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 Teaching the Novice Beginner Rider

Michael Hillman

All our eventing careers started somewhere. Unfortunately for Jordan, a shy delightful 12-year-old with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon, hers started with me. I first took notice of Jordan during one of her sister Bethany's riding lessons. Bethany was running late, and Jordan, desperate to help her sister get ready for a lesson, was timidly trying to put the bridle on Bethany's horse. Bethany's horse, however, had other ideas.

"Have you ever put a bridle on before?" I asked.

Jordan cast her eyes to the ground, "Yes, but Bethany usually helps me."

"Alright, watch me do it, then I'll take it off, and you do it. OK?"

For the next five minutes I watched as Jordan valiantly tried to replicate how I fastened the bridle. "I guess I'm not that good," she finally said dejectedly, once again casting her eyes to the ground.

"Oh don't say that, Jordan. This is hard, keep trying, you'll get it. After all, Bethany's the one in trouble for being late, not you!"

The smile returned to her face -- sibling rivalry? -- and on the next try, she managed to get the bridle over the ears and properly fastened. Bethany, returning from the barn, retrieved her horse and after a quick inspection turned and thanked me for putting the tack on.

"Don't thank me. Thank your sister."

Embarrassed, Bethany turned to Jordan and thanked her. Jordan beamed.

Like most riders, Jordan was introduced to horses at the local neighborhood stable, which in this case was the North Fork School of Equitation in Jefferson, Maryland. Under the watchful eyes of Karen Fenwick, Jordan was drilled in the basics: How to get on and off, how to post, how to canter, she even got a taste of a little jumping. But a few too many early falls and a broken collar bone had left Jordan's confidence shaken.

Throughout the summer, Jordan accompanied Bethany to her lessons. Relegated to watching Barley, their Labrador puppy, Jordan was always out of sight. Every once in a while, however, I would spy her peaking around a corner, straining to hear what I was telling Bethany. After the lesson, Jordan would stand off a short distance and listen while I ran through a critique of the lesson for her father or mother.

As the summer slowly turned to fall, I found myself increasingly drawn to Jordan. When I could remember, I would ask her to do things around the barn. Be it sweep, throw down hay, or retrieve a horse, she always jumped at the chance to help. Finally one day I asked what she had been afraid to ask.

"Jordan. Do you want a riding lesson?"


"OK, next time your sister comes for a lesson, bring your pony."

For the next week, Jordan fretted in anticipation of having everything perfect for the lesson. Having listened to my advice to her sister about how to show respect to a coach by turning one and one's horse out as if they were going to an event, (in this case, Bethany's first lesson with my coach, Julie Gomena), Jordan did likewise for me. She bathed Cassie, her gray Arab mare, before the lesson, and twice on the day of her first lesson. Her tack was cleaned within an inch of its life and the polish on her paddock boots would have made a West Point cadet proud.

After dispensing with Bethany’s lesson, I turned my attention to Jordan. "OK Jordan, give me a 20-meter circle at the walk."

Jordan stared blankly at me. "I don't know what 20 meters is," she said shyly.

"I'm sorry Jordan, 10 meters is about the distance from me to you right now, so keep this distance between us as you circle and you'll be doing a twenty-meter circle. OK?"

She nodded her head and proceeded to ride a rather narrow ellipse. "Jordan! Jordan! Try to keep the same distance away from me all the time. Try to keep your eyes on me. If you feel like you’re coming towards me, put your inside leg on. If you feel like you’re going away, put your outside leg on. OK?"

Again she nodded her head, and in spite of some of the greatest facial contortions ever seen, she retraced her prior path.

"This isn't working." I thought to myself. Taking her horse by the reins, I walked her around in the circle, all the while explaining how to use her legs to control the shape and size of the circle. "OK, are you ready to try it again?" She nodded yes. While the pattern did resemble a circle, it was becoming obvious that I was going to have to become inventive.

Up until this time, I counted myself lucky. Ashley, Bethany, and Cassie (the ABC’s) were fairly accomplished riders when I began working with them, and someday they will be again. But Jordan was a true beginner. Having seen 25 years and countless gin and tonics pass since I was a beginner, I turned to the ABC's for advice.

"Ashley, you were at Jordan's stage just a few years ago, how did you work your way through it?" I asked.

"I don't know, Kate just seemed to know what to say and when to say it."

