School horses come in all sizes, colors and breeds. They come in various styles, disciplines, and levels of training. Mild, unassuming, and underappreciated they are the Clark Kents of the horse world. Where would we be without them? Probably in the E.R. deciding to take up tennis.
Oh, sure. You are only too happy to recount how that dastardly, ill-tempered school beast dumped you in the dirt and ran off. Be fair, remember how many times that same school horse did not dump you even though you bounced around in the saddle and pulled on the reins at exactly the wrong time, repeatedly. Would you have been more patient if you were the teacher and spitballs were coming at you every day?
The hallmark of a good school horse is patience. Not every horse has this virtue. Every novice rider flails, bounces and jerks while they are learning to control their wayward body parts. As beginners we underestimated how much of these natural mistakes are abusive to the school horse. We arrogantly insist that it is the school horses’ job to put up with this abuse. Ask yourself, what does this paragon of virtue get in return for their faithful service? They get two to four lessons every day, no days off, and maybe an occasional treat or pat on the neck. We should give them their due. They need days off, some lesson with riders that ride well, and riders that reward them for the efforts.
Years ago I had one thoughtful student sign up for a lesson on Bravo, the most popular horse in the school. She came out and told me that she wanted just to walk today, and can she walk outside for a little while. I asked her what was wrong. Was she unhappy? She answered no. She thought that Bravo had been working very hard and that he needed a rest. So for the length of time of that lesson they strolled the facility. They stood and watched a child on a pony galloping around a course and then joined an adult amateur who was cooling out her horse while chatting amiably about their children. During the stroll the student would occasionally produce a mint or a bit of carrot or apple small enough to eat while wearing a bridle. When they came back to the barn both looked refreshed and relaxed. She dismounted saying, “That’s just what we both needed”. I consider this to be an example of good horsemanship.
The Upper Level School Horse is in its own niche. The Schoolmaster has the patience of the lower level school horse and the knowledge of a PhD candidate. It takes a very resilient horse to be able to absorb the clumsy use of the aids from an inexperienced rider requesting advanced moves. The aspiring rider must learn the advanced feel from a patient but demanding well-trained horse. When a good schoolmaster perceives that the rider intends on riding a half pass instead of a leg yield it swings into the posture and bend of the half pass even if the rider is a little faulty. The schoolmaster must be brave enough to go into a pirouette knowing that the rider may throw him off balance. Many a developing rider will swear that the horse “bucked” in the changes when he simply had more expression and suspension. But, then, the rider never felt that it was possible for a flying change to feel like that. Did, she? Every rider that first experiences a truly balanced and engaged extended trot swears that they never thought it possible for a trot so powerful to be so easy to sit.The Upper Level Schoolmaster has one more quality. The Schoolmaster judges and critiques the quality of the rider’s performance. If I am clumsy or riding with ill-timed aids during a half pass, the trot grinds to a standstill. When I am indelicate with the use of my leg during a flying change the schoolmaster abruptly bolted off with a humped back and flat ears. I learned to say “I’m sorry” to my schoolmaster when I treated them unfairly. I see them wring their tails and brace their necks when my aids shout impatiently instead of aids with clear and precise volume.
Dorita had two Arabian Stallions and two Andalusian Stallions that were all FEI level trained (along with some circus tricks). During my five years with Dorita I rode all of them, to varying degrees of success. The thrill of my first piaffe on Pili-Pili stays with me today, along with my first one-tempis on Zaranza.
There is no teacher of greater value than the Schoolmaster.
A developing rider can watch Charlotte Dujardin videos all day and memorize every word of “The Complete Training of Horse and Rider’ by Alois Podhajsky but until an Equine Schoolmaster teaches them the right feel there is no success.