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Lessons, coordination, and body awareness

From: Zaliek

I'm a city horse lover and as a result get most horse contact though books, magazines and the web, then with the real thing. This, of course led to you. After trying to found out about "natural" horsemanship and finding soppy, emotional self-righteousness that was totally incredible, you're a goldmine, but I won't tell you that, because with all the praise you get your head soon won't fit though the door! :)

Ok, so I know a lot of theory, but know next to nothing of the practical. I am going to move soon to study, and will have a number of riding schools around me, but money will be limited. I would like to know what kind of lessons I should do with the money restrictions. I know for novice riders one-to-one lessons are best, but I would only be able to have about one a month. Would an hour group lesson every two weeks, or a half hour group lesson a week, be better. How much can be done in half an hour, especially in a group? I've also thought of having half an hour lesson the first week and an hour hack the second, practicing what I did in the lesson. Would I just teach my self bad habits? I would be more than happy to work at the school for part of the cost of rides, but because of my lack of experience I don't expect to be allowed, (if I was I would be worried about the quality of care). But can you suggest any unskilled work away from the horses I could do? Cleaner, receptionist, babysitting as parents ride? Do riding schools usually allow this? Do you have any other ideas about cutting cost without being taught by a 16 year old who says, "Just hit him harder!"

There are two other problems as well; firstly my co-ordination is awful. When driving, for example, I can use the pedals and the wheel, but find it hard to use both at the same time (I don't have a licence by the way.) I also don't think I'm very aware of my body. (You should see me dance) The second thing is when I put my weight on my toes or the ball of my foot, my legs sometimes shake, though not every time. This happens with my feet in the stirrups. I don't think it's dangerous, (not at trot anyway), and I might be able to learn to balance despite it as I don't notice it unless someone points it out, but I think the horse wasn't happy with it and it can't be helping my balance. The instructor said this was because my feet were weak (very probable), but when I went on a climbing wall the same thing happened, (it wasn't fear, I have no problems with heights) the instructor said that it was just something that happens to some people. I know this isn't really your area, but have you seen anything like it? My heel goes up and down, it doesn't always happen in both legs at the same time, but in the saddle that may be because I was to one side and had more weight on one leg. I have a problem keeping my heels down. Do you know any exercises to improve co-ordination and to strengthen feet?

Sorry about the long email and the odd questions but any help will be lapped up.

Hi! Thanks for the (very funny) kind words - and not to worry, my head will still fit through the door - any door. I'm just glad you said "head". Now, if you'd said "hips"... ;-)

In an ideal world, you would have daily private lessons with a brilliant instructor. But when you're busy, cost is a factor, and the world is not ideal, it's more realistic to think in terms of a single weekly lesson. It would still be best to have at least your first few lessons to yourself, because beginners really DO need, and benefit from, the full attention of the instructor. There are still a few instructors who teach one-on-one; you will probably pay more for a private lesson than for a group one, but for the first few months at least, you will truly get MUCH more from those private sessions. In that hypothetical ideal world, you would have at least thirty private sessions under your belt before you began taking group lessons, and when you DID begin taking group lessons, the group would be small (three or four riders at most), riding at the same level, and the instructor would, again, be brilliant.

The top priority for you will have to be the quality of the instruction. You'll learn more in one lesson with a good instructor than you would in ten lessons with a poor one - and you'll learn more in a group lesson with a truly good teacher than you would in a private lesson with a poor one. Frequency does matter, so if your only choices are between the half-hour weekly group session and the hour-long session every other week, the weekly lesson would probably be preferable. The difficulty that most people have with learning to ride isn't so much the learning process as it is the process of re-learning skills that they've learned wrong, and changing the attitudes that they've acquired based on the (also wrong) information that they've been given. The one thing that you most need to avoid will be putting yourself into a situation where you'll be learning bad riding and bad habits of thinking about horses, because UNlearning, or RElearning, any skill (and any way of thinking is infinitely more difficult, and takes infinitely longer, than learning it properly from the very start. So if you find that the instructor at the nearest and most attractive riding school IS, in fact, a sixteen-year-old who says "Just hit him harder!", please don't even stop - just say "Thank you" to the person who gave you the tour, and go and inspect another school.

