Should You Let a Novice Ride Your Horse?
By Lindsay Grice
Q I have a 12-year-old niece who is an intermediate rider and I would like her to be able to take lessons on my horse (which I show in amateur events) and possibly work toward showing him herself. My trainer doesn’t like the idea, claiming it will “mess him up” for me. Could it really make that much difference?
A It’s a great thing that you are willing to share your horse with your niece. Spending time together at the barn and at shows is a great way to build your relationship as you work toward a goal. The character qualities young people glean from the activity of riding make this opportunity a gift you can give to her and her family.
Giving a gift, however, always costs the giver something. Your trainer has made a valid point when saying that by riding your horse, your niece will likely take something away from his training and your own performance. As long as you understand what’s happening from your horse’s point of view, you’ll have the information to make your decision.
Every time someone works with a horse, they are either making a withdrawal or a deposit to the horse’s training, similar to a bank account. Training, in simple terms, is really a language of “yes” and “no.” For example, throughout a ride, I’ll have a conversation with the horse. I ask the horse questions such as: “Will you move your hip this way? Flex to the bit on this side? Lengthen your stride?” Depending on his response, I will give him either a “yes” (freedom) or a “no” (resistance). Knowing the appropriate timing and intensity of the yes and no is something that comes with experience. A novice rider might use too harsh a cue and surprise the horse, or so slight a cue that it goes unheeded. An unheeded cue that doesn’t get reinforced by a stronger cue can soon become a bad or even dangerous habit. For instance, when a horse balks in response to his rider’s cue to go forward and is not smartly sent forward, it could turn into a habit of rearing. When a horse fishtails his hip to the outside in response to the rider’s request for a canter departure, if not contained by the rider’s outside leg, it can be the root of picking up the wrong lead, kicking out, or bucking. A novice rider might not notice when a horse loses rhythm in the canter, bulges out towards the barn, or hollows his back, but suddenly the horse has discovered an escape route that never occurred to him before!
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An inexperienced rider is in the process of learning to keep her hands and legs steady and working independently of each other. This makes her language “chattery” as she attempts to communicate with the horse and he will respond either by becoming oblivious to the rider or by overreacting. Consistent repetition (saying “yes” and “no” in the same way every time) is a vital key in training and in maintaining the training of a horse. A novice rider is unable to deliver that consistency and it can be confusing to a horse.
Now that you know the possible negatives of having your niece ride your horse, take a look at the big picture and ask yourself, with regard to your horse hobby, “Why am I doing this anyway?” If your main purpose is to win an award or a title and your goals are very specific, you need to cut out anything that might hinder that goal. In such a case maybe you could tell your niece that for this season, she could stick to learning on a school horse. I know of some amateur competitors who have gone to the extreme of keeping a practise horse to put their miles on in order to leave their good show horse in full time training, ridden exclusively by their trainer except in supervised lessons. The horse experiences consistent boundaries and cues so that he performs practically on “auto pilot.”
However, if like many riders, you believe the journey of learning is just as important as the result and you value sharing this experience with your niece, your trainer will have to work on a plan to keep putting training deposits back into your horse’s account. If your horse is older and more experienced, he will tend to be more tolerant of mistakes and the responsiveness should return fairly quickly as soon as an experienced rider gets on and reminds him of the boundaries. If your horse is more green and impressionable, I would recommend that as soon as you see him pushing any limits with your niece, you or your trainer get aboard to nip this in the bud and maintain his sharpness.
Related: A Good Minded Horse
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Main Photo: Older, experienced horses tend to be more forgiving of rider errors, while younger or greener horses will need tune-ups to maintain their training. Credit: Robin Duncan Photography