It`s quite an ask really to give a total beginner their first lesson. Ever.
On the face of it it seems like the easiest thing on earth, but when you look a bit closer there are the problems of the rider being completely clueless so it takes up 90% of your attention ensuring the horse is doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing with the rider still aboard. Then you move on to your explanations of various techniques – legs, hands, seat, balance, position, horses movement, etc. How much depth should you go into? How long should you spend focusing on particular elements? Or should you do a brief overview with the hope they enjoy it and rebook so you can focus on different elements in future lessons?
I find how well my total beginner lesson goes depends on how recent the last beginner lesson was (I hate repeating myself, so end up skipping bits thinking I`ve already covered it) and who I last taught. If I`ve taught a rider I am switched on to the technical terms and end up overcomplicating it. If I`ve been teaching children I`m in a slightly patronising mind set.
Yesterday I did have a new client, who had been bought the first lesson as a Christmas present. Sometimes this means they aren`t at all interested, but thankfully her friend had informed her of a few bits and pieces. It was quite successful so I thought I would share it with you.
So I kit her out with a hat and boots, take her to the pride and joy of my riding school (14.2hh mahogany bay chunky cob, who does everything ever asked of him!) introduce them and she immediately holds her hand out to stroke him. Good! That means she`s not totally petrified! I explain briefly the mounting procedure as we walk to the mounting block and she gets on easily. Once she`s holding the saddle I move the horse on so I can access both sides.
Already I`m at a crossroads. How much technical jargon can they take? I`m not talking piaffe or engagement of the hindquarters, but reins, stirrups, girths etc. A colleague of mine told me the other day that she got a rollicking for using too much technical terms in lessons, so now instead of saying “change the rein” she says “change the direction”. Talk about dumbing down! I was gobsmacked, I used that sort of language with my four year old clients, even if I have to supplement it with easier language for the first few lessons. There`s no point learning to ride if you don`t learn to speak equestrian! So back to my beginner; we adjust stirrups and her girth, explaining what I`m doing and then show her how to hold the reins. I then tell her she`s going to be lead down to the school and all she needs to do is sit there and get used to the movement of the horse.
Once we reach the arena I stop her on the track (so long as no one else is there) and explain how to ask the horse to start and stop. I keep them on the track to encourage their horse to go round the outside. With the aids I start off simple, breaking it into bitesize chunks. Initially it`s just legs for go, reins to stop. We do this a few times, ensuring the hands are a smooth movement. Now this is where you separate the wheat from the chaff; some people have limited control over their body and can just about control the legs without the hands moving too, as a puppet moves. Thankfully, this client was quite athletic and found this easy. So I introduced how the seat should work in a subtle way to help the horse move correctly. A few more transitions. I`m getting bored of this rein now, so introduce a bit of steering to change the rein, again just the hands gently. I leave their position alone for the moment unless it is awful, because I want them to feel in control and balanced, which for some people means leaning slightly forwards. We do a couple of nice transitions on our new rein and end up halting at specific letters. Now I bring in a bit about their position, the lines instructors look at, how they should feel in the saddle, and then we move on to some more steering. It`s going well so far and within moments I`m explaining the outside leg pushing the horse over as opposed to the inside hand pulling; the hand is guiding. I mention the shift of weight and how turning the body helps the horse move correctly because of the change in weight distribution.
Now. It`s time for trot. I like to give all clients a trot in their first lesson so they have an idea of progression, and can mull the feeling over for next time. If they are not picking it up easily I may only do one trot before more walk work, but if like this client, everything is fitting into place in the walk I try and do a few trots. Other instructors will know the trials of leading and teaching; you can`t see your client. I always have beginner children led, but with the adults I try as soon as possible to step away from them so I can see their position. My little cob is a superstar though, and I can walk, holding a schooling whip about four foot away from him and he will stay on the track, with a wave of the whip in time with the riders legs he moves into an armchair trot, I have to keep up with him, and as soon as I fall back or lower my whip he crawls into walk. Brilliant!
We start in sitting trot, holding onto the front of the saddle, and down the long side. This reduces the chance of a very wobbly rider wobbling off the side. I always tell my clients to think about what they feel underneath them, i.e. hopefully they get the idea of moving from side to side. After a couple of goes at sitting trot I usually then explain the concept of rising trot and have them stand up and sit down in halt and then walk, correcting their lower leg and balance. Now we have a go at trotting, starting in sitting trot we progress to rising after a couple of strides. Sitting initially, helps the rider find their rhythm. Success! My rider gets the rhythm instantly.
As she`s picked it up so quickly we rapidly move on to holding on with one hand, then the other, and then not holding on with either hand to the saddle. Bear in mind that my clients here have a loose contact, so they can do a bit of steering and apply the handbrake if necessary, but any movement by the hand is taken up by the slack of the reins, not the horses mouth. We did a few more trots on both reins, and before I knew it the half hour was up!
It was a really satisfying lesson in which somehow I managed to pack in loads of information, but it helps to have the rider as receptive as this one was, and I look forward to helping her progress over the next few weeks.