A young lady taking lessons was concerned about how lethargic and unresponsive a horse had been at the riding centre where she has lessons. Her main query had been whether she had been giving the horse the correct aids or Qs. When thinking of how to reply, I realised that it was important for the novice rider to understand the function of the schoolmaster horse. The novice doesn’t so much go to a centre to ride a schoolmaster as to learn to ride a schoolmaster. The schoolmaster’s role is to teach the brain of the pupil how to cope with the stresses generated by motion when circling the arena. The rider’s body must learn how to respond by ‘rote’ ie by going round and round in constant repetition. It is not natural to the human to be carried.
All novice riders before they mount up on a horse should be shown the correct seat and importantly the reason why sitting correctly from the very beginning is extremely important. The physiologies of the two species namely equine and human, and Newton’s law of motion, determine why there is only one optimal way to sit on a horse.
The human brain is a magnificent creation and one role of it is to silently manage and control the mechanics of body and the functions of the internal organs. For many of the things which a human does, he/she needs not to think of what to do, the brain will have done them instantly and instinctively. Have you inadvertently touched anything hot recently? Note that the hand will have withdrawn seconds before you even feel the pain. Likewise with the reactions involved in horse riding. The brain will react long before the conscious thinking brain comes to realize that an instant reaction had been necessary.
When mounting the novice should instinctively adopt the correct riding posture - ie bottom evenly balanced on the saddle, front to rear, side to side; with thighs and legs hanging down on the flanks on either side; the balls of the feet lightly resting on the stirrup iron, toes up, heels down, feet pointing forwards; back held erect with the spine in its natural curve; head and neck held high and facing forwards. In this posture the rider is in position for the horse to carry him/her in the optimum manner as dictated by the horse‘s physiology. Horse and rider should stand still together in perfect balance The problem arises that instantly the horse moves, the ’inter’ balance of both horse and the rider is disturbed and it must immediately and instinctively be re-established. When in motion the need for the rider to come back into a state of balance on the horse’s back is continuous. Similarly the horse must continually rebalance the mass combination of both itself and the rider and particularly at speed.
The big problem with the human brain is that it is always important for it to learn correctly from the very beginning a sequence of movements because should it need to modify that sequence it must first unlearn the incorrect movement. And as Dr Alexander will say, the process of unlearning an incorrect movement is a lot more difficult than the process of learning the correct movement. In short, if you don’t learn to sit a horse properly from the beginning, then the chances are that you never will learn to sit a horse correctly.
So where does the schoolmaster fit in this dialogue? The role of the school horse is to present to the inexperienced rider a stable platform on which to practice the seat and the placement of the body, the legs and the arms. The school horse should be phlegmatic, calm, obedient, regular and above all rhythmic. For the rider to learn to rise to the trot calls for a horse with a regular and constant action. Equally for the rider to learn to sit to the trot calls for a very forgiving horse whose back is about to be pounded by the unschooled, and inevitably clumsy, rider.
It is cannot be surprising that horses used only for teaching novices becomes dull. On a daily basis, round and round in the arena they circle with an incompetent human bouncing up and down on the back whilst jerking the steel bar in the mouth. By all means dampen the blows from clumsiness by fitting thick pads under the saddle and fit thick vulcanite bits in the bridle to soften the jerks of the inept riders hands but the overall discomfort experienced by the school horse cannot be fully compensated for. The horse must learn to bear its discomfort with stoicism. The schoolmaster must forgo the luxury of sensitivity. There can be no such thing as subtlety in the equestrian arena of novices.
My own mare would sense from the moment a novice grasped a handful of mane and rein that she was about to be mounted by a novice. I am sure she would step aside in protest as the rider’s leg swung over her rump. She would have moved forwards as the boot dug into her flanks and the clumsy rider dropped down onto the saddle whilst jerking the reins and through them the steel bit in her sensitive mouth. She would feel she was being violated. As a result the inexpert rider would not be safe because my horse would want that novice off her back and as soon as possible. There again, my horse is no forgiving schoolmistress and never ever will she be.
Always be nice to a schoolmaster horse. Give it a stroke and speak to it softly. It is there to teach you to ride. The instructor in the centre of the arena merely tells you what to do. It is the poor horse that does the work of teaching you how.