Monday, April 27, 2015

NextGen Riding

Spring has finally sprung, and with it, the horse bug returns in full force. For me, it's almost like I need to get a good injection right at this time of the year, and it will carry me through until the fall.

While Moon and I have hit the trails a fair number of times, we finally rode in the ring last Thursday night. I was in love. No, our riding isn't spectacular and neither of us is anywhere near the calibre we were when we showed 4 years ago. But there's something else...

Our bond. He is my main man, my heart horse, the love of my life (Sorry G, you're in there too ;) ). Just puttering around the ring, I was overwhelmed by how much I love being on board this guy.

Then Sunday morning.

I had my first riding lesson. My first?! My first one as a teacher, not a student.

My sweet (pretty much) niece and her parents came out for her first riding lesson. C is adorable and has been interested in horses since she was little. I'm not sure why or how, but I've always done everything I can as an aunt to encourage the behavior. For her 4th birthday last October, I gave her a child-sized grooming box with tiny curry combs and hoof picks, and promised her that we would go riding in the spring.

All winter long she made sure her momma never forgot that I had promised she could ride Moon. When she was at our place, she would sit in the aussie saddle in our living room, strap on an old velvet helmet we had and pretend to ride around. She loved it.

So when the weather warmed up and Moon was still a gentleman, I told her mom it was time. Let's see if this little girl had the bug.

It's a bizzare thing the horse-disease. It's really hard to get a great diagnosis until you've hit your teenage years, when you have to make the choice between boys and makeup, and being dirty at the barn riding a steed. But in your youth, there's this passion for my little pony and pointing at the horses you drive by, and making  up wonderful little imaginative stories in your head about all the ponies you will someday ride.

I have no trouble at all thinking back to my horse obsessions myself. I had a beautiful buckskin gelding (in my dreams) named Victory Gallop. I called him just Vic. Every morning he would run alongside the school bus jumping over the ditches and culverts. I could dream the movement of his legs and the gentle tuck of his body when he jumped. I could see him gallop and trot and he was so alive in my mind. He lived in our back woodshed, and I'd feed him hay and carrots all the time. I always took the same book out of the library, a little primer for children on the basics of english riding. I knew at just 5 that I wanted to ride English.

I used to make up stories that I took lessons and my parents rented me a pony and I was learning to jump. All these other wonderful stories. I knew it wasn't right, but my imagination had a hold on me. More than anything, I wanted to ride.

I still remember my first lead line ride around the little pond at Falcon Beach Ranch. It all stuck. My best friend's horse in first grade and being led around there. It all sticks in my mind, stronger than so many other memories from my childhood.

That's the horse-disease.

So now that I own my own horse, and that Moon happens to be a good little citizen, I wanted more than anything, to give these little kids in my life the opportunity to fill their love for horses too. I can't imagine how over the moon I would have been if my parents had a friend who gave me little lessons. Bliss.

Why not do these for the kids I love?

When C pulled up with her parents, I was probably just as anxious and nervous and excited as she was!! Not that I was really worried about anything...other than if she was going to be terrified of Moon, and if I was going to be a good teacher, and how the hell do you entertain a 4-year old for an hour, and what if she didn't want to even touch him, and what if he did something "normal" that she got scared of, and what if her parents think I'm crazy...

Yeah, no worries at all :P

So off we went to get Moon, and I had her tell me which one he was. I spent a LOT of time on Saturday thinking about what makes horses interesting. What keeps kids interested? How do we talk to kids? How do they learn?

It's really easy to think "Well, they're kids, so there's not much we can teach them". Or conversely, to try to teach them too much and give them total sensory overload. Children also do not like a lot of repetition that is obvious. But a lot of repetition helps tremendously in their learning.

They like to be challenged. They have an awesome capacity for remembering things. And the more you can instill good behaviors or patterns now, the stronger they will be in the future.

I also know, that you can't go in with expectations. She might not want to touch him. She might not want to ride him. She might change her mind part way through. It's all okay. Be flexible.

I love asking the kids to tell me which horse is Moon, because for 1. It gets them thinking about the colors and appearances of the different horses. But it also, I believe, makes them start to connect with the horse they are riding. "That horse is mine." I'm not comfortable putting a kid out in a field with 5 horses, ranging all the way up to a 16hh part-draft. So I happily move around pointing at different horses asking which is the right one.

