nothing to do, give him a bag of candy bars, and then expect him to behave in church. The results will be similar. Let me know how that works for you.
I’m not a fan of stalls for horses. I don’t think it’s healthy, both physically and mentally, for a grazing animal to spend that much time cooped up in solitary. I do completely understand that sometimes it’s the only way for some folks to be able to have and keep horses, and that’s cool. But it becomes even more critical for the horse to be able to have a chance to get some exercise and a chance to, well, act like a horse. Turnout, lots of time and attention from a caring owner and effort to remember the inherent nature of the horse will go a long way to neutralizing the down side of stalling.
I’ve been pretty lucky during the course of my time as a riding instructor. Most of the horses I’ve worked with had the advantage of living out doors most of the time, and just having to be tapped for the occasional ride was the worst they had to endure.
That part of my life has pretty much come to an end, although horses will always be present until they cart me off in a pine box. My retired lesson horse, Scooter, will never leave the farm, and hubby is aware that if it comes down to a “it’s the horse or me” thing, I’ll miss him terribly, but Scooter and I will muddle through.
As a lesson horse, Scooter was the most unflappable animal I’ve ever run across. Part of it was breeding. He came from a long line of Girl Scout camp horses, three generations of packing little girls around for hours a day without complaint.
But the other part that made him so unflappable was that he gets to be a horse.
Don’t get me wrong, Scooter is far from perfect. He can be cranky as heck and his default response if he doesn’t feel like he’s getting the right instruction is to walk over to me, look me in the eye, and say, “Really? You can teach better than this would indicate. ” Scooter has a one-mile-a-day walk speed, and while he is capable of a trot or canter, he will ask for a second opinion before giving it up. He will even occasionally challenge me, by trying to pretend he doesn’t understand what I just asked him to do. Old friends are occasionally allowed to call bullsh** on one another, aren’t they?
But he’s a great confidence booster. I’ve taught adult beginners so terrified that their default reaction is to curl up into a fetal position in the saddle. After a while with Scooter they learn that the animal beneath them has all the reactivity of a park bench, and they relax enough to be able to start learning a few things. If those terrified adults started out on a more “sensitive” horse, one that picked up their fear and took it seriously, the results might have been very different.
Nature and nurture. Both took a role in making my good solid lesson horse, and it’s nice to see that there is some official data and solid science to back up what I always felt was the right thing to do. Thanks, French people.
Have any of you ever taken riding lessons? What were your experiences? Were any of you “lucky” enough to be taught by a “Scooter”? I’d love to hear about it. And Scooter will feel better to know he isn’t the only one pulling his weight out there.
Until next time,
Me and Scooter