Question courtesy of Curtis Pool.
This is a very complicated question as there are so many different points of view when it comes to teaching people to ride.
As a trainer, solely in America, I can give some thoughts on a safer approach to learning how to ride which can be helpful in any ring. For one thing, I believe hugely in a good foundation. In all sports, if you have a good foundation, then you can usually move up the levels pretty quickly—maybe a little slower or faster depending on how much you practice, your personal athleticism, and the number and quality of lessons you take.
So, if we could somehow get ALL trainers to put a solid foundation on beginners when they learn to ride, this would help. In America, we are lucky to have lots of different disciplines you can ride in as an equestrian, which can help to make the learning process easier and faster. Saying that, the system tries to work like this: basic (English) beginner lessons take place at a lesson barn of sorts, which hopefully sways the student to go into a discipline such as dressage more deeply as they progress, or steers them toward the hunter/equitation ring. The idea is that these early lessons will help to provide a faster, safer, and kinder foundation for a rider’s future in whatever sport they choose.
Hopefully, before long, you as the rider are engaged in true dressage or jumping small obstacles. If at that point you’re jumping, hopefully your trainer is placing you on a safe, easy-going horse/pony that can help your brain think while you learn. Ideally, he or she is not tasking you to go any faster than you are comfortable with, or compromising your basics in any way. But this is the point at which the jumper tables can start to push people to go in directions that aren’t always the smartest or the safest.
I tell my students to take advantage of the American system and use what some would see as the dullness and boredom of the hunters and equitation as your friend. These less speed-centric disciplines keep everyone safe and allow for a wonderful foundation in the end. Unfortunately, not everyone can accept this slower-paced way—or maybe the judging politics in these rings have gotten under their skin. So, with a not-so-disciplined trainer, or a trainer with a more European foundation, a student might take the path of the jumpers or eventing way faster than they should.
In Europe, for example, the jumper division is the only thing riders have to learn in as beginners. This works for them, and many of the top European riders usually match their students and horses quite well. But it’s worth noting that these countries typically won’t move their horses and riders into higher levels of competition unless they have the talent to do so. In America, on the other hand, we often push both animals and humans to go ‘bigger and better’ no matter what. This attitude is probably the most important thing to change if we are truly hoping for a better outcome overall.
As a trainer, though, I practice what I preach, and will not allow my clients to go into the jumper ring until they can count strides in a line properly, identify the rhythm of the canter well, and change their pace when asked to go slower or faster without a problem. Then, they also need to be able to think fast without losing important principles—keeping their heels down, using a soft release, following their horse, etc. All of this needs to be accomplished before they are ready for the faster pace of life demanded by the jumper ring.
Then there’s the piece of how competitive you as the rider want to be—and how much horse show practice you need. In terms of the number of rounds, in the jumper ring, you don’t get to practice nearly as much as you do in the hunter or equitation rings, since you typically only jump one jumper course a day. I make sure, as a trainer, when I have clients pushing to move into the jumpers before they are ready, I really communicate all the differences in each ring. I want them to understand why I do what I do as a trainer, and how it will help their riding greatly in the long run.
If they still persist, I usually will not help them anymore. In some cases, I may allow them to test the waters to see if I can keep things safe for horse and rider. In America, we are so lucky to have the hunter and equitation rings to help trainers get horses and riders into the right divisions safety. Unfortunately, not everyone is knowledgeable in their understanding of these issues. As a trainer, I try my best to convey all the information possible to a client so that our American system can work at its best.
We have to understand, as coaches, that it is our job to do what is best for the horse and rider. That means not just putting a client into a division because it pleases the them or the horse’s owner, or because the client is bored or annoyed in other rings, but because he or she truly belongs there. There are some exceptions, and some people can move into the jumper ring at a lower level safely. But that takes a very unicorn-like horse and a great trainer to keep the foundation in place in that faster-paced sport. Again, the most important thing as a trainer is communication and telling the truth, especially to those that maybe don’t want to hear it but need to.
As a judge, the question of keeping beginners out of the jumper ring until they are ready is harder. We can’t really do anything to stop the not-so-balanced rider from entering and running around the jumper ring. It’s my belief that the lower-level jumpers—the .70 through 1.0—should have penalties for being significantly faster than the time allowed. For instance, a rider can’t go on to the jump-off. That would help promote safety and instill a sense of learning in the sport. But unfortunately, we can only do so much as judges.
I don’t reward equitation riders I’m judging, for instance, if their seat and hands and legs aren’t working softly and together. If you don’t place well in equitation a lot, it may not be as much a question of politics as a case of listening to your trainer and riding the best that you can. Ask to talk to a judge if this happens to you often. If you and your trainer are wondering why you don’t place well, it never hurts to find out why. Hopefully, we as judges are ready and willing to be helpful and honest if asked. The best we can do to protect our animals and our sport is to be okay with telling the truth.
As a mother, I try to give a warm and comforting foundation to other parents. Yes, the hunters and equitation can be hard, and the politics involved extremely frustrating. But the jumpers aren’t always the answer. You have to be on the same page with your child’s trainer, and if your child’s trainer is saying it’s not time to make the move, then listen. If you haven’t had an honest conversation with your trainer about it, now is the time. And if you as a parent aren’t prepared for the big picture of what’s required in the jumpers, it’s your job to become knowledgeable.
I try, as a mom, to be understanding, but I also know the reasoning behind a trainer’s decision to ask their child to wait. I try not to hold back if I see something is scary with a young rider, and I try to make their parent(s) or other riders aware if I feel they are clueless. That’s not to be mean, but to keep our sport safe and moving in the right direction. Being truthful is the only way, even when the truth hurts. But I can sleep at night knowing I tried to keep someone from a dangerous situation.
When it comes to my own kids, I have always believed that knowing the truth about themselves is the number one way they will become the best people they can be. If they are lying to themselves—and think they are ready for something they are not—as their mom, I make sure they know the truth. They aren’t always what they think they are.
On the other hand, I make sure that if my kids don’t think they are ready for something, and they are, that they are honest about that with themselves, too! For so many reasons, telling the truth is important in this sport. And, as parents, it’s our job to keep the truth in check.
Dana Hart Callanan is a successful hunter, jumper and equitation coach, an ‘R’ judge, and a sales broker. In this column, she answers common questions about A level sport. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration in a future column.