Horsing around

I have loved horses for most of my life. I was that girl who had a pony duvet set, bedroom walls plastered with posters of showjumping icons and a Christmas list every year that longed for the big FC to squeeze a four-legged friend down the chimney. And I don’t mean a reindeer.

Sadly, aside from a brief but blissful couple of pre-kids years of loaning a priceless steed going by the name of Douglas, a horse of my own is just simply too much of a time and financial commitment. Instead, I have always had to be grateful for having riding lessons.

I have had regular lessons, at a yard in Chailey, for the best part of fifteen years. My current Sunday morning lesson is my soul food. For me, it represents an enjoyable learning experience, the opportunity to hone and perfect my craft and is vital to my physical and mental well being. I remember our HT, Caroline, at my return-to-work meeting after my second maternity leave, asking me to state what my absolute non-negotiable, ‘something for Katy’, sacred activity would be. It was a no-brainer: horse riding. I’m proud to say, I’ve stuck to it.

I have been privileged in that time to have been taught by an outstanding teacher: Michelle. She’s also become a really supportive friend. Over the years, Michelle and I have often chatted about what our jobs have in common. Discussion largely revolves around the similarities between horses and teenagers. Not convinced?…

  • Horses are wildly unpredictable. They have moods. They are inconsistent. The wind whips them up into a state of frenzy. Sound familiar?
  • As herd animals, horses have a group mentality and will follow the crowd. ‘WAAAAAH! It’s a terrifying CRISP PACKET! Let’s RUN: ALL OF US!’
  • Horses vary in their levels of maturity. Five year olds can be honest, kind and sensible. Conversely, there are several horses in their late teens at the yard who frankly ‘should know better!’
  • Horses need guidance, reassurance and confidence from their rider – particularly if they are ever actually going to walk past that monstrous crisp packet (which they’ve undoubtedly encountered 500 times before).
  • In lessons, horses all need to go to the toilet at the same time. Seriously. Some, repeatedly – particularly if it is their turn to tackle something challenging.

Have I convinced you?

It was when I was mulling over this connection for a potential blog post, that I actually hit on something more significant. In the time I have been learning about riding from her, I have learnt loads from Michelle about teaching and the best possible practice. Her ‘classroom’ may be quite large, devoid of desks and chairs and have a (relatively) comfortable surface to fall on, but every day of every week, Michelle practises the essence of great teaching – the nuts and bolts, the bread and butter – and this is what I’ve learnt from her.

  1. Perfect the basics: I can ride; I can ride quite well. My husband often mocks me for paying out for ‘lessons’ when I can already do it. But it’s not about that: there is always something to learn and there is always room to perfect and secure the basics. Whether it’s five minutes of trotting without stirrups (a killer and a test of the strongest pelvic floor!) or trotting poles in jumping position before tackling actual fences, there is no point in attempting the bigger, harder stuff if the foundation skills are not in place.
  2. Establish the starting point of your students: Every new rider at Michelle’s yard gets put on an utterly reliable horse (fingers crossed for no crisp packets) and a rigorous drilling in the basics (see above). Michelle’s experienced eye can tell immediately if you have ‘kind hands’ a ‘hot seat’ (really!) or if you’ve drifted into bad habits from too much happy hacking or over-exuberant Pony Club games. The lessons will work at the rider’s pace and the horse adjusted accordingly.
  3. Differentiate with discretion: Michelle’s classes are pretty mixed ability but within a broad setting system. She’s a pro at catering for individual needs and first wave intervention. It may be as simple as adjusting and readjusting the height of a pole, giving a horse and rider a simpler/more challenging route around a course of jumps or knowing when a student has had an injury/knock to their confidence and needs building back up slowly, but all riders and horses are treated as individuals.
  4. The power of repetition: A bit like perfecting the basics, I have spent lessons jumping the same set of canter poles over and over, before building up to a fence. The repetition means you ‘get your eye in for a stride’ and then you can pretty much jump anything: if you dare…
  5. Behaviour management: For the horses, any bad behaviour or disruption of the learning of others has a clear and consistent ‘three strikes and you’re out’ consequence system. Enough said.
  6. Walk the walk: Michelle is an expert. She built her successful business independently. She is passionate about what she does. She also owns, trains and rides racehorses. A few years ago, she broke part of her back in a training incident. She didn’t actually have that much time off and still goes out on the gallops every morning. She’s resilient. Her animals are well-looked after and cared for but she is not overly sentimental about them. She wants the best for her students too. She hosts regular mini shows for non horse owners who fancy trying a bit of competition or ferries riders and horses to cross country clinics and showjumping arenas in the county. She loves to ride!
  7. Hard-won but sincere praise: A compliment from Michelle can bolster me for a whole week. Seriously. Constructive criticism is balanced with how to do it right/better and true recognition and credit when it goes well.
  8. Know your students’ comfort zones: I think this is what Michelle does best. She knows exactly how far she can stretch, challenge and move her students on without them losing confidence. It’s a real skill and it’s how she gets the best out of them.
  9. Keep your sense of humour: I am sure there are some cold, dark winter mornings and evenings when Michelle would rather not be standing in a freezing arena or that she’d be lying if she said her life didn’t occasionally flash in front of her eyes when a rogue crisp packet causes a mini stampede in a lesson and several unseated riders, but she keeps a smile on her face. And she’s calm in a crisis.
  10. Always expect excellence: If you’re going to do something in one of Michelle’s lessons, do it properly and do it well. Keep trying until it is of the highest possible standard. Never settle for second best – but if something doesn’t go to plan, think about what you can learn from it.

Thank you, Michelle, for teaching me a whole lot more than simply riding: you are an inspiration!


Possible points for discussion

  • What is your well being non-negotiable? How do you/can you ensure it remains protected and valuable?
  • In what other areas of your life do you see a positive transfer of your skills as a teacher/learner?
  • What are ‘the basics’ in your curriculum area? Why?
  • What skills need constant repetition/practice/reinforcement/embedding? How do/can you facilitate this?
  • How do you establish/measure your students’ starting points? How is this reviewed? Is it a consistent part of departmental policy?
  • How do you demonstrate your passion for your subject? Do you?! How do students respond? Is it important?
  • How do you remain resilient? Do you model this to students?
  • How do you balance constructive criticism with meaningful and valued praise – both offered and received?!
  • How much do you challenge your own and your students’ comfort zones?
  • Is there a clear understanding from staff and students of what excellence looks like in your curriculum area?

Posted by Katy Wayne, English.


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