This is why the idea of a half-hour lesson one week and an hour hack the second is, sadly, NOT a good idea for you right now. (In a year or two, it may be a very good thing to do.) Since your knowledge is largelly theoretical - "book-learning" - at this point, you'll need time and experience (and a good instructor) to help you acquire riding skills, and also to help you learn to monitor yourself. At first, even such seemingly simple ideas as sitting up straight and keeping your legs underneath your body are VERY difficult to put into practice. At first, since everything is unfamiliar, your body doesn't recognize what "straight" is, and your legs, instead of automatically remaining directly underneath your body, are more likely to be out in front of you or perhaps out behind you! You won't notice whether your feet are level or how much of a bend you have at the knee, or at the hip. You won't know whether your back is over-arched, straight, or hunched, and you won't know whether your fingers are open or closed. First, you'll learn to sit correctly and hold yourself correctly, and that sounds so simple, doesn't it? But it's not something that you'll master in the first lesson, or even in the first ten or twenty lessons. It will take time. First, you have to learn to do things and hold your body in ways that are unfamiliar, and learn exactly WHERE everything should go. Then, you have to learn to memorize the FEEL, so that when your instructor says "Yes, where your leg is NOW, that's it, that's where it should be!" or "NOW your back is straight, can you feel it?" you'll be able to say "Yes, I can feel it." Eventually, your body and mind will hold those moments as part of your physical "reference library", and your instructor will be able to say "Check your position" instead of "Straighten up, relax your legs, let your heels drop, look up, close your fingers". Eventually, you'll be checking your position BEFORE the instructor says anything at all, and you'll KNOW when something is wrong, and why, and what it SHOULD feel like, and - very important - what you must do to put things right. At that point, you'll have the knowledge AND the physical awareness to notice that you're out of position - and the skills to get yourself INTO position and retrieve the feeling of "This is RIGHT".

And when you've reached that point, an hour hack will be much more enjoyable and infinitely more profitable for you, as you'll be able to spend the time helping yourself improve instead of backsliding. But until you've achieved a certain degree of physical ability and experience, you can't really practice on your own and hope to make progress, because the practice won't be perfect. "Practice makes perfect" is simply not true. In fact, practice only makes PERMANENT - for better or for worse. "Perfect practice makes perfect" is a much more accurate and much more useful thought.

As for working at the school, I couldn't even begin to guess at whether that's possible. Most good riding schools are fully staffed - for the sake of the horses and their care, as you so wisely point out! Most schools that DO make use of student or volunteer help have a long list of names of people who want to exchange their labour for lessons, or for a chance to hack out occasionally. This doesn't mean that it couldn't happen, but I shouldn't count on it if I were you. That said, your other ideas - cleaner, receptionist, babysitter, etc. - are certainly worth suggesting! The riding world is full of parents who would adore the idea of having a creche at the riding school. If those ideas don't work, perhaps you'll think of something else. I've known artists to exchange their drawings and paintings and pottery for lessons, and I remember one young woman who was brilliant at knitting, and managed to exchange a series of lovely woolen scarves for a series of lessons with an instructor who could handle four reins with ease and grace, but couldn't manage knitting needles. With your degree of interest and your lovely positive attitude, I feel sure that you will think of some way to get your lessons.

Finally, lack of coordination and lack of body awareness are definitely a drawback, but perhaps not as much of one as you may believe. For one thing, if it's any comfort to you, I can assure you that you are not, by any means, alone - these problems are shared by many other people, including many people who take riding lessons! For another, BOTH of these conditions can be changed, at least to some degree - and you can begin changing them right now, without having to invest a fortune. In my experience, both of these conditions are exacerbated by lack of fitness and lack of focus, both of which are entirely amenable to change. Quite often, it's the most clever, interesting people who complain of these things - probably because their minds are so active that they've never really bothered to develop their physical side. Most of them paid exactly NO attention during their physical training classes when they were children in school, because they had other things on their minds, and so either went through the motions without putting in any effort, or found some way to avoid those classes entirely.