"OK, can you remember what she said?"

"God no, I was just a kid then, I don't remember."

"OK, that's a lot of help. Bethany . . . I know, I know, Katie taught you everything you know. Now impress me and tell me what she said?"

"Um, I can't remember other then I had to use my legs."

"OK, where making a lot of progress here. Cassie, any advice?"

"Well if you had been a pony clubber you would know that chapter 4, section 12, part 2.a of the Pony Club manual calls for the teacher . . ."

"OK, OK Let’s try this everyone. Lets form a square." Once in position, I made Jordan walk toward each of us. At first I allowed her to cut the corners, but as time progressed, I required her to ride into the corners, thereby forcing her to use her legs in coordination with her hands. This exercise was repeated over and over again, usually with unwitting volunteers who had stopped by to sample the latest beer Jordan's father had brought. Much to the relief of her beer strapped Dad, Jordan soon got the hang of this leg-hand coordination thing and quickly began to make progress. Soon she was trotting around in fairly recognizable circle-like patterns, accepting my dare to canter, and even jumping a few cross-rails.

However, with the fall season building to a climax and with daylight becoming a scarce commodity, I had to turn my attention away from Jordan for a while. I did so with a promise that after everyone else was done competing for the year, I would help get her ready for her first event. Fortunately, her mother, Dolly, had paid close attention during the lessons and as time would soon tell, would prove to be more than a worthy substitute.

The recognized eventing season was over before anyone knew it, and with it, all eyes turned toward getting Jordan ready for her first event. Having spent weeks memorizing her walk-trot test, she confidently entered the dressage arena at home to practice. From there it was all-downhill. Zigging and zagging down the centerline, she missed C by 10 feet, turned right and promptly went blank.

"I forgot my test……" she said shyly.

"Don't worry. Everyone does."

Just to insure she was at ease, Ashley threw in a, "Mike tell her about the time you forgot your test three times." Needless to say, Jordan's smile quickly returned to her face. After walking through her test several times, we tried it again, with significantly better results. Once Jordan had the basic test pattern, it was time to fine-tune it.

"Jordan, you're going to be judged on how round your circles are, how straight your lines are, and how deep into your corners you go. Understand?" She nodded her head. "OK then, this time I want you to work on your accuracy." She nodded her head again and proceeded to run through her test.

In spite of her best efforts, Jordan's circles still looked like ellipses, and the "going deep into corners’’ thing was not clicking. After four fruitless attempts, I retrieved a bag of lime from the barn and proceeded to trace out her test in the dressage ring with it. It worked. Following the pattern, Jordan's circles quickly became rounder, her corners were deeper, and her lines were almost straight. During a short breather, I again ran through the basic rules of riding a dressage test, with specific emphasis on what to do if she made an error and the judge blew her whistle.

Once I felt confident she had the pattern down, we moved to the jumping arena. Entered in the ‘‘Eeny Weeny Beanie’’ division of a starter horse trial, all Jordan had to do was jump a course of simple X’s. Cassie, Jordan's pony, was more than ready for the task at hand, but Jordan had difficulty hiding her fear.

"Jordan, don't worry, it's OK to be scared. In fact it's good. It means you'll never do anything stupid and will always be safe." Once again, her smile returned. "This is what I want you to do. After each fence, sit up, say ‘whoa,’ and walk. OK?" She nodded yes. "Good, now walk toward the black and white X, turn right and jump the yellow X."

The first X was picture perfect, but instead of turning right, she turned left toward a small oxer. "NO! NO! Turn Left, Left! No, your other left!!!!." It was too late. Cassie’’s ears locked onto the fence and before Jordan could do anything, she bounded over it. Jordan parted company with her in midair.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Jordan’s parents rushing to her side. I quickly turned and held up the palm of my hand to signal them to stay. I wasn't sure what I was going to say to Jordan, but I knew instinctively that given her past experiences, I had to quickly get her back on the horse. By the time I got to Jordan she was up and it was obvious she was ready to cry.

"Hey, good fall! I couldn’t have done better myself! I got to tell you though, if you’re going to jump a fence this big you need to be in the jumping position you and your Mom have been working on, OK?" Before she even knew what had happened, Jordan was back in the saddle and headed toward the fence again, this time however, in a jumping position. This time she was able to follow Cassie’s motion over the fence, and with her grin restored, all thought of tears evaporated forever.

