Building a foundation in horsemanship

CM-HR-MR-2-FOXMEADOWby Sally Colby

A group of women work their way around the ring, each one thinking about their next move. Each will take a turn at a series of low jumps while the others wait their turn. Kim, their instructor, provides both encouragement and correction as she watches each rider go.

Kim owns and operates Fox Meadow Farm in Haymarket, VA, and in addition to her young riders, has a substantial number of adult students.

“We talk about forethought,” said Kim. “Even my eight-year-old knows about forethought. It’s about making a plan — it makes them understand it from the horse’s perspective — that if we think ahead and have a plan, it’s a matter of getting the horse to do it rather than making things up as you go, which never translates well. The horse doesn’t trust and know what you’re doing, and sometimes shut down when they don’t know what’s going on.”

Although some instructors start youngsters at quite a young age, Kim prefers that her young students are at least eight years old. “Between safety, a little more physical prowess and attention span, it’s safer,” she said. “I think it’s better that the child has an attention span so that they can safely follow directions, and have enough physical coordination and size so that they can carry out what we’re asking them to do.” Kim finds that progress in children younger than eight can be slow and sometimes discouraging to the child.

Waiting until children are older also helps protect the lesson horses, which are a valuable commodity. “Small children don’t have refined movements,” said Kim. “They don’t mean to be rough, but it’s hard to describe to them the ‘feel’ of turning a horse properly. In the real world, things can happen — ponies trip, spook and have attitudes. Riders need to be equipped for that. Older children understand what I’m asking them to do and the horses respond better.”

Kim enjoys teaching students of all ages, but says that her adult students are especially fun to work with. Many of the adult riders at Fox Hollow had ridden as children or teens, then stopped riding for 20 or so years when marriage, raising families, careers and other priorities took over. Returning adult riders consider their weekly lesson as something they’re doing just for themselves. Many of the adult riders have developed close friendships outside of riding, and some have even travelled together on riding vacations.

As is the case for most riding schools, Kim says it’s challenging to find good school horses. “Not every horse likes to be ridden by many different people,” she said. “Our horses have to be versatile and do a lot of different things. For a while, we had a breeding program, so I knew from day one whether they’d work out in the program. But that wasn’t a cost-effective way to get horses.” Kim has found that the best solution is to obtain green horses and bring them along herself until she knows them inside and out. Once they’re to the point that the more advanced riders can ride them, they usually work out for lessons.

Although Fox Hollow boarded horses in the past, Kim has decided to concentrate on running a solid lesson program. She found that when they no longer boarded horses, they still had many of the same students. “If a student purchases a horse of their own, they still come back here for lessons,” she said. “They take what they learn here and apply it to their own horse. They don’t want their skills to stagnate, and sometimes they run out of things to work on so whatever we’re working on we can do that. Their own horse is an embellishment for their skills.”

In the beginning, Kim focuses on the rider developing rapport with a single horse as they work on position and aids. As riders progress, they ride different horses to develop skills. “One of the riders’ favorites is a unit on striding,” said Kim. “It starts with flat work — lengthening and shortening strides and counting strides to fixed distances around the ring. Once they are able to do that on a horse, and they have a feel for that horse, we start exercises over fences. We start with counting related distances and single fences, and then we count three strides away, then four, then five. Once they’re at five, double the distance and they’re automatically at 10. Next thing they know, it’s attainable. They can get a distance 10 strides out.”

When done properly and slowly, building rider confidence and fitness, riding can be a life sport. As she provides instruction, Kim reminds riders of the German training scale for dressage is taught: forward motion, clear and steady rhythm; and step two is relaxation and suppleness. “When I tell them that it isn’t just for the horse, it’s for the rider,” she said. “If they can maintain suppleness, riding helps. They have to get to a certain point to feel that benefit, but once they’re at that point, riding helps the hips and the lower back.”

Although jumping certain heights isn’t the goal, Kim wants riders to be able to jump two feet comfortably so that they can handle potential trail obstacles. She also emphasizes the fact that trail riding can be a rigorous activity. “It doesn’t have to be a log,” she said. “An innocent little ditch can become a mud pit. If you can competently jump two feet, you’re okay. If not, you’ll be unseated and it’s no longer a recreational ride.”

As for the adult who returns to riding with apprehension following a bad experience, what’s tough is that it isn’t in their imagination, thinking that they don’t want to fall off. “It actually happened, so it isn’t just in their mind,” she said. “They have to be able to deal with that. There’s the fitness aspect and feeling stable so that they won’t become unseated.” Kim also tries to find out what led up to the fall, and what was the weak link, and addresses that. “They will feel so good about riding, and can conquer their fear.”

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