Passing the Torch

Equine professionals are fundamental to the well-being of our horses and to our ongoing education in horsemanship. But every so often, you run across a non-professional rider that is still in a position to help you if you are willing to let yourself be helped.

I vividly remember this happening to me as a junior, riding at an eventing and dressage barn, with a trainer I very quickly grew to dislike over a few short years. But before I left that facility, an adult amateur rider with a great deal of experience taught me two things, and I use the knowledge she passed on to me to this day.

She taught me how to properly wrap a horse, with polo wraps and with standing bandages. She let me practice with her clean white fluffy polo wraps on her horse and on my horse. She explained to me the proper direction of wrapping, which is actually really freaking hard to explain. She explained to me why that was important. She showed me where to start and where to finish. She taught me how to wrap smoothly, and how snugly to wrap. She taught me how to roll up the wraps so that they are easier to put on correctly. If she hadn’t taken the time to do this, I probably wouldn’t have learned until much, much later. She also passed on what I think could be characterized as a mild obsessiveness about wrapping properly with clean wraps every time, mainly because the difference between wrapping correctly and incorrectly could be an injury to the horse.

Now, if I see a kiddo struggling with wrapping, I offer to help, I let them know it’s okay to ask for help. I don’t do this with adults, and certainly not with professionals, but if a wrap looks wonky to me, I might just go against my better judgement and point it out anyway. Yep, I’m that boarder. But come on, nobody wants a bowed tendon! The horse comes first. And a big part of my “helpfulness” is the barn culture where I board–everybody is pretty much okay with helping everybody else.

But this amateur didn’t stop at teaching me to wrap. She taught me how to ask for and achieve a good transition from the walk to the canter. I was clearly struggling with getting a good walk to canter transition on my horse, and she was riding at the same time in the arena with me. I was getting frustrated, but she talked me down, and started with helping me get a good walk going. She explained patiently to me what to do with my hands, my leg, my seat. She broke it down into steps for me, and even had a few helpful metaphors to get the point across. Maybe not every time I ask for a walk to canter transition now, but many times, I still think of what she taught me.

Her name was Janet, although my memory isn’t 100% on that. I know her mare’s name was Molly–isn’t it funny how horses’ names stand out in memories more than the names of people sometimes? The mare was very nice and schooled through what was third level dressage at the time (I defected from that discipline, so I’m not sure what constitutes second and third level now. The mare could do canter pirouettes.). I am almost certain that, as a rebellious teenager, I did not thank her properly for the knowledge she shared with me, but I am grateful to her not only for taking the time to explain useful information to me, but for making me realize that non-professional equestrians can be just as good a resource as professionals if you are willing to take the time to listen.

Fast-forward to today, and I am boarding at a place that feels like home to me. My trainer and I constantly talk over what I’m doing with Eli and rarely disagree–I know the program out there, and I believe in it, and my trainer knows I know the program and grants me a ton of leeway.

However, there are other trainers that ride and teach there. On social terms, I am friendly with them. In horse training terms, I definitely do not see eye-to-eye with one of the trainers in particular about some things. But she’s not my trainer, so her methods do not directly affect me. She works closely with another trainer that I can relate to a little bit better and this other trainer teaches the bulk of the lessons.

So what do I do when one of their students, who is avidly determined to be a jumper rider, asks me for help?

What would you do?

I chose to help her. Now, she didn’t ask me to help her ride her horse, or ask me to get on her horse, or ask me any riding-related questions, really–those would be hard lines for me to cross. But she asked me to help her get a bonnet on to her horse. And she asked me if she could try a bridle and bit of mine, to see how her horse went in that set up. And I chose to help her, knowing that in both of these cases, I would be doing something that one of her trainers would potentially disagree with. I chose to help her because there is more than one way to do something, and showing a teenager that there may be multiple “correct” ways to do something feels to me like the right thing to do. I was not attempting to upend her trainers’ authority–her trainers still have the final say, especially on the bridle and bit.

The bridle got the okay from the trainer, the bit did not. The trainer had valid reasons for not liking the bit for the teenager’s horse. My work in this situation was done.

As for helping get a bonnet on a horse that is slightly ear-shy, I helped by doing what I did with my own horse–horse, you let me get the bonnet near your ears, you get a peppermint. You let me put the bonnet on one ear, you get a peppermint. I’m going to gently rub this bonnet all over your face while feeding you carrots, etc, etc, etc … horse very quickly loved having to wear a bonnet. So much so that only just the next day, the teenager told me she got the bonnet on her horse with no problem, he even lowered his head for her, and that he loves wearing it now. While in the process of teaching her how to get her horse to let her put a bonnet on him, I also took a minute and went beyond just the treats–I told her to hook up his lead and unhook the cross ties while doing this in case he tosses his head. I wouldn’t want him to meet with unnecessary resistance from the cross-ties and panic. I told her she would want to stand on either side of his head while working with him, not directly in front. And pay attention to where his hooves are. I suggested she braid his forelock before putting the bonnet on, mainly because this horse’s forelock is almost burdensomely thick and long and keeping it neat under the bonnet would probably be the most comfortable for the horse. I also explained that with her horse because she doesn’t know a lot of his prior history other than he is off the track, he may be slightly ear shy if someone used ear-twitching to try to get him to submit to something, so please have a little sympathy and understanding as to why he doesn’t want his ears touched (his ears were checked and free of injury or parasites during the pre-purchase, so she knew it wasn’t that). An extra five minutes of my time, and I trained her horse to wear a bonnet, and more importantly I trained her about training her horse to wear a bonnet. Painlessly. I hope she gets that making something a pleasant experience for the horse is more effective than forcefully imposing our wills upon the animals. I also realize that her one trainer would never train a horse to wear a bonnet this way, because she refuses to hand-feed treats. What she would have done, I have no idea. But are there ways to do the same thing, minus the treats? Of course. Treats just work for me. I mean, come on, a lot of horses are totally treat-motivated!