Once I lead the horse safely out of the paddock and have the gates closed and the horse facing the right way, I asked C to come to me to help lead Moon. While she's small and I'm not comfortable with her walking beside Moon and his huge heavy feet, I do want her to learn about leading a horse. In 4 years, I very well expect her to be out there bringing him in solo. ;) Yes, I like to daydream still. The pictures are different, but I still love what I see <3

I handed C the end of the leadrope and told her not to wrap it around her hand. I explained how the horse could take off, and you could see her thinking about how to carry it properly. I then went back to some early lead-line lessons my old coach had taught me. When you lead a horse, teach them to read your body cues and not only your words. Learn slightly forward as you walk off, and say "Walk". Lean slightly back and say "Whoa" when you stop. C understood this no problem, and as we made our way to the tie-post, she worked on having Moon stop and start on her command.

We then tied him up, and while I don't expect her to be tying ropes (can she even do shoelaces yet?!), I did show her the emergency release knot and how you can pull the rope to let the horse free. She understood that no problem too.

She only seemed to hesitate initially when he was out of the paddock (he's so big!) and then when it was first time to walk up and touch him. I get it. They are HUGE when you're that tiny. Just huge. And I respect that any kid is smart enough to respect the size of a horse. Props to that.

We groomed, and as we groomed I told her about the different parts of the horse and the names of the brushes. We talked about how to use the brushes and different things about how horses think or move.

We implemented the "WALK REALLY FAR BEHIND HIS BUTT" rule. A must for everyone. Until you can touch the butt of your horse from the ground and your face isn't at hoof-kicking level, you walk the length of the horse AWAY from the horse, before you walk behind him.

We got her a step-stool, and she brushed and brushed and brushed.

THIS is a huge thing to me that I believe is a determinant of the horse-disease. It's not just a love of riding. It's a love of HORSES. At this moment, C is infected and I hope we're able to keep her from being cured ;)

We finished cleaning him, and I held his hooves up while she cleaned them (with help from me, because it takes a lot of muscle to get that packed in dirt out of there!).

I showed her his saddle and we took the stirrups off. We're starting her in an english saddle, because...because I love english? Because Pony Club is english? Because she asked me when she can jump?? Probably because I don't own a western saddle and I also don't want her to hang onto the horn for the rest of her life.

No stirrups? Because I didn't make smaller holes in mine, but also because I really want her to think about having long legs and sitting correctly. I read a book when I was...12 maybe...and it spoke about how young children, 4-7, naturally sit correctly on a horse in a saddle *provided* there are no stirrups. If you add stirrups, instantly the child will adopt a "chair" position and use the stirrups to help with their balance instead of using their seat and legs.


That stuck with me. So I REALLY want C to learn to balance herself and move with the horse. I want her to understand that we can ride based on feel and body movement, not the use of our stirrups. She's 4. She can have an INCREDIBLE form with 3 years of solid no stirrup work, without ever knowing the HORRORS of riding without stirrups. She'll thank me when she's winning equitation and sticks to her saddle like glue when she's galloping the fields. Trust me ;) Plus, the kid will have INCREDIBLE core strength.

We tacked up, and when I could, I had her help me do up buckles. I also asked her to hold the saddle, because I know it's REALLY heavy and awkward and there's something in saying "Okay, that's hard right now, but in a couple years, you're going to be able to put that on yourself. And then you can ride alone. Okay?" Right there, she has this goal to work towards, and she's excited to keep working on it.

For reins, I didn't want her to have any real contact with Moon's mouth, but I also disagree about not giving kids reins. I think that we don't learn to drive a car without the steering wheel and gas pedal at the same time.  There is HUGE motor development in having to steering and balance at the same time, and while tricky for a 4-year old, something she'll work on.

So I found my *cutest* pair of clip on gaming reins (which happened to be purple and rainbow) and let her use those. OMG, she was over the moon with how pretty these reins were lol. Gawd kids are cute.

We clipped the reins onto Moon's halter and he was good to go. On went her helmet, and her dad tossed her up in the saddle. I think she had a moment of "OMG I'm so high up!" when she landed....but like a little trooper, I think her passion for ponies far outweighed those fears.

I led her slowly into the arena, and she was saying to me "Slowly. Go slowly". So we did.

You know what I love? I love watching kids progress. And I love watching them overcome their moment of fear for something they love and want to do. I love that.

THIS is why I believe children should be started in the saddle when they are old enough to be safe, but still young enough to be adventurous. Still "bouncable". I'm not saying that C will be in a position where she needs to bounce for a number of years yet, but the more time you have in the saddle at a younger age, the stronger your position and the sooner you get to the activities that are more adventurous.

