On Teaching

I’ve always loved to teach riding. I was probably about twelve when I first legged a friend up onto Skye’s back, gave her the reins and said, “Pull for stop and kick for go.” Skye, as always, was phenomenally patient, especially since neither teacher nor student knew what they were doing.

Now things have progressed. The Horse Mutterer took me to the stables where he works and taught me how to teach, and I love it. I will admit to preferring to teach horses rather than people, because horses don’t roll their eyes, but I still love teaching people, and now that I can ride better than the average beginner, I at least have something to teach them, mediocre as it might be.

The best is teaching a four-year-old with Downe’s syndrome. Sure, it’s not easy, but the moment that little kid sits on a horse his whole face lights up. All I do is hold the lead rein and say, “Hands up, Uwais.” God’s magnificent creation, the horse, does the rest; when he reaches out to stroke Double Reef’s velvet nose, the great moody racehorse looks back at him with a peace and a tranquillity and a gentleness that takes your breath away. And the little boy laughs, and it’s like Reef understands his world.

Teaching has its bad moments, of course; I’d rather fall off myself than watch a student fall and when beginners learn to trot and flap their hands about I can’t help but flinch in sympathy with the poor horse. But there’s something incredibly special about showing someone – anyone, of any age – a member of my Horde and watching them discover this shining dancing miracle that is the glorious horse.

They touch the end of the horse’s nose and exclaim at its extraordinary softness; they run a hand down her neck and gasp at its power. And then they sit on the horse and take up the reins and discover that, incredibly, with just a touch at the reins, just a nudge from their heels, they can get this half-ton of blood and bone to do exactly what they ask for. They beam in amazement, and Skye, looking wryly out at me from under her flaxen forelock, seems to be beaming, too.

If I thought teaching riding was amazing, then teaching God alongside horses is twice as amazing and I don’t even do it as well as I should or as much as I should. Just a line here or there:

“Why do horses sleep standing up?”

“Because God designed them to run from predators; if they smell something that wants to eat them, they can go from asleep to flat-out in a split second. They’ve got specially made legs that lock when they fall asleep so that they use hardly any effort to stay upright. Isn’t it amazing?”

And it is!

Yesterday, I had a new beginner to flap my jaws at; a nice, grade-twelve girl (it’s wonderful how much cheek people will put up with from someone younger than them if you’re the one holding the horse’s bridle). She cottoned on very quickly and soon had Skye walking sedate laps around the arena without perpetually returning to me, which is what Skye invariably does when her rider is just plain confusing her. This one didn’t, so she plodded happily on and it wasn’t long before I took the reins and gave her the usual instructions; “Hang on to the saddle and squeak if you think you’re gonna fall off, because we’re going to trot.” Unfortunately I made an extremely stupid mistake and forgot to check the girth. I mean, how dumb do you get? I’ve been riding for eleven years and forgot to check the girth!! Stupid. Well, as expected, the saddle slid and the poor beginner clung on valiantly before, halfway down Skye’s side, squeaking “I’m falling!” and plopping neatly off onto her back. Poor girl. First ride, first fall, all in one day. Thankfully it wasn’t a particularly horrible fall and she wasn’t hurt, and she was wearing a helmet (I would eat my students alive, feet first so they can see every gruesome detail, if I ever caught them on a horse without a good helmet). Plus, being brave and spunky, she immediately laughed it off and hopped back on. Skye, being gentle and epically patient (and used to my mistakes), didn’t turn a hair and the lesson went on uneventfully.

My other three students are doing well; they’ve been riding for about six months now. I teach all my students to saddle up, groom, lead, and so on, instead of just riding, because there’s so much more to horses than riding. They were getting to the stage where they could saddle up on their own but didn’t really know it so I challenged them to a competition; first person saddled up properly wins the prize of getting first choice of mount for next week’s lesson. The eldest daughter, who’s about thirteen, surprised me by saddling Siobhan in record time without any help at all. Note to self: Competitions work. Chocolate prizes may work better since I always match each rider with their favourite horse anyway.