This isn’t an illustration of me saying, “Look how finely I have walked this razor’s edge of knowing when to help and when not to.” No way. I get that what I did here may piss some people off and may make others cheer and others still may not give a damn. I don’t know if what I’m doing is “right” in some absolute, cosmic sense when I help other riders with horsemanship stuff. But it feels right to me. It feels important to me to instill putting the horse first into younger riders. And especially with my adult amateur rider friends, why wouldn’t we help each other? Why covet knowledge, when sharing it helps, most importantly, the horse? Why not keep an open mind about doing something a little differently than you’ve been taught? Or hearing the same thing you’ve been taught, but from someone else? Why not invite people to ask you questions, why not ask questions yourself? How else do we keep learning?

I’m not saying you should go around spewing advice to fellow riders, or decide you don’t need a professional’s help, or feel like you are now burdened with having to explain what you know to anyone who asks.

This is about keeping true horsemanship alive, sharing with other like-minded riders, and above all, putting the welfare of our horses first. There are situations that this post doesn’t address, because I don’t have answers for you, and for some it’s a moving target, and those are the situations that involve true abuse or neglect, where I KNOW I will speak up to somebody in a position of power to get something done about it. This post is more about the day-to-day scenarios we all encounter of witnessing somebody struggle with something you can help with, like straightening a cattywompus noseband. So, what do y’all think? Do you ever find yourself helping a fellow amateur or junior rider? How’d it go?

12 thoughts on “Passing the Torch

  1. I love this post! Having people help me when I was younger (and even now) was so important to my development as a rider and as a horse person.

    I try to help the junior riders (and some of the new-to-horses adults) at my current barn; the trainer at the barn is a good friend, but she and I do not always see eye to eye on methods or practices. As you said, there are many correct ways to do something, and I feel like it’s my job as an older, more experienced horseman to expose youngsters to different ways of doing things.

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  2. so i’ve honestly never been ok with programs that put the kibbosh on any external influence. students should have the freedom to see how things are done elsewhere and have an open mind as to why one trainer might do things their way, and another might be different. this idea of ‘crossing lines’ with advice really rubs me the wrong way (esp when it comes to health and safety, or even worse, instances where i see a young rider losing confidence).

    but i get that i’m the minority here. i ride with a lot of different trainers, and they all know about it. and if one wasn’t ok with that then i just wouldn’t ride with them any more. and i am ALL about offering advice and help to young riders, especially as i remain ever grateful for the adults who did the same for me when i was younger.

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    • LOVE this!! Riders need to be able to take advantage of good opportunities for learning and training, which means one trainer is not going to be the sole source of information and knowledge.

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  3. This is sooooooooooo good.
    When I lived in Texas, there were mostly younger kids at the barn. I would always jump in to help them, whether it was putting the saddle on their horse or showing them how to bathe their horse or whatever. I like helping kids because as you said, us adult ammy riders should try and enstill the “horse first” approach in the younger ones so it resonates with them during their riding career. Even showing them something as simple as picking out a horse’s feet, I would always try and explain why I was holding the foot a certain way, and how to hold the pick to get the best leverage. You make a ton of good points in this post, and I’m so glad someone else is the go-to-rider for help! Besides, who doesn’t love beginner pony kids? 🙂

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    • I gravitate more toward helping teenagers, mainly because I’m not so good with little kids. I get a deer-in-the-headlights stare when I explain that you want to hold your reins similarly to how you hold the handle of a coffee cup … lol. But seriously, I’ve noticed that a lot of the younger kids that are drawn toward horses are pretty mature for their age and want the responsibility of it, which is good to see!

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  4. I love this! One of my very first big horse memories is of a working student at a hunter/jumper barn teaching me how to put on polo wraps. I think it is so important to be willing to help other riders.

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  5. This is such a great post! I had a similar situation when I was younger- my adult-ammy mentor taught me how to properly wrap over and over and over again until I finally got it right. I’ve always been really lucky to have knowledgeable and helpful people around! I try to repay the favor when the lesson kids ask for help or if I see something going wonky, and my trainer has always been grateful that someone was on top of it. That’s why I love this barn so much- the horses come before everything else, including anyone’s ego.

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  6. I want to be in a friendly, helpful atmosphere at the barn. When my old horse stuck his leg through a fence, several boarders helped me wrap him (one even lent me a spider bandage for his hock, wrapped him for me several times and showed me how to use it). It’s something I’ll never forget and am eternally grateful for.

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