Really, You Should Take Lessons

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As Mike Rowe likes to say, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Here’s a warning: Given that my wife and I make our living as horse trainers, the following blog may seem self-serving, but I want to discuss a phenomenon that we find perplexing.

In all the years I’ve been involved in horses, one of the things that has consistently confused me is that a rather small percentage of people who ride seem to think they need any sort of training assistance to learn how to ride and care for horses. Horses are large, reactive, prey animals, and they’re capable (usually unintentionally) of doing great harm to a puny human. And yet Americans, in particular, seem to feel that they’re capable of managing this animal with minimal instruction or experience.

I often think of it this way: What if, instead of drivers’ training classes, when kids turned 16 we just handed them the keys to a car and let them figure out on their own how to make turns and navigate highways. And let’s say some of them got weakling 1980s-era Ford Escorts, some got tank-sized Suburbans, and some got super-fast and powerful Ferraris. Oh, and let’s also say that they’ve rarely ridden in a car, so they have only the vaguest concepts of gas and brake pedals, turn signals, steering wheels and the rules of the road.

As Mike Rowe likes to say, “What could possibly go wrong?”

But I’ve often encountered people who don’t take any lesson at all, let alone work regularly with a trainer of any kind, and they’re fiercely proud of that fact. I’m not saying everyone who rides needs to be in a serious training program or should be striving for some high competitive goal, but the idea that a total novice needs no assistance is, frankly, crazy. Downhill skiing, surfing, baseball—is there another sport where someone would expect to just walk in and do it with no instruction? And yet it happens with horses all the time.

That’s why people regularly get scared of their horses, and they often get seriously hurt.

The problem usually starts with horse selection—without a depth of understanding about horses and how to assess their individual personalities, strengths and issues, people often rely on anecdotes and emotions: “I’ve always wanted a Friesian; they’re so beautiful.” “I’ve heard Quarter Horses are easy.” “My cousin has Arabians.”

While some breeds are certainly generally user-friendlier than others, every horse is an individual and the product of their personality and training (or lack there of). There are hot Quarter Horses, dead quiet Arabians, packer Thoroughbreds—and people with a lifetime spent observing and working with horses have a much better shot at assessing that than someone with minimal experience.

And then, once the horse is acquired, no matter how amazing its temperament and training, if none of that is consistently reinforced, it won’t last forever. Just like a kid who’s never asked to do math after first grade, they’ll lose the skills and the motivation to use them. Again, that doesn’t mean the horse has to be ridden by the trainer all the time. But it does mean a pair of experienced eyes, and perhaps the occasional tune-up, can make sure everybody stays on the straight and narrow.

This attitude of “I’ll do it myself with my horse” is a particularly American phenomenon. Most European countries have very regimented structures to teach people to ride—even recreational riders—and it is assumed that you will learn to ride in this manner, not just set off for the hills on your own. Even in places like Ireland, with its deep horse culture and foxhunting, kids learn to ride in Pony Club before being set loose in the wilds on their ponies.

I believe this is why natural horsemanship-type systems are so popular. People would, apparently, rather shell out money for magic halters and sticks, and books and DVDs, to feel like they’re embodying the independent spirit of self-training, rather than paying a local, qualified professional for a lesson once or twice a month, or more. Perhaps it’s because a DVD will never tell you that you’ve selected the wrong horse for your needs, that you may be in over your head, or that you need to learn to ride better.

While there are elite trainers often aren’t interested in working with a non-discipline-specific riders who lack strict goals, there are plenty of trainers happy to help a variety of recreational riders. Shop around, watch people teach, look at horse-and-rider partnerships created by those trainers, and pick one most in line with what you would like to accomplish with your horse.

You and your horse will be happier for it.

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