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The Case of the Perpetual Beginner

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I had a revelation the other day. Out of the clear blue it came to me ... why I am so comