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Beginner, intermediate, advanced

From: Kathy

Hi Jessica, I've been reading your list for about a year now, and got your (great!) book for Christmas. I'm an "adult beginner" who started at age 36, am now (yikes!) 40. I ride in a lesson once a week, all year round. I don't have my own horse yet, (non-horsey husband, fulltime job, 8 YO daughter who is getting into horses too). I consider myself a beginner, and last week at my lesson heard m,y instructor refer to me and my lesson partner (a 16 yo girl) as her "beginners". I didn't really consider this girl a beginner like me; she's much braver for one thing! And can jump a nice hunter round of 4 or 5 jumps cleanly (2'6). I was wondering what criteria instructors use to classify a rider as beginner, or intermediate rider, or is it more subjective? Thanks! Kathy

Hi Kathy -- what an intriguing question! I can't give you a specific, all-purpose answer, but I can give you some ideas on the subject, and tell you what my own definitions are.

As you suspected, there are BEGINNERS and then there are beginners -- a person taking her very first riding lesson is clearly a beginner, but so (usually) is a person beginning her second year of lessons!

Everyone has individual criteria that they apply -- you're right, it can be very subjective. The higher the standards, the longer a rider will be a "beginner" -- the lower the standards, the more rapidly a rider will lose "beginner" status. At the Spanish Riding School, a rider might achieve "intermediate" status after several years of intensive daily work. At a kiddie summer-camp in the USA, on the other hand, a "beginner" might be someone who had never been on a horse, an "intermediate" might be someone who had been on several trailrides, and an "advanced" rider might be someone who had been at camp last year too -- or just someone who could get the horses to trot! ;-)

Anyone who has ever run a commercial stable, whether renting hacks by the hour or leasing horses by the month or year, will tell you that people tend to misrepresent their riding. This isn't always deliberate -- in fact, it's usually quite sincere. ;-)

The LESS someone knows about horses and riding, the more likely that person is to overestimate his or her ability, skill, and experience -- in other words, a beginner rider is very likely to describe him- or herself as "intermediate."

The MORE someone knows about horses and riding, the more likely that person is to UNDERestimate his or her ability, skill, and experience -- many Olympic-level riders, for instance, would describe themselves as "intermediate" rather than "advanced." This isn't false modesty, either! It's a matter of knowledge and perspective. The more you know, the more you become aware of how MUCH there is to know, and how much there is for you to learn.

Instructors' definitions may vary according to their specialty and according to their student's ambitions. The young girl you describe probably rides just as well as many much older people who have owned horses for years, have spent years sitting sloppily in their saddles, and have no desire to improve their riding techniques or their understanding of the horses, the equipment, or the sport. For these people, riding is a comfortable, enjoyable way for them to walk through the fields or the woods without making much effort. But for someone like your partner or yourself, who is making an effort to learn to ride correctly and well, being a beginner means just that: being at the beginning! You do intend to continue to learn and improve, after all.

When I have to divide riders into categories (beginners, intermediate, and advanced) at home or at clinics, my divisions look something like this:

Beginners: are learning to follow the horse's movements, move with the horse, and not interfere with the horse.

When they have achieved those things, they become INTERMEDIATE.

Intermediates: are learning to put a trained school-horse through its paces, and can ask correctly for walk, trot, canter, and halt. Depending on their interests and discipline, they may be able to jump courses of fences (say up to 3'6" or so) and individual high fences, or they may be able to do first or second level dressage work. In either case, they can get from the horse what someone else has put into it in terms of training and conditioning.

If they achieve all this and keep going -- and "intermediate" is a VERY respectable category, that not all that many riders achieve! -- they can work their way, eventually, up to ADVANCED.

Advanced riders: can do all of the above, plus IMPROVE the horse's performance when he knows how to do something, and TEACH the horse how to do more advanced things.

As I said, though, "intermediate" means that you have quite a good skill base. This is as far as many riders go -- and as far as they want to go.

Visualize a pyramid! The rider pyramid is like any other skill pyramid (think tennis, think ballet, think figure-skaters) -- masses of beginners at the bottom, a much smaller mass of intermediates in the middle, and a very small group of truly advanced riders at the top!

Another way of looking at the definitions, for a dressage rider: In my teaching, I tell students that beginners ride what they see -- the horse's head and neck. Intermediate riders ride what they're sitting on -- the horse's body. And advanced riders ride what's behind them -- the engine! The pyramid applies here too.

Riders can climb the pyramid, but it takes a long time. Correct training, correct work, supervision, and hours and hours in the saddle, doing it right -- constructive, correct sweat equity, so to speak.

BEGINNER isn't a bad word -- it just means that you're at the beginning of something you mean to continue. You can have fun all the way, no matter how far you want to go or when you choose to stop. ;-)


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