Skye’s lameness is doing a real rollercoaster on me. She was ridden every day last week, Monday and Tuesday by Rain since Arwen was acting up, and I rode her personally on Wednesday morning. In walk and canter she felt as sound as a brass bell; once or twice in trot she was a little off, but much sounder than before; I think the massage must be helping. She was also her normal explosive self, not grouchy or sorry for herself at all, which is a massive plus.

Skye dislikes riding out alone when we do it too often because, like many things, It Gets Too Boring. But every so once in a while I stuff my Bible into my saddlebags, slap a bridle on her and we go fly together, just us two and God in the beautiful world He made with His own Hands. And every so often, it’s wonderful to be just the three of us together, the girl, the horse and the God Who made them, with the wind and the herons and the way the sky seems to laugh and cry all at once when Skye tosses up her head and lifts up her feet for the sheer joy of being God’s own horse.

We fly, the Lord and Skye and I. Her hooves beat a hymn on the grass. The kites throw open their sharp arrow wings and drift above us in the unscarred sky; they know about the wind in the same way that Skye knows. We pause under the willow tree and while Skye crunches dry leaves, I pull my Bible out and read with only the soft sound of a chewing horse and the wind to interrupt. That’s where I meet Jesus; out in the glory of His Creation, in the silence, in the beauty.

And all filled up with the Word of God, I tighten the girth, hop on and turn Skye’s head for home. When she strides into the sunlight, she bursts aflame. Warming her up is almost impossible; she dances, throwing up her legs and heart. When I’m sure she’s warm, when her trot moves more up than forward and the hill is unrolled in front of us as clean as a cloud, I reach forward, tangle a lock of starlight mane between my fingers, and loosen the reins. There’s no need to kick. There’s no need to urge her on. She flattens out to the ground and flies on, outrunning the fear, misery, worry, outrunning the world and speeding right on until for the barest instant we can have a mere inkling of a shadow of the imagining of what Heaven must be like.

For this is only Earth. 


She was completely sound on Saturday, just a little off on Monday this week and now lame again today. I’m starting to wonder if she doesn’t have a sore back, but she seems very happy in herself, so it’s still a case of wait and see. 

I’ve been working with Arwen a lot this week. On Monday she went off bucking with Rain, so the next day I reluctantly surrendered Skye to Rain and rode Arwen myself. Arwie was relatively good; she had one very silly spook, but not too major, and had some braking problems, but that was all; by the time we reached the home stretch she was going at a solid extended canter without bucking or losing her mind, so we swapped back and I made another stupid mistake by taking Skye for a gallop on ahead. Usually Arwen is as competitive as a dead donkey and is perfectly happy to trot in Skye’s blazing wake but not today. She took off like a bullet with poor Rain screaming, hanging on and cursing Arwen, me, Skye, me, the world, me, and me with all her might. Poor thing.

With Arwen being a brat on outrides but a little angel in the arena, I decided to put Rain on her while I schooled Siobhan. Rain is the bravest human I know and shook off yesterday’s bolting – and, indeed, the breaking of her collarbone two or three years ago – mind-bogglingly well. Before I knew it she and Arwen were cantering happily around and I tactfully dropped a pole on the ground right in the path worn around the arena.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m just teaching Siobhanny to jump,” I chirped from Siobhan’s saddle when Rain demanded why I was messing up the road.

Well, Siobhanny was (naturally) trotting beautifully over the pole so Rain and Arwen followed suit. When Rain wasn’t looking, I slid a tyre under each end of the pole so that it was around 10cm high, still a comfortable trotting pole. Rain and Arwen went in front, providing a bit of a lead for Siobhan, who continued to pop over without a fuss. Go girly. Eventually I upped the pole to about 15cm and Rain and Arwen chickened out a little; with some encouragement, and even without Arwen to lead her, Siobhan went over perfectly and so I stuck it up to about 20cm. This became challenging; Siobhan was beginning to struggle to trot comfortably over it and had to pick her feet up or jump and she sure as sugar wasn’t going to jump, but with a lot of kicking, I convinced her to trot up, over and on without slowing. Eventually, I got a little halfway jump from her and called it a day as she was beginning to tire.

