Old Dogs and New Tricks

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Years ago, “beginning riders” were almost always children. Adults—their parents—stood on the rail and cheered them on. But, as anyone who runs a public lesson program surely knows, that’s no longer the case. Adults, including many in the “baby boom” generation, have left the rail and mounted up in growing numbers.

“Adult beginners are finally getting to do something they always dreamed of doing—ride and own horses,” says clinician Susan Harris of Cortland, N.Y. Harris, a master instructor and member of the examining panel of the American Riding Instructor Association (ARIA), has started riders of all ages in her 30-plus-year career. Who better to offer advice on teaching the fast-growing cadre of new adult riders?

While all beginners need to learn the same basics, she notes, teaching adults is not like teaching children. The lesson horse, your teaching methods, the long-term goals—in all those things and more, what works for kids may not work so well for adults. That’s because…

Adults Are Different

They learn differently and have different needs, Harris says. Here are five key differences:

Comprehension: Children want to know what to do; adults want to know why they should do it. They learn better when they understand the big picture, and working with them can actually make you a better instructor, Harris believes. “When you have to explain why the horse does something or why a certain action on the rider’s part is effective, you have to know the reason,” she says. Most adults quickly recognize attempts to brush off their questions or fabricate answers, she adds.

Life experience: Adults bring to riding ideas and experiences from life, from driving a car to other sports, and they come with personalities and learning styles already well-formed. If they know what works for them, this can help. Sometimes those set learning styles get in the way, though.

As a college instructor, Harris recalls, she taught an adult beginner who was working on his PhD in computer science and approached riding in a mathematical, “left-brain” way. “He couldn’t understand why the horse didn’t always act as expected; he was sure he had ‘programmed’ the horse correctly.” The student was frustrated until he figured out that he had to approach learning to ride in a different, more intuitive way.

Fear factor: Adult fears are more logical and less instinctive than childhood fears. Harris explains, “Children have flashes of fright—the horse goes too fast and they don’t like it, for example—that are soon over. An adult thinks—‘I could get hurt, and if I’m laid up I could lose my job, and who will take care of the kids?’” Adults may also dwell on their fears, and you can’t just soothe those fears away by saying “there, there.” You need to address them with logic and reasoning.

Less rapport: Besides having more fear, many adult beginners don’t establish rapport with horses as easily as children—they often don’t seem to have the natural connection with animals that children do. “It’s important to help them understand that riding is really about the relationship between horse and rider, and that the horse is not simply a piece of athletic equipment,” Harris says.

Greater stiffness: Adults are less flexible physically than children. Their joints get stiff, and especially as beginners they can be tense and tight. Harris uses several techniques to overcome these problems (some are described below). She encourages students to explore the Alexander technique, a method of releasing body tension that is the basis of Centered Riding. Off the horse, some adult riders also use Pilates or similar exercise programs to build core strength and increase flexibility.

Teaching Tools

The horse is the indispensable teaching tool, of course. Harris says that suitability of the horse is extremely important for adults, and especially for adult beginners, novices, and new horse owners. Of course, the horse must be large enough to carry the adult’s weight. He also must be kind enough to stand and wait to be mounted and to put up with a novice rider who may bounce heavily in the tack or curl up in a panic on his neck. Your best bet? An experienced campaigner who has shown he can do a similar job for a similar person.

Besides a suitable horse, the following techniques are helpful with adults new to the sport, Harris says:

Start solo: Adults generally are more confident starting out in private lessons, Harris believes. She starts beginners of all ages on the longe line, at least for the first lesson and for more if they are fearful. Sometimes she works on a circle in the classic way, controlling the horse’s gaits. At other times she uses the longe line as a sort of safety rope.

“The rider controls the horse—stop, start, steer—but knows the horse can’t get out of control,” she says. “I gradually move farther away, so I go from leading the horse to holding the end of the line 20 to 30 feet out, always being careful not to let the line drop to the ground. Then, as the rider gains confidence and if we’re in an enclosed ring, I can unsnap the line and let the rider take charge.”

Once adults are comfortable on the horse, they learn well in groups and have fun—but the group must be suitable. “Many adults feel humiliated riding in kids’ groups,” Harris says. “A group of compatible adults is best.”

Work at the walk: To counteract stiffness and tension, Harris spends a lot of time at the walk, using a variety of Centered Riding exercises to build body awareness and keep riders interested. “I like to tell riders to think of the walk as a slow-motion lab, where you can learn and explore. The trot is more like aerobics class, and the canter is for fun,” she says.

Intentionally or not, adult beginners often lock up defensively, gripping with their knees and thighs and bracing themselves against the horse’s movement. They need to learn to breathe, relax the seat and back, and go with the flow, Harris says. “I try to get beginners to pay attention to how the horse’s motion moves the rider’s body, and we talk about how and why riding is a good form of physical therapy. I ask them to feel their seat bones in the saddle and then breathe out, imagining the air traveling down through the body. This tends to lower the center of gravity and relax the rider.”

Have fun: Mounted games are another way to get adults to relax. “You might not think adults would take to games, but if you’ve established rapport with adult students and explain the reason for the game, a lot of adults will have a ball,” Harris says. “I’ve even had adult groups sing on horseback; it’s a great way to get them to relax and breathe. But you can’t talk down to adults; you have to enlist their sense of fun.”

Explain everything: Talk about why a horse behaves in a certain way, what to notice in his way of going, how to check that tack fits and is put on correctly, how and why to cool the horse out. This satisfies the adult beginner’s need for the big picture—and it gives you a chance to start a horseman, not just a rider.

Reinforce learning: “At the end of every lesson, I always ask each rider to tell me what was the most important thing he or she learned in that session,” Harris says. It’s a simple way to get them to think about what they’ve done and reinforce what they’ve learned. For those who enjoy it—and many adults do—she finds that asking riders to keep a journal can be very useful. After each ride, they write down what they’ve worked on and what they most want to remember from the session.

Be respectful: Adults expect to be treated like—well, adults. An adult student may be a beginner on horseback, but a business executive in “real life”—and he or she won’t take kindly to overbearing treatment. “You can be tough and fair, but you can’t be arbitrary. And you can’t expect to get anywhere by yelling,” Harris says.

Goals

With adult beginners, as with any student, Harris says, “Instructors need to understand and respect the rider’s goals, not impose their own. Usually adults are riding for recreation. They want to enjoy the process of learning and feel they’re making progress.”

At the same time, it’s important to make sure the student’s goals are realistic. Some adults are living out a childhood dream, Harris notes, and they may be overconfident. Since they have checkbooks, riders like this often get in over their heads by rushing out and buying an unbroken two-year-old or “rescuing” a horse with serious behavioral issues. It’s important for the instructor to kindly but clearly provide a reality check.

“I try to get the student to think of learning to ride as a journey, and talk about the kind of horse that will be suitable now and allow her to continue to enjoy the journey as her skills develop,” Harris says.

Gently steered in this way, adults who are new to riding can become valued long-term clients.