I remember the occasion well. It was the Fourburrow Pony Club camp in Cornwall, in the south west of England. I was 12 and a typical thin gangly kid. As you can see in the photograph above I was six foot tall on stick legs and all curled up on a 14.2 pony....my brilliant mare Charlie's Aunt. So what did my coach do? She took away my irons and made me ride and jump all morning with no stirrup irons, just like so many coaches have done before and since. She was especially confident about doing this because she had also taught my elder brother Charlie, who was able to ride the most slippery horses bareback with great ease.
My Father also spent his first lessons bareback. He was taught to ride as a boy by the founder of the Pony Club movement Major Harry Faudel-Phillips. No one was allowed to use a saddle until they first became established riding bareback, sitting on a sack secured by a sursingle. The question is how many of you are nodding your heads in agreement as you read it, and bemoaning the modern restrictions of health and safety? However there is more to this story.
I was in agony that evening in Pony Club camp, and the next day, with strained groin muscles…and now over 40 years later I continue to suffer on an almost daily basis with my right leg. Yes I should have had these injuries better treated over the years, but equally the coach in question should never have taken my stirrup irons away in the first place.
It is a good idea to ride without irons if you are ready for it and you are riding a pony or horse that performs consistently in an established, steady, way. But it is not a good idea if you need to use strength rather than balance to stay on board and if you have to cope with the unexpected movements and challenges of a young pony. It is not a good idea if you have had no gradual progression and preparation for riding without irons, with short periods in walk for example. It is not a good idea if you are lacking in confidence, natural balance and co-ordination, as I was when I was 12. It is not a good idea for most riders at a novice level, especially when jumping….full stop!
RESPONSIBILITIES OF COACHES
It was also not a good idea for my coach to assume something because of previous contact with my brother. Early on I learn that the word ‘ASSUME’ itself contains a very important message…break it up a little and you will see that if you assume things as a coach it will make an ASS of U and ME!
The young are generally wonderfully enthusiastic and willing to do what their coaches ask of them, but they will also remember those early days as clearly as any that follow and in time judge their early coaches. We won’t get everything right but this is why all coaches have a responsibility to keep studying and have the humility to ‘let a good idea give way to a better idea’. In particular we have a responsibility to progress ‘step by step’ through the beautiful progression of exercises that have been tried and tested and will lead to higher level riding, if the student has the opportunity and desire to do this….and all good coaches know that if confidence is in short supply, or there are other learning difficulties, it may have to be not just ‘step by step’ but instead ‘toe by toe’.
THROUGH THE EYES OF A HORSE
So do our horses also judge us? The answer I believe is a resounding YES. Yes, from the moment they have their first contact with human beings. As prey animals they have to learn quickly and they are genetically hard wired to learn all their early experiences very well. Of course the downside of this is that retraining or changing their initial ideas about humans is not easy and certainly time consuming.
This is why the early work with young horses is both so very rewarding and so very important to do well. Training a young horse is a supreme pleasure as they quickly work out what is required in this mixed human/horse herd and build in confidence and levels of communication. However a young horse that learns to be submissive, or worst frightened, or a young horse that learns to be a bad team player, or worst aggressive, are largely the sad result of poor training.
THE RIGHT SUPPORTS IN PLACE
They will either continue to suffer, as they fail to fit in, or, if they are lucky, they just might just meet humans with the special skills and patience to dull their initial memories and judgements and give them a chance to lead useful working lives. Humans who don’t assume things, but treat each student as an individual with their own strengths, weaknesses and history. Humans prepared to progress toe by toe. Of course as well as horses there are damaged humans who also need this approach, and with this approach - and with their stirrup irons - extraordinary change and progress is possible. Happy days. William
NEXT TIME - Best of William Micklem - 7 - RIDE LIKE AN INTERNATIONAL RIDER...TODAY! The blog post that stayed in the 'most popular' list for a record number of weeks.