Dear Jessica, I don't know who else I can ask about this, so I sure hope you'll write back. I'm planning a camping trip with some guys I haven't seen since just after high school, almost ten years ago now. We got together on the Internet and decided that we didn't care about going to our ten-year reunion but we'd like just the five of us to get together and go camping like we used to. One of the other guys is setting it up so the rest of us will just have to write checks and show up. I have just one problem. Looks like we're going to do some horseback riding, not a long ride or anything, but I guess that's how we're going to get from the trailhead to the campsite and probably get back from it.
My daughter has a horse and my wife rides sometimes, which is how come I know about you (this is her account in case you wondered why my name is Craig and the name on the account is Christine) and how great your question-answering service is. I'm supposed to be filling out this form with information about my physical condition and allergies and all that stuff, no problem (my wife will do that part) but there's a question about my riding ability and I have no clue what to check here. I guess they have to ask that for insurance? I've been on a horse maybe five times in my entire life, it's just not something that interests me a lot. My family went on some trail rides with friends who had a bunch of horses, I think I was about nine or ten years old, and then I've been on a horse exactly one time since high school, and it was just one of those fifteen-minute fun-fair deals where the horses all go single file around and around on a little path, and the riders just sit there until they stop the horses and tell you to get off. I only did it because my daughter was going to cry if she couldn't ride the horses, and little kids could only go on the ride if a parent went with them, and my wife was wearing a dress that day because we didn't know there would be horse rides at the fair.
So how do I fill out the part about my riding experience? I've been on a horse enough times that I wouldn't feel like I was a beginner exactly, but my wife and daughter both say that I'm a total baby beginner and there isn't even a category low enough to describe how much I don't know how to ride. What do you think? I'm supposed to check either "beginner" or "intermediate" or "expert". Since this kind of riding isn't for shows or anything fancy like that, don't you think I would probably count as an intermediate?
The short answer is that your wife and daughter are right (okay, they're rude, but they're right).
A lot of places use horses in the same way that cities use buses and trams - for transportation, nothing more. People can get on and get from one place to another, then get off. They're not really in control of anything, but they don't really need to be, either. But there's a big difference between horses and trams - horses are alive, and they're individuals. They have nervous systems and personalities of their own, and whereas a tram car is very unlikely to separate itself from the other cars and go off in another direction, an individual horse may do just that - and not necessarily at a walk, either - if it's reacting to a bee-sting or a snake bite or a sudden scary noise. At that point, the person in the saddle is going to need to be able to control the horse. If that happens while YOU are on a horse, you'll suddenly need to be a RIDER as opposed to a PASSENGER, and that's just not going to happen unless you have both knowledge and enough experience to have built quite a few habits that go against all normal human physical reactions. To make a long story short, when you're on a horse, there are going to be occasions when you become frightened, and if you're inexperienced, you're likely to get hurt, because the things that humans do when they are frightened - such as curl up and hyperventilate and yell - are things that can cause them to get hurt. Getting rough with the horse and yanking the reins can also cause you to get hurt. There's no substitute for genuine, quality experience.
You might want to take a look at this website: http://ridingtours.com/
This is the Equitours site, and it's primarily of interest to people who want to go on riding vacations where the focus is on horses and riding. I know that you're not planning that kind of holiday, but I'd like you to look at the page that comes up when you click the header "Riding Ability".
People who organize tours like this have to be careful to match horses and riders, and riders and rides, if everyone is going to have fun and be as safe as possible. For that reason, the folks at Equitours have come up with a useful, practical, "working" set of classifications. Most good riding facilities use similar classifications. I think that once you've read this, you'll realize that the term "beginner" isn't insulting, it's just - like the other categories - DESCRIPTIVE. I also think that you'll realize that you would definitely fit into the "beginner" category.
For anyone on HORSE-SENSE who doesn't have full web access, here are the categories listed under "Riding Ability":
Beginner: A rider who has limited experience, is unable to post the trot and does not canter.
Novice: A rider who is capable of mounting and dismounting unassisted, capable of applying basic aids, comfortable and in control at the walk, moderate length posting trots, and short canters.
Intermediate: A rider who has a firm seat, is confident and in control at all paces (including posting trots, two point canters and gallops), but does not ride regularly.
Strong Intermediate: An intermediate rider who is currently riding regularly and is comfortable in the saddle for at least 6 hours per day.
Advanced: All of the above, plus an independent seat, soft hands, and capable of handling a spirited horse in open country.
You'll find similar classifications everywhere, from Pony Club ratings to riding schools around the world. There will be some variations, but they won't be major, because these categories are simple, logical, practical, and useful, and they are infinitely preferable to the ones on the form you're filling out. These are basically lists of skill sets - compare them to yours, and mark the appropriate category. If you're in doubt, mark the lower category for safety's sake.
I wish that everyplace offering horseback riding for ANY purpose would use this list or a similar one to classify riders, because they ask the applicant for, and provide the stable or school with, factual information. In the absence of such categories, someone with absolutely NO frame of reference will invariably overstate his/her riding ability. That's dangerous, because horses are large, heavy, and powerful, and they have feelings, reactions, and minds of their own. This makes them more complicated to operate than your average "heavy machinery". ;-)
By the way, the next question you should ask your wife and daughter is "Should I wear a helmet?" I think you know what they'll say. ;-) Since you and your camping buddies are in touch via e-mail, please send them this link:
Since all of you are ten years out of high school, I'm guessing that you might not be the only father in the group. Maybe, when you all meet up, you won't be the only one wearing a helmet for the ride. If you ARE the only one riding in a helmet, that'll be too bad, but don't let anyone tease you into taking it off. If you don't want to do it for yourself, do it for your daughter. After all, it won't be the first time you've done something just because you didn't want her to cry.
I hope that you all have a great time on your camping trip - and come home safe and sound. ;-)
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