I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parents in our program apologize for their child not responding to us in lessons, especially when the child is new to lessons. Every time, I try to reassure the parents that it’s really okay, that we don’t mind and their child will respond when he or she is comfortable and ready. For most parents I believe it’s a courtesy issue. They want their children to be polite and responsive when adults are speaking to them, especially when they are in a lesson situation with a “teacher.” I understand the importance of this, but I also want parents to know that there are many reasons why this isn’t our biggest concern with new riders in our lessons and camps.
Most kids are shy
First, it’s really common. I would say about 75% of our students don’t speak to us at first. Sometimes this ends pretty quickly and other times it lasts much longer. Either way, we are able to teach effective lessons regardless of the verbal responses, or lack thereof, from our students. Most kids tend to be shy, especially in unfamiliar circumstances, but there are also other reasons why new students of any age might have trouble responding verbally to their instructor in lessons.
Horses can be intimidating
Let’s think about it. We are putting a 50-75 lb child on a horse that weighs anything from 750-1500 lbs. Even for the bravest child, this can be a little shocking at first. After the age of about 4-5, most kids realize pretty quickly that they aren’t able to control the horse and at first that is a pretty intimidating feeling. It takes a lot of getting used to before any new rider is comfortable enough in the saddle to hold any sort of conversation when they ride. At first even responding to questions can be challenging.
So much to focus on
Also, there is a lot going on when you’re sitting in the saddle on a 1000 lb horse, even at the stand still. Riders can feel a horse’s respirations and sometimes their heart beats. We can feel them twitch if a fly lands on them while we ride. We feel every swish of the tail and flick of the ear. And that’s all before the horse starts walking. Once we get moving there’s the movement of the gait to get used to, the bounce of the trot and the moment of suspension in the canter as we soar through the air. None of these feelings can be easily replicated by any other activity, so for most riders it just takes a lot of hours in the saddle to become comfortable. Until then, verbal responses aren’t easy to produce.
Other ways to respond
As instructors, we want to see a change in our student’s body or the horse’s way of going. We don’t need a verbal response to know if our students are listening. If their heel drops, their hands soften or they stretch up taller, we know they’ve heard and are trying their best (even if we have to say it again and again as they learn to hold their position). If the horse speeds up when we ask for more leg, again, we know the rider is paying attention and putting their aids to use.
In order to “hear” the horse, we must be quiet
Horses communicate in a mostly silent language of posture changes and subtle body language cues. They use these cues to communicate with other horses and with their rider. If a horse notices something scary up ahead, their body tenses, their ears prick forward and their head and neck lifts. If the horse is uncomfortable because of a poorly fitting saddle or a rider who is gripping too hard with their legs, they might express their discomfort with a swishing tail and ears laid back on their head. As riders, it’s our job to pay attention to these subtle cues and try to work in harmony with the horse. In order to “hear” all of these signals, we must first be quiet ourselves and tune in to the horse’s language.