Take jumping. I'm starting Jumping Lessons on Moon this summer. I DO NOT BOUNCE. Those years are past. I am going to progress slowly through jump lessons and probably be hesitant. It will take me a long time to get certain things, and if I fall off, it's going to be harder for me to get going again.

But when I took jump lessons at 20, I actually willingly did some pretty stupid things. I jumped a 3' with no training because the substitute coach didn't know I didn't jump that high. I'd never in a million years take that opportunity now. If I was 15? I'd have jumped it before I had a coach. And if I was 12? I'd probably be sneaking a few jumps in when I thought no one was looking, and when I fell off, I'd pretend nothing hurt. And then do it again. ;)

Capitalize on that. The best riders I know started when they were young enough to take chances to learn the things that make you a good rider.

Anyway, C and I were off into the ring, and I explained steering to her. And around and around the ring we went. When she was comfortable enough to not hold Moon's mane or the little pommel hollow, I asked her to reach forward and touch Moon's mane. I asked her to stick her arms out like an airplane, and while at first she said "No, I can't!!" by the end of our lesson she had one arm out to her side and was even spinning it like a helicopter. I bet her that she couldn't ride with her eyes closed...and she instantly closed them to prove me wrong.

I like challenges for kids. I love how they want to show you that they can do what you think they can't. I sped up Moon's walk and she got nervous and asked for slower. So I went REALLY slow. SO SLOW. "Okay faster!" she said and we tried all the speeds within the walk, from slow to fast steps. She asked me why it was bouncy and I explained how that's his feet swinging out as he walked and she could feel his body moving. "Right, left, right, left" I said, pointing at which foot was swinging out. "Can you feel that?"

When she seemed to forget to steer (and yes, it took a lot to try to see if she was steering or not, since A. Moon was really just listening to me, and B. She doesn't have a lot of the strength to turn his big ol'head), I let them walk right up to the arena fence. Moon stopped. "You crashed Moon into the fence!!!" I exclaimed to C, as she looked all surprised!! "I didn't steer!!" she said, and quickly turned Moon. "Good thing he stopped!" she said, "Would he go right through the fence?!" Lol. Oh kids. No sweetheart, he wouldn't. But I still want you to think about steering because once you're cantering around this ring and not steering, you WILL jump clear over it ;)

She asked when she could jump, and her dad instantly jumped in that it would be many many years and she has to learn to ride first. Lol. Oh dads. ;)

I told her about ribbons (all she wants is a purple one anyway), and we had a great time.

Finally I knew she was getting tired, so we went out of the ring for a quick little "trail ride". Just let her weave between the trees in the yard out to the horses at the back and then returned to the tie post.

I could tell that half of her was poop'd ("I think Moon is tired") and half of her would have ridden forever ("Can we go around *just* once more?!"). That's what I love, and they say the best thing you can do is leave them wanting more.

So down she came, we untacked Moon, she groomed him again (WALK FAR BEHIND HIM! ;) ), and then I showed her his food and let her give him a treat out of her hand (she giggled). The cutest was when Moon smacked his head on his feed bucket and she was almost in tears because she thought he had hurt his head. Hehe. Poor ol'Moon.

When she gave him the last of his brushing, Moon's eyes closed into blissful napping. He was just sooo happy to have this little girl running her little purple brush over him. When she stopped, he'd look over at her like "Um, excuse me??".

We led Moon back to the field together and then I put him away. She was a little sad about leaving her grooming kit at the barn, but that's okay. I know the feeling. I used to take the cover off my helmet and "sniff" pony all evening after my lessons. You can't help it.

I told her what a great job she did, and she told me that she had practiced at daycare. OMG, I love her.

Off they went when the grooming area was cleaning up, and I have to say, honestly, I had an AMAZING time. Like amazing. I know that it's probably weird to love teaching that much, but I love teaching kids that much. Especially when they're so willing and excited to do it. She loved it.

I really can't wait to teach her again. I'm already working on fun activities, such as "Egg and Spoon" and taking her over poles on the ground and little obstacle courses. I have every intention of giving her a wholesome variety of activities to do all summer long! And then in the winter, I REALLY want to give her a little purple ribbon for passing her first "level" of horseback riding. Imaginary levels, but I think kids like to progress and they love ribbons. She'll probably be lead line all summer (I dream of her in the Olympics next year lol), and that's such a good way for her to really develop awesome balance and positioning. The key for me is going to be to keep it interesting and different enough every time that she's enjoying herself!

:D We'll see how this goes!!

And next Sunday? I'm taking my true niece out to meet Moon for the first time! Eeek! Who knows what this will be like!

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