Because I Said So

Jec Ballou, horse trainer, jec aristotle ballou, western dressage, jec ballou, dressage exercises for horse and rider, jec ballou, equine fitness, beyond horse massage, Jec Ballou
Jec A. Ballou

By Jec A. Ballou

Teaching is a funny business, especially when one endeavours to teach something as elusive as horsemanship. It’s a cruel pursuit of seeing students achieve success for a few seconds and then fall apart just as quickly. Too often I find myself saying “Oh! That was it – you had it! Did you feel it?” just as the scene before me unravels and the student’s face pinches up in frustration. It’s akin to asking someone if she felt the urge to blink her eyes right before her eyelids moved. Of course, she didn’t. And if her learning is supposed to be built upon these teachable nanoseconds, you can see how it gets discouraging.

And then it’s my job as instructor to channel that frustration into something productive and uplifting. Aside from the Dalai Lama, most of us cannot achieve such a feat. Yes, any learning curve involves setbacks, but with horses the setbacks outnumber the triumphs by a large margin. Feigning a thin smile and reminding students day after day that their relentless sense of failure is actually an enriching part of the process sometimes just feels awkward to me. Some days, when trying to disseminate motivation that will help them stay the course, I feel as though I’m attempting to convince them of the values of masochistic hobbies. Maybe in reality I am. Maybe that’s part of being a riding instructor.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because the very act of learning to ride a horse contrasts the fast-paced-instant- gratification-information-overload world we live in at the moment. During a time when folks can get the answer to any question or quandary or quest within seconds by looking into the palm of their hands at a cell phone, it’s absurd to expect that they will savour the painstakingly slow pace of learning horsemanship. We humans are pleasure seekers. We want instant results. We want to win the lottery without putting in effort. We want robotic vacuum cleaners, pills that solve our health issues, cars driven by auto pilot. What we do NOT want are hobbies that demand excessive toil and sweat and, in return, give us a feeling of slamming our heads against a wall.

The necessity of me remaining employed begs the question: With internet and texting and space-age cell phones, why would anyone elect to take up a sport that requires hours of sitting in a saddle before they can get their legs in the right place, never mind influence the horse?

Lucky for me, though, folks still do take up horsemanship and riding, which keeps me employed. I have yet to figure out what draws them, but I’ve concluded there’s something about all that toiling and frustration that must appeal to them. They’re a rare breed, these folks. They’re the ones who wake up in the morning, slip on their shoes, and then say to themselves, “Oh goody, maybe I’ll go do something really futile today” and head off to the barn.

And generally what keeps them coming back is the fact that these hardy souls are movers and shakers in other areas of their lives. Commonly, they’re CEOs and founders of ground-breaking companies, inventors, scholars. Basically, they’re the type of people who can do anything really, really well. But horses present a humbling detour in their otherwise highly accomplished, talented, and successful lives. And, truthfully, I think this is what keeps them coming back to the barn every day. I believe that they are boggled, as am I even after all these years, how a seemingly simple four-legged nonverbal beast can be so, well, not simple. They say to themselves, “I can run companies, save lives, build communities, raise a family. So why the HELL can’t I master this less intelligent creature?” It’s that humbling question that puzzles them, which in turn causes them to enlist in the daily progress of learning to ride: two steps forward and two-and-a-half steps backwards.

I, for one, applaud the effort. Horses have been humbling me for 28 years and I have come to accept that I possess flawed psychological wiring that keeps me attracted to these beasts. But I can’t wish that flaw on others. This is the metaphysical question facing riding instructors. I would prefer to believe that I could offer some solace to students in the throes of frustration and angst, to think I could say something inspiring and sensible, rather than just nodding in their direction and saying, “Hey, it appears you’re masochistic just like the rest of us.”

For now, when students turn to me in their desperate hour to express all the woes and emotions and inadequacies that horses bring out in us, the best I can do is rely on an empty childhood maxim, as devoid of inspiration and clarity as it may be. When they are struggling to learn the elusive art of horsemanship and ask, “But how can this be right?” or “Why should I keep doing this?”


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