After the lesson, Jordan became the property of my wife, Audrey, a former Olympic team groom. Under Audrey's tutelage, Jordan learned how to braid, bang tails, and all the other fine points of turning out a properly groomed horse. The day's events, absent the fall of course, were repeated three times that week, and by Saturday, Jordan was ready for her first event.

Fortunately for Jordan, I had been asked to officiate at the event, which meant there was no chance I would get her eliminated like I did Ashley at her first event. Unfortunately, this meant the coaching duties fell to her sister Bethany, forcing the two to call an interim cease-fire to their long running sibling rivalry. Both girls rose early Sunday morning, and with Bethany nodding approvingly, and occasionally offering bits of advice, Jordan nimbly worked her fingers down Cassie's mane. Once done, the two took out brushes and groomed Cassie as if she was going to a three-day. The hour-long trip to the event, usually dedicated to short naps, was instead spent reciting her dressage test and being drilled in key eventing rules. Once on the event grounds, everything kicked into high gear, albeit this time, Jordan was the center of attention and Bethany was the groom.

I first caught sight of Jordan as she was walking back from the secretary's stand with her competitor's package. She was wearing a smile as wide as any face could hold, just a millimeter wider than that worn by her proud sister. Under Bethany's watchful eye, Jordan put Cassie through the dressage warm-up exercises she had practiced all week. Jordan's cheering crew gathered at the entrance to the dressage ring, and with some last words of advice from her sister, Jordan entered the ring. Everyone was biting their fingernails. We were fretting over everything. Would she forget her test? Would she make an error? How was she going to do her circles without the lime markers? Would she remember to go deep into her corner?

Unaware that everyone but Bethany was about to suffer a nervous breakdown, Jordan meanwhile just trotted on in with a smile on her face as if she hadn't a care in the world. Based upon her near-perfect test, that just may have been the case. As she left the arena, we all exhaled and broke out into a loud cheer. Jordan’s grin, which I didn’t think could get bigger, did just that.

A quick tack change and it was down to the stadium. Once again Bethany put Jordan and Cassie through their exercises, and once again, everyone sat chewing their nails and worrying over what could be. The stadium for the ‘‘Enny Weeny Beanies’’ was six X’s, which measured no more then nine inches high. As Jordan approached the first fence at a slow trot, we all drew in our breath. Cassie slowed to a walk, dropped her head to look at the rail and quietly stepped over it. Completely unfazed, Jordan kicked Cassie back into a trot and pointed her towards the next fence. She hunted over it like an old time pro. Bethany beamed as Jordan left the arena adding nothing to her first place dressage score.

As Jordan entered the start box for cross-country, we all held our breath. She trotted confidently out of the box and up to the first fence. Once again, Cassie dropped into a walk and looked at the fence. But this time, she stopped. I kicked myself. Throughout my riding career, I had been told over and over again to always ride the first fence like I had already stopped, but I had failed to impart those words of wisdom to Jordan. I felt like I had let her down.

While I was busy kicking myself, Jordan was busy circling for another approach. Much to my amazement, she circled like a pro. Unfazed by the stop, she clucked to Cassie all the way down to the fence. Her encouragement worked. Once over the fence, Jordan confidently returned to her jumping position, and reaching up with her right hand, stroked Cassie’s neck. From across the field, I heard her say, "Good girl."

I was awestruck. Jordan rarely talked, let alone while riding. Yet here she was, talking her horse around the course. The more she praised Cassie, the better the pair jumped. As I watched her congratulate Cassie over each fence, it occurred to me that I could learn a lot from Jordan, for I rarely thank my horse for doing a good job. I made a mental note that next time I go into the start box, I wanted Jordan there to remind me to do just that.

Jordan crossed the finish line in the jumping position her mother had drilled her in, stroking Cassie’s neck all the way. Her efforts were rewarded with a sixth place ribbon, and while she was proud of that ribbon, she was more proud of her award for having the best turned out horse for the day. By the time I made it up to the trailer to congratulate her, Bethany had proudly placed her sister’s ribbon in the spot where she normally hangs hers, and placed the best-groomed horse award where all could see.

"Well Jordan, you did it. Now you can call yourself an eventer. Next year, Kentucky, right?!" Jordan smiled and nodded her head. Bethany grinned, Dolly laughed, John opened his wallet, grimaced, and reached for a bottle of beer.

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman