Writer and instructor Nicky Moffatt reveals why she learns something new from horses every day.
Aside from working as a journalist, I am a dressage instructor and teach riders from the basics up to Medium-level dressage. The best bit about this is I learn just as much as my pupils half the time. Every horse is an individual, which means there is no 'one way suits all' method of training.
I come across all types. There's the 'switched off' type, for example. This horse looks like he has lost the will to live and his views on leg aids lie somewhere between 'why should I respond to those?' and 'the more you ask, the less I will do'. The obvious solution, you may think, is to insist he goes forward by using stronger leg - and even whip- aids, but in my experience this rarely works. The 'switched off' horse needs motivating, so I introduce new challenges that take the horse ever so slightly out of his comfort zone and motivate him to participate in the lesson. I'll use exercises such as shallow loops (riding a five metre loop in from the track), serpentines, plenty of transitions and may even introduce some poles. I might throw in the odd speedy canter as an element of surprise, too!
Then there are the 'speedy types' who want to ge tthe lesson over and done with as quickly as possible and don't see the point n going anywhere slower than a gallop. As a result, their riders tend to hold on for grim death in an attempt to stay in control, which is why they give me a strange look when I suggest riding with longer, 'softer', reins and using more leg. Now, this can be quite a scary suggestion to make but be assured I don't set out to kill riders on a daily basis. Far from it, in fact. Fortunately, when riders 'let go' more, most horses tend to breathe a sigh of relief and they stop fighting as there's nothing left to fight against. When riders find they can slow down by riding turns and circles, and use leg aids to encourage the horse to work in a more balanced way, it can be liberating for everyone involved. Of course, it's important to listen carefully to the horse and make sure there is no physical reason for their behaviour. After all, they can only speak to us through body language (unless you're a horse whisperer which I am sadly not).
A few of the people I teach refer to me as 'Auntie Polo'. However, I don't carry mints to bribe horses or make owners think I'm nicer than I actually am. I do it because the instructor who taught me for years used to give my horse, Lucy, a Polo after each lesson and I thought it was a lovely thing to do.
One horse I visit regularly - Rosie, a gorgeous Irish mare- whinnies at me when I arrive, but only because she knows what's in my pockets. At the grand age of 19, Rosie has started doing some dressage with her owner, Jess, achieving quite admirable results in a short period of time. Whether it's the training or the extra energy she's getting from her Polos, they won their first ever Novice dressage test and team Rosie are very proud.
Unfortunately carrying Polos in one's pockets does have downsides. One girl and her lovely part-bred Lipizzaner, Fanta, used to have trouble staying out on a circle when Auntie Polo was in the middle. If Fanta's rider lost concentration for a split second the horse would dive in my direction.
Any riders who train regularly know it's essential to find the right teacher. There isn't a single instructor on the planet who will suit everyone, so while you can ask for recommendations, it's very much a matter of personal opinion. While I'd be upset to think anyone would choose a trainer who practices forceful techniques, I would be delighted for any of my pupils to go and train with different people when they get the opportunity. In fact, occasionally I do get stumped about what to do in certain situations and have suggested riders sek more experienced help. If they decide not to, then it's up to me to look for some new ideas. When I can find a better way, it's rewarding and yet again the horse has taught me something new. You never stop learning with horses, that's for sure.
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