Then, Project Rain took off in earnest. I took the pole down to 15cm and led Arwen over it at a walk. Rain started to feel silly and decided to walk her mount over it by herself while I unsaddled Siobhan and stuck her in a pen to await grooming. When I got back Rain and Arwen were confidently walking over so I persuaded/bullied Rain into trotting and they were perfect. Slowly, I raised it to 20cm on one side, 15 on the other. Rain had her doubts, but did it anyway; Arwen was a real star, trotting up in good rhythm and smartly picking her feet up over the pole (she doesn’t bother to do baby jumps anymore). I would have liked to put up a cross rail but I seem to have run out of poles.

Then, just as I put it up to a full 20cm, Rain took a corner too sharply (my fault, I should have told her not to), Arwen fell over her own feet, and the two of them wiped out. Arwen landed on her knees and nose and Rain managed to cling on until Arwie had finished falling and then came off in slow mo. I got over my initial shock, laughed my socks off, and chased her back on before she could get a fright, since she was (thank God) entirely uninjured. Over the jump she went, perfect. What a girl!

Arwen continues to be silly on outrides, so it looks like I’m going back to square one with that. It’s disheartening, but I guess I just need to get the balance right. When she’s quiet on outrides she’s unbearably lazy in the arena and when she’s wonderful in the arena, she’s skittish on outrides. Somewhere there’s got to be a balance. In between her prancing, snorting, spooking and bucking outside, she put in two very nice sessions in the arena, working lots and lots on getting the correct lead at the canter and standing squarely. She even repeated the magnificent feat of jumping a flawless 1.1m, about which I’m very proud. For the first time in several months I put up a little double, a 60cm upright, then 8.8m (theoretically, two strides) to a 90cm upright. She cantered through in perfect rhythm and with tremendous confidence. I was too occupied with rhythm and pace and getting over the jumps to count the strides but she was very comfortable, so I’m thoroughly pleased with that.

Dancer, unfortunately, discovered how strong she is and due to my lack of a lungeing ring she became quite impossible to lunge. Whenever she felt like it (which was always) she put her head down and took off like a shot. No matter what I did. As usual, I went wailing to the Horse Mutterer, who pointed out some mistakes I make when I lunge (my lungeing is abysmal) and then tried to lunge Dancer.

“Okay,” he said, as the black filly disappeared over the horizon, “I see your point.”

Thankfully she finds it a lot harder to drag the six-foot Mutterer than to drag me, and after a few seconds she began to rethink her actions, but the Mutterer was starting to worry a bit by then and banned me from lungeing her until I have a decent ring because “She’s gonna break your arm off.” Having felt Dancer’s power, I none too reluctantly obeyed, so I spent our session on Tuesday waving a feed sack at her until it stopped scaring her. To be honest, she was much better behaved than I thought she would be; she was unhappy about the sack coming close to her face and tried to dance around a bit when it came near her hindquarters, but by the end of it she was standing dead still and looking faintly bored.

I tried the same feed-sack thing with Thunder. It was a completely pointless exercise. No matter what I did with that sack I just couldn’t get him to do so much as turn a hair. I patted him with it, I waved it above my head, I tied to the fence and made him walk past it as the wind blew it about, I tied it to his mane, I tied it to his tail, I wrapped it around his leg, I made him wear it on his back, I made him walk over it. You name it, I did it. He seemed to be asleep for most of the time, only perking up when I put it down on the ground and he stuck his head in it in the hopes of finding something to eat.

Thunder is really, truly, absolutely stunning. I’ve taken to walking him like a colossal furry dog and the further we go the quieter he is. I’ve walked him throughout the old horses’ paddock and nothing there spooks him, not even trotting over logs. I’ve taken him all the way to the edge of the forest, where Arwen has most of her spooks. He waggled his ears and began to graze.

Little Copper remains cheeky and insufferably stubborn; he rears, bites, neighs incessantly and barges into me when I walk him out of sight of his mother and he gets agitated. He’s Siobhan in miniature. Luckily, he is in miniature, so I manage to keep calm when he has his tantrums. I hope this improves drastically when he’s weaned, hopefully this week, but the poor little thing isn’t going to be easy to wean the way Secret was – I anticipate some of that nightmarish running up and down and neighing. Thunder was a very calming influence on Secret, so I’m hoping he’ll reassure Copper, too.

This blog is getting as long as the Odyssey, so I will fly now. There’s still much to do!


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