Back seven years or so I was just wrapping up five years of writing a weekly newspaper equestrian column. I wrote about shelters in Chinook wind country, trick riding and ranch kids, saddle-fitters, bit makers, outfitters and probably darned near every clinician trotting around in North America. On average, about 20 emails or telephone calls a week would slide in too, asking for information, word of mouth recommendations about good places to board, OK teachers, where beginners could learn to ride.
As I (way too slowly, life reasons but exasperating plus to the straight-line focus chick here!) fossick my way into understanding driving, it’s become hugely apparent that two reasonably local (for Alberta!) driving clubs have tremendous resources.
Massive ‘lending’ libraries of books and DVDs get hauled to monthly meetings and similar, competitions, and clinicians being pulled in for workshops and massively hugely popular week-long summer camps (the quality of food – we are not talking endless hot dogs and fries here at all – is a very big hit, quite right! – time to sip at wine, listen, enjoy – the camaraderie is huge, oh yes!) highlight FEI international whiz-kids teaching from beginner to four-in-hands seriously competing.
‘Resources’. I like this word.
I’m a rank beginner here, listening to names being mentioned of serious provenance and worth I have to look up afterwards. Volunteering for scribing, for helping out, will be my own way of finding out what the heck is being entered into here; it’s a ‘community’ – a big word these days with the world heading for 87 per cent urbanized (nature-deficit and disconnect number, big time) and increasingly (computer and social media) isolated individually into smaller and groups, even down to one.
For safety and simple cost reasons, you just don’t wade into this discipline. It’s potentially higher risk in some ways, to get a horse – a flight animal – to trust and trot on in front with some ghastly thing clattering behind him; time’s needed to go through that training, an awareness of what-can-go-wrong by the human.
And, the within-the-club knowledge of worthy coaches locally, of horsemanship, of conditioning, the whole darned deal, is right up there (the two clubs I am referring to, are, northwards, the Stonebridge Carriage Driving Club, and southwards, the High Country Carriage Driving Club).
That’s me, though, who knows the deal, how to research, find people (try reading my newspaper columns about wildlife and conservation, my brain gets tired sometimes, seriously).
It’s obvious that new-to-horses individuals are struggling to find great coaching, instruction in riding, Western and English.
Having bought some massively inappropriate animal with no guidance, then you go into a saddlery and buy a smart new saddle and bridle, only finding out later about saddle-fit (ouch). And just because someone is teaching, has a barn, is absolutely no credential they have any real depth (Olympian and international coach George Morris, always one to poke a stick into a hornets nest, has written on this aspect many times).
The purists will exclaim, oh, there’s certified levels from Equine Canada and the Alberta Equestrian Federation. Well, they’re a start, but I went to view an enormously expensive show jumping young horse for an Irish client, where the Level Two coach was turfed as she went into canter (her trot work before that had its backend somewhere in the next province, no tracking up whatsoever). Her saddle rampantly didn’t fit (part of the reason for hitting the deck – and she was an agent for two brands of saddlery!), and she couldn’t see a stride coming into some knee-high obstacle. I can give you a list a mile long of such examples. Sorry, folks, the standards are all over the place – give me a German, French or British Horse Society foundation-horsemanship-crammed-to-the-nth-degree qualified instructor, every time.
Are what’s needed a version of riding clubs, akin to the driving club model?
I’ve heard the word adult Pony Club models being bandied around. Well, the last year I taught in British Pony Club (1999) was the year that instruction for parents slid into the deal – a paradigm shift away from mud-coated volunteer mums and dads who were always there at events shepherding furry ponies around, to parents who knew even less about four-leggeds than their child.
So, there’s this huge shift. No longer do most people remember an uncle or grandparent who lived on the land, farmed or ranched – knew animals.
So, riding clubs – with that feel of having access to resources, mentors who-are-solid, carrying that real knowledge forward, could be just a bit cool – for grassroots and recreational riders, who are, according to my research, the main bulk of horse-owners these days.
A super-knowledgeable local instructor solidly qualified with the British Horse Society Shannon Daly (who’s worked at international levels with Jane and Chris Bartle), is just beginning to coordinate a local group established a while back, mentioning ‘it’s really important to be mindful of teaching forwards.’
Here, from a very good commentary, is what Shannon Daly emailed me about her take:
“About the equestrian club…..I have been thinking about it. It’s not a club in the conventional sense – no membership fee, etc. All fees are based on costs, even the summer camp.
“‘Geezer’ [the original group was formed from ‘retired’ Pony Club parents whose teenagers had flown the nest and who wanted to continue their interaction with horses] is what it is…. [and] not changing the name. It was started so that adult riders could have their very own summer camp and all that goes with that.
“What I’m working towards is a unique situation where I can help horses Geezers is a part of that. It’s a group of people already mindful of being better at what they do so that the horse, and rider/handler have a more enjoyable time. I’ve opened this up to younger riders.”
“Ian Millar, who came up through Pony Club with a very different dynamic of decades back, has remarked on this criteria, keeping young people at 18 in the game, keeping the knowledge and passing it forward.
“The more owners know and practice well – grooming, work in hand, physical fitness, feeding, etc…..creating well rounded horseman….the better for the horse. I’m in this for the horse.”
My own personal take is if the standard of horsemanship isn’t supported, it will go down. In England when Pre-Novice eventing horse trials were introduced, a few years later it was proposed that a still lower-in-height-and-standard affiliated class come in. International course designer Mark Phillips was a staunch opponent, and I agree with his thinking and philosophy there. If you design, teach, coach to the lowest denominator, that’s where your standard drops to.
I love what the driving clubs are offering me, it’s simply terrific.
I’d like to see way more thought, effort, put into the deal for recreational riders and the idea of supportive riding clubs – that availability just-like-that to the recreational rider, straightaway, yes? No getting injured from buying inappropriate horses, great mentorship, advisory about great teachers, solid into-the-industry resources of books and DVDs. Solid.
Pony Club Objectives
This excerpt from the U.S. Pony Club’s mission statement says it all: “The United States Pony Clubs, Inc., develops character, leadership, confidence and a sense of community [in youth] through a program that teaches the care of horses and ponies, riding and mounted sports.”