Monday, January 20, 2014

What makes a good lesson horse?

A narrative of my lesson with my boyfriend on Tristan has been requested, and in thinking about how to write it I thought a bit about a bigger question: what makes a good lesson horse?

But I'll get to that in a minute. There's honestly not much to recap about the lesson. It was 20 minutes, with about 15 on the longe line. A lot of talking him through position at the walk. I made him reach all over and do stretching, and call out to me which feet were hitting the ground at what moment, trying to get him to feel what each part of Tristan was doing in order to propel them forward.

We talked about keeping weight deep in the saddle and it was a bit of an exercise in frustration for me to see him refuse to grasp the idea that it is weight, not muscle, that keeps a rider in the saddle. He insisted it was physically impossible for him to drop his weight through his heels without gripping the saddle with his knees. I told him to see what happened when he gripped as tightly as he thought he should with his whole leg, and bless my horse, he launched into a beautiful forward trot, obedient as you please, and then stopped after two strides because M. was bouncing around like a potato sack.

We talked about posting, and finding the rhythm of it, and then I turned him loose off the longe for about five minutes of experimenting at the walk, seeing what happened when he asked Tris to move off his leg and go different places. We talked about how contrary to Hollywood's bad example, reins are not the way to make a horse go left or right, and what the right feel of a horse's mouth in your hands is, and there were some very brief, faint glimmers as Tris tried so hard to figure out what this strange person was doing, when my poor pony offered to step under and reach in response to the sort of, kind of, muffled aids asking him to do so. (I love him so.)

I have always maintained, and yesterday proves it once again, that Tristan would be a really superlative lesson horse. His brain is so rock solid, and his self-preservation instincts are so good. When he feels inexperienced riders on his back his preference is to slow down, and not speed up and take off in reaction to their imbalance. He tries to read muddled aids, and in size and in overall temperament he is the very opposite of intimidating. At the up-down, walk-trot level he is not a complicated or difficult horse to ride; his issues crop up when you get further along, and are usually in response to a more experienced ride.

But he would not be happy as a lesson horse. He doesn't thrive on work. He keeps his temper cheerfully for the occasional up-down ride but string two or three of those together and he would start to get seriously sour and cranky. He would start to shut himself in. He is a one-rider kind of horse; that's where his personality really shines through, and I don't think I'm saying that just because I happen to be that one rider. His interest in and devotion to work is not sufficient to carry him through a lesson schedule.

So I think, perhaps even more than that steady-eddie adult amateur horse (of whatever discipline) the truly good lesson pony is the rarest of equines. The horses that can take a joke all day long and still make faces on the cross ties. The horses who will adjust their way of going to the ride they're getting, will be kind when interpreting aids, and will generally work to preserve the balance of the rider on their back rather than to upset it. Who do as they're told not in the deadhead way, but in the highly competent, thoughtful way of a seasoned professional.

What do you think? What qualities go into the truly superlative lesson pony? Would your horse be a good schoolie?


  1. A good school horse is rare for sure. I've used my old guy, Ghazal for a couple of lessons before and he does okay. He can be seriously hard to get forward for an inexperienced rider but for the most part he won't do anything dangerous. He has a very lofty trot, though, so learning to post on him is seriously challenging. Loki would get completely stressed out as a lesson horse. It's not so much that he can't take a joke as it is he doesn't get that it is a joke. He would stress trying to figure out what the mixed signals meant until he flipped his lid and probably just high tailed it back to his stall.

  2. All I have to say is lesson horses are saints... I would in no way ever want to be one haha!


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