As an instructor, I’m not supposed to have favourites.
But I’ll admit, and I think any equestrian coach would admit, we absolutely do. Favourite students who are hungry to learn; favourite horses who are as dependable as the sunrise; and without a doubt, favourite lessons to teach.
So, in no particular order, I want to talk about three of my favourite lessons to teach and what makes them so special and engaging.
The Learn-to-Canter Lesson
This lesson is a favourite simply because of all the buildup. Almost as soon as a kid sits on a horse, they want to learn to canter. It takes patience for a coach to temper that enthusiasm into a work ethic, leaving it to simmer. I discuss with them how hard you have to work at the walk and trot before you can learn to canter. They chip away with hours of sitting trot, up/up/downs, down/down/ups, and trotting without stirrups. I watch them carefully for signs of a following but stable seat, a steady leg, and a quiet hand. Once they have checked all the boxes (so to speak), that glorious day finally arrives. It’s an amazing moment to say to a student, “Today’s the day. You’ve put in so much hard work and now we’re ready to learn to canter.”
They are always excited and a little nervous. We discuss the aids of the canter, what it will feel like, but there’s no way to describe the real thing. Then I let them loose to prove to me and themselves that the hard work paid off. They trot confidently around the corner, sit deep and give the canter aids. It’s a little messy, a little scrambled, but the good, kind school horses know their job and oblige by picking up the world’s slowest - but still a true! - canter. The student feels the rush of wind for 4-5 glorious strides before coming back to the trot. There’s cheering, mostly from me, at this goal achieved, the next level of riding unlocked. I always get a big smile and an excited “Can we do it again!?”
The Learn-to-Jump Lesson
Vying for a top competitor of the most anticipated riding lesson among kids is the learn-to-jump lesson. I can understand their enthusiasm even though I have to control it. Jumping a horse has a magical quality, a feeling of flight. With a horse, you are no longer limited by your body. I’ll admit, I’m an Old School instructor, and I do not rush kids over a small jump. The work that went in to learning to canter must be put in to learn to jump: lots of two point position exercises, canter work, and poles, poles, poles. My students learn to stop asking when they are going to learn to jump when my answer is always “when you’re ready.”
I watch for balance. I watch for confidence. For knowledge of rhythm and body awareness. Then the day comes, and we’ll drill poles for a little while. I’ll casually walk over and create a “speed bump”, or a low cross rail, and tell the student to come again. I see them notice the change and gulp, but ride through the exercise. Sometimes their horse will do a small jump, like a canter stride. Sometimes they trot over it lazily. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Every time afterwards the student will grin ear to ear, continuing through the lesson. At the end, when we have our conclusion talk for the day, they’ll say to me “You know, that was my first jump!”
“Really?” I’ll reply, keeping my tone very casual. “I think it went very well. All of your practicing over poles paid off. We’ll have to do more speed bumps in the future.”
A different energy from the first canter lesson - but a rewarding one, nonetheless. Creating too much build up and excitement over jumping can tip the other way and make it a scary experience. I always want students to connect that the work they do over poles and a “speed bump” is the same. They already have the muscle memory and the know-how to ride it, so it’s less of a big leap and more of a next step in their riding.
The Introduction Lesson
Without a doubt, this is the lesson I look forward to the most. I’m fortunate enough to teach an Adult Introduction to Riding program, including once a week, hour and half, lessons over 8 weeks. Adults who have never seen a horse before are welcome to come and learn how to groom, tack, and ride a horse. No matter what your experience level is, by the end of the eight weeks riders can confidently groom, tack, and ride in a group lesson.
As equestrians know, being around horses changes you as a person. Being the person who is able to facilitate someone’s first life-changing equestrian experience is such a powerful high. They are delighted to see a horse, then it just keeps getting better.
“You mean I can brush his tail?”
“He’ll let me pet his face?”
“I get to ride on my own?”
“Can I lead him into the barn?”
It’s everything I love about riding because it’s so centered on being grateful for the horse. Adult introduction riders spend a lot of time petting their horses on the neck and exclaiming how good they are, standing there like that. Riding becomes such a part of our routine that we forget the magic that these big creatures allow us to borrow freedom on their back. It’s a beautiful reminder and a breath of fresh air for a riding instructor to see that level of enthusiasm. Lives get so busy, so stressful, and we forget to stop and appreciate the magic. It is, without a doubt, the best part of my week.
I love my job and am fortunate enough to have made a career from my passion. Every day that I get to walk into the barn is an excellent one, but teaching these lessons never fails to brighten my mood.
You never know - your lesson today could have made your instructor’s day!
Top Photo Credit ~ Gillian Flaxman