Last week I had an interesting conversation with a client. She learnt to ride in a riding school and now rides a friend`s steady cob. She recently went for a beach ride and afterwards told me that she`d never thought of herself as a passenger rider but after riding on the beach she had realised that she definitely sat on the passenger side of the riding see-saw.
As I told her, I think that most riding school clients are passenger riders by default. After all, they ride very well behaved horses and ponies who know exactly what their job is, so as long as the riders apply the correct aids, they will see a response.
I think this is why many people struggle to make the transition onto private horses, or the process is longer and slower than anticipated; private horses have a bit more about themselves. They often aren`t worked as hard, are used to one rider and their aids, and may not be schooled in the same way, or to the same level as riding school horses. Additionally, privately owned horses usually have higher levels of energy than riding school horses. I myself had a dodgy loan pony for my first move off riding school, who dumped me and knocked me out so that I sleepwalked for a few days.
This led me to wondering how I myself made the transition off riding school horses, and I think it was a very clever manoeuvre by my riding instructor, which I later saw repeated with all the kids as they rose through the ranks.
When I started secondary school I started getting a lift to the stables and helping after school – ten of us would cram into the Landrover and make the short journey from town to the stables. There we all helped get the clients on their horses and in between rode our ponies. Occasionally, one of us would be asked if would ride one of the ponies who was being naughty. I can still remember the first time I was asked to do this. I was secretly thrilled because I`d envied the older girls doing the same thing for years. I had been asked to ride an 11hh grey mare, who was perfect to ride in closed order, but went through phases of being difficult when in open order so often needed squashing by an older helper. This lesson was below my normal standard, but used open order, and I can remember getting stuck in a corner of the school with the mare refusing to trot, and bucking in response to my leg and stick. At the time I`m sure I felt they were ginormous bucks, but they were probably closer to little bunny hops as I never lost my stirrup.
From this little mare I was frequently asked to ride cheeky ponies, gradually getting moved onto the bigger or naughtier ones as my confidence and ability grew. Subconsciously I studied the older girls and their methods of quick thinking to get out of trouble and correct any misdemeanours.
At this riding school there were also a few ponies who were difficult to ride – fast, strong, or prone to bucking, and they weren`t used for lessons, rather loaned by the helpers. When strangles broke out at the yard, I think the autumn that I was 11, my pony was volunteered for lessons as he was pretty safe. In exchange, I was offered to ride one of the whizziest and strongest ponies at the yard, which I was very excited about! I think it was slightly hair raising for my instructor, more so that my pony proved he wasn`t a riding school dobbin and shot off into canter, dislodging his rider and cantering over to me where I sat on Little Miss Fizzy. Anyway, I loved riding his mare and I began to realise that my pony was a bit tame.
Over that winter I rode a huge variety of horses and ponies and then in the summer, when I had fully outgrown my pony, it was suggested that I got a youngster to back myself.
My progression off riding school horses was well managed as I rode a series of stepping stones until I was able to ride anything at the yard, and when new or young horses arrived there was a possibility I might be asked to ride them. You knew you had made it as “a proper rider” when your name was called across the yard to come a sit on the naughty horse or pony!
Unfortunately I don`t think riding schools have that ability to do this anymore – health and safety means we all tread on egg shells, and riding schools struggle to stay economically afloat, so it is not viable to have the difficult ponies that we had at our yard to be ridden by helpers as all riding school horses need to earn their keep. This means that those wanting to buy their own horse have to take a bit more of a risk, as they aren`t experienced in riding horses who think for themselves.