The problems you've described are NOT "things that just happen", nor are "weak feet" the likely cause... which makes me wonder about the instructors who told you those things! A good instructor should be able to analyze a rider's strengths and weaknesses, explain what is wrong with the rider's position and balance, explain WHY it is wrong and what the rider should be doing differently - AND assign a set of specific exercises to do at home, to help improve each area. You don't have such an instructor right now, but you may be lucky enough to find one someday. In the meantime, I think you'll do better to focus on making some basic, overall changes and improvements. It's quite a lot like beginning to condition and train a young horse, actually! You'll find that focusing on the "big picture" and working to achieve correct balanced movement at walk and in gentle exercises will have a big effect on the specific problems you've noticed. In fact, many of those problems will improve dramatically or even disappear after a month or two of careful work to improve overall fitness, coordination, and body awareness.

Improving your fitness level will do wonders for your riding - and everything else, too. Riders, like other athletes, need three kinds of fitness: strength, flexibility, and endurance. You'll need to work on all of those, and I suggest you begin with a two-part program that will do a great deal for all three. It sounds as though the two forms of exercise that will help you the most are walking - yes, just walking, just you, on your very own two feet (which will become stronger through correct walking - as will your ankles, knees, hips, and back) - and yoga.

Walking will help you become stronger, and will help you develop endurance. Yoga is wonderful for improving your flexibility, your focus, and your breathing - and what yoga teaches you about breathing and focus should then immediately be applied to your walking. The biggest change for you won't even be the physical exercises, but the WAY you're going to need to do them. You'll need to do them MINDFULLY, which means correctly and thoughtfully AND with proper breathing AND WITH AWARENESS (no more "just going through the motions!"). And don't cheat, either, because mindful exercise will help you improve your riding skills, not just because you'll be more fit, but because the physical and mental skills you'll acquire are precisely the ones that riders need.

Yoga classes are typically widely available and quite inexpensive. Treat them like riding lessons - that is, don't just sign up without watching a class! Watch a few classes, talk to the instructors, and when you find a class that suits you, begin. If you can't find or don't want to take a class, and there are many good, inexpensive books and videos available (see what your local library has to offer) on both walking and yoga. Start slowly and gently, and focus on good form and proper breathing and staying focused on your body and on what you are doing. Trust me, this works. ;-) Later, you can add other activities - Tai Chi, Pilates, etc. - but I think that walking and yoga will be the best for you right now. If it helps, you can keep reminding yourself that the exercises and the emphasis on mindful movement, breathing, and focus are all very directly connected to riding. Every tiny improvement you make will be reflected in your riding. Your attitude, your focus, your breathing, your body awareness, your control of your body, your control of your mind - you'll need all of those if you want to become a good rider, and the way of moving and breathing and thinking that you'll learn through yoga will, I promise, make you a better rider. So if, at any point, you find yourself thinking "I won't bother walking tonight, I wish I could afford to ride more often" or "I won't do my yoga tonight, I wish I could afford more lessons", remind yourself that in terms of your overall improvement AS A RIDER, these inexpensive ways of improving your coordination and body awareness are every bit as important as your riding lessons.

Best of all, these activities are entirely compatible with the lifestyle of a busy student with no disposible income - which is not necessarily true of riding... If you find that your studies and your riding lessons aren't quite as compatible as you hoped they would be, don't despair, but DO keep up the walking and the yoga! They'll help you with your studies, make it easier for you to enjoy any riding that comes your way, and later, when you've graduated and have more time (and, one would hope, more income) for riding, you will find it much easier to make progress, and you'll make up for all lost time. In fact, you'll discover that the time wasn't lost at all. ;-)

Good luck, and I hope that you'll let me know how all of this works out for you.


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