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So You Want to Learn to Ride

 | March 23, 2009 4:36 pm

It seems that every introduction to horses or horsemanship must begin with some mystically beautiful scene: wild mustangs charging across the open plains, jaw-dropping feats of disciplined horsemanship, or breathtaking leaps during a majestic steeplechase. It is unfortunate that such beginnings often reek of propaganda and those who use them double as slick salesmen. Instead of the reality, such individuals choose to promote a beautiful mythology – which like any good mythology has elements of truth, but which have been distorted and manipulated.

Yes, it is true that horses are deeply beautiful creatures: majestic, graceful, intelligent, and wonderful; even spiritual. Nevertheless, they aren't mysterious or magical. Most who start out with horses often abandon the pursuit within a year, and even fewer remain after five years; and while I somewhat doubt some specific numbers I once heard cited (which claimed that the disenchanted were as high as 80%), I believe the trend. I also believe that an important reason why so many leave in frustration is that they never found the promised vision of sublime mystical perfection. The first time you mount a horse, the perfect moment immediately cracks and you are left with the grittiest parts of reality: horses are big, they have their own ideas, and those notions often don't match ours. Further, when you sit on their backs, you are utterly at their mercy. This, of course, is to say nothing of the mud, dust, shit and miscellaneous smells. That can be a lot of reality to absorb in a single session.

Nevertheless, even among those who passionately pursue horsemanship, there is often a tremendous degree of stagnation. In my late teens and early twenties, I spent some time as a traveling horse trainer. In three-day spurts, I would work with five or ten people at a time. We would talk about concerns or problems and together we would struggle for a solution. From this experience, several things became clear: many people struggle with a few simple issues, and nearly all of those issues arise from a relatively small number of fundamental behaviors. The particulars were always different – which was what made the job interesting – but those behaviors arose from gaps in foundational knowledge. What is regrettable is that the holes were so unnecessary. At some point, I decided to try and do something about this (which is how this screed began life). Since good beginnings predict successful conclusions, I thought I might share a few observations that I wish others had levered at me. These include a few rules, a few guidelines, and more than a few relatively good suggestions.

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