Teaching’s fascinated me since the age of 19, when my first qualification came through as a British Horse Society Assistant Instructor at the Grade 4 sanctioned Harrogate Equestrian Centre, a very different animal to North American models. We are, er, I admit talking quite a few decades back, but a stack of qualified instructors teaching two hours of horsemanship and another of stable management, constant supervision, competing until it came out your ears (we were jump-mad) and a stack of fit passionate young people living together for months on end together under wise older wisdoms produced results – you either competed, or taught, or left and worked in something else together – just nothing halfway worked with this kind of mindset.
And now I’m equally OCD with equestrian writing, a craft which started in earnest when I began writing an ‘Equine Diary’ for a local weekly newspaper that had me interviewing just every horse discipline clinician from right across North America as they visited local barns, Spruce Meadows, or The Mane Event. Western, English, horse ‘whisperers,’ bit makers, saddle fitters – I listened to all of them and began to realize just how ‘linear’ horse people can be. They ‘do’ dressage (or jumping or whatever) and rarely access the vast wealth of knowledge out there. And, horsewomen in particular so rarely ‘do’ another sport or discipline. In all my last decade of teaching, just two have come up trumps on that count.
I long for someone who can do Latin ballroom (wonderful core strength and fitness), or T’ai Chi (breathing, flow and awareness). Or, like other competitive sports, regard fitness as essential (imagine!) and work out once, twice a week, perhaps even visit the odd sports psychologist or two, read books, attend inspirational workshops that lead in to getting better/way more informed/the best you can be.
Because these translate to way more interaction with your horse. Not just my higher needs ‘wildie’ colt, but your own domestic animal of whatever breeding, on the ground handling or – big time – riding the four-legged. I mean, can you imagine being a flight (prey) animal, and someone climbs atop who’s one-sided, shallow breathing and wanting to murder their office manager. Oh dear, oh dear.
Last Saturday had me overjoyed watching truly inspirational teaching by Sandra Sokoloski at a day workshop, escaping from her punishing schedule at Summit Sport Physiotherapy down Okotoks way. Sandra has a special interest in sports physio (for humans!) and understands equestrian perceptions a bit well – I’d say she could be mentoring national and Olympic teams, she’s that good. She has the science and understanding of human anatomy to understand what makes riders clench, tweak, go off balance, translate that and ally with class teaching that’s so simple it looks easy. Then, on top of that, she has knowledge of equine anatomy and movement that means if you say your horse isn’t moving through the shoulder on the corners, she’s looking for what the human can get aware of, pass that knowledge onto the rider, get them going so the difference of ‘before’ and ‘after’ is so obvious it’s blinding – and then leaves them with that thought, and work to do over the next few months until the next time.
Really great teachers, I’ve found, are amazingly flexible (sorry, bad pun here!). They’ll adapt to each rider, each horse. You have core foundation principles (as here with a skeletal frame, you have to work with that), and then you’re adaptable. And, watching Sandra throughout the day, she taught every single rider/horse combo that had different issues with different thoughts, observations, techniques, different exercises. Pure pleasure…
And then, on Sunday, yours truly here was doing a workshop demo with the Apache (it was 15 crazy degrees and he’s wooly as a polar bear; oh well, at least the delicious sunshine and a Chinook wind dried him off in minutes afterwards!) for a newly formed partnership barn further southwards, with a more pleasure and also therapeutic work-with-horses crowd. We started off with long lining and what happens on how you handle lines (reins effectively) will be pretty much what you’ll do when riding – fluidity or not, shoulder tension, not breathing deeply, whatever. The two owners were up for anything, gamely trying out the lines, the liberty work, then saddling up and throwing a leg over the pinto boy to feel how fast horses will react to changes if, say, you change your own tensions or breathing.
The Apache, bless him, is super tuned in to breathing and energy. My, what a teacher! Then I suggested they try out a few of my ‘walking’ exercises – no horse, just you, walking, breathing, being aware now of posture, feel of the ground beneath your feet. In hindsight you remember all the feelings of working the horse and realizing there could be a few mannerisms and bad habits here, and you realize how much is inter-connected! It’s where I’ve found these past few years of this could be so useful, yes, for competitive riders – and life lessons for pretty much anyone who rides horses.
And yes, I added in a few ideas from Sandra’s workshop the day before. Imitation, I’ve heard, is the most sincere form of flattery!