“Just” A School Horse

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By Didi Arias

My parents didn’t have a lot of money for my riding lessons, and I know they must have scrimped and saved for my one-hour sessions. Those lessons were the highlight of my week and they held great power over me to stay out of trouble — with one strike I could hear the parental words that put fear into every kid: “Behave or you will be grounded…” and they always finished the sentence with “…and that means NO RIDING.” I behaved.

Weekly lessons were such a privilege and a treat — I was one lucky kid! The county-owned stables I rode at had a large string of school horses, and they also had an equally full clientele list. Horses were assigned to each rider and posted on a board a few minutes before class. Dozens of children would surge forward as soon as the office lady hung up the daily posting. There was a mixed sense of excitement, with a slight fluttering of dread, at finding out which horse you were about to spend the long-awaited hour on.

Thinking back, I probably remember almost every school horse I rode, and there were a lot. They were all memorable, individual, and rider-maker worthy.

Grayboy taught me how to sit a spook, and how patient he could be when I didn’t, as I had to figure how to get back up on his 17-hand frame from the ground without the mounting block. Nash showed me that some horses have a definite gait preference (turned out he was a trotter – whoosh!). Mike taught me that the more I pulled, the less brakes he had, forcing me to problem solve and to learn to find my Zen at a young age.

Info introduced me to falling off and showed me that it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid it would be. He not only left his mark on my memory but also on my back, as he branded me with a partial hoofprint left by stepping on me after dumping me. His mark turned lovely shades of yellow, purple and blue, and I proudly displayed this badge of honour to all the curious neighbourhood kids.

Slow, so slow, Todd and Arrow taught me that near standstill paces allowed my fumbling beginner body the time to get organized and develop a nice position, which brought home my first equitation ribbons in schooling shows.

There were the dreamboat horses, too: Tami, Cy, Bucky, Sabre, Ican, Dale. Those were the names I hoped would be pencilled next to mine on the mount assignment list. I knew stardom as I glided around the arena on their backs, smiling and enjoying the stress-free, stay-in-the-saddle hour, along with the photo op moments they gave my anxious mother.

Every single one of those school horses was golden, from dreamboat glider to the ones that made me spit dirt. Not only did their combined qualities and characters teach me to ride, they also taught me life lessons and to know myself. They taught me about facing fears, that things were not always going to be easy or pretty, and that sometimes life could be, quite literally, a very bumpy ride. Selflessness and how to be a better communicator are things I learned and understood on the back of a horse; add patience and compassion to that. I also gleaned tolerance and appreciation for individuality from my equine teachers, for as in the human world, the horse world also has its gentle, eccentric, and downright stinker characters. I also learned that a horse doesn’t have to be purebred or worth a million bucks to give a good ride.

Related: Make Me Worthy Of My Horse

Yup, I’m a school horse fan, so much so that I’ve run my own school for over three decades with my own string of school masters that never stop teaching me. They are a huge part of my life and also the backbone of my business. So I get a bit tetchy and defensive when someone says the word “just” in front of “school horse” in conversation, somehow relegating school horses to lesser beings of the equine world.

The Insensitive One — “Oh, but it was only ‘just’ a school horse,” he said when we recently lost a prized teaching mount.  (Probably the same person who says: “Oh, it was just a dog,” when you lose your beloved canine family member).  

The Dolt — “You've ‘just’ got school horses for clients?  Don’t you have any ‘good’ horses?”

The Backhanded Compliment Giver — “Thank you for the lovely ride; what a nice animal for ‘just’ a school horse.”

The Outstanding Gem of a Dolt — “I’m a very experienced rider, so I don’t need to ride ‘just’ one of the school horses; I can ride one of the private ones instead.” (I'm sure my boarders would be happy with that - NOT).  

When at the receiving end in a conversation like this, how one responds to these “just-ers” depends on the instructor’s character and where they currently are in the phases of instructor-hood. Let me explain…

The Maiden type is the newbie instructor full of joy, youth, and innocence, and although knowing that her horses are good, may feel unsure in this situation and bend to this client attitude.

The Mother type is caring and patient, may nod her head and try to understand where the just-er is coming from, and attempt to work it out whilst protecting the ideals of the school horse.

The instructor in the Crone phase is frequently and unfairly perceived as old, spiteful, and with a penchant for occasionally eating small students. But that’s really just bad press as this instructor is full of age-accumulated knowledge and insight, or “wisdom-plus.”

As I’m chronologically moving into the latter archetypal phase, the Crone in me rises up and for just a flash, I may want to devour the fool and get rid of the nuisance once and for all, but this moment quickly passes. I then call on my ability to channel my inner school horse qualities, and my wise and tolerant self comes out. I fall back on what I know — to educate — and will attempt to counter the myths and prejudices with solid facts.

  • If it weren’t for school horses, how would people ever learn to ride?  
  • If it weren’t for school horses, fewer people would take up horseback riding, and a lot of those who do start would finish off sitting on their arses.    
  • The school horse is part of the learning trilogy of instructor-horse-student. No school horse = no trinity = no lesson.
  • A school horse is a professional — nobody wants to ride something too hard when first starting out, thus they are selected and trained to be able to facilitate each rider.
  • There is no School Horse Department Store where you can just pick one off a shelf, ready to go. School horses have to be made, and that can be time-consuming and costly.

Yeah, but…

  • “…the school horses where I ride only resist.”
  • “…school horses don’t seem to know enough for me to move up to higher skills.”
  • “…they don’t train the school horses where I ride. They just buy them and plonk them straight into the school.”
  • “…I don’t want to stay a beginner forever.”
  • “…the school horses get really bad habits, and that scares me.”

Yikes! And I hear these remarks with concerning frequency. So, what to do? On these pages I realize I’m speaking to the enlightened, but if there is a way that we can get the word out to others less experienced, we should pass it on as needed. Listen up instructors, pay attention to your clients, and to your horses. If necessary, raise the standards of your school horses, train for the job, and maintain that training. Afford the same standards of care and training to the school horses as you do to the private animals. School horses are a part of your businesses and keeping them in good working order, physically and mentally, is both a moral and a business responsibility. The time and effort put into the school horses will really show — people will notice, and they’ll come back, and will recommend you to others.

Related: Keeping Children Safe While Handling Horses

Let’s face it, good school horses make for happier students.  So many mounts get a bad rap because standards are allowed to slip or were never even put in place. Have pride in your animals, and don’t let them be “just” school horses — let them be the stars in the show!

Printed with the kind permission of Riding Instructor magazine.

Illustration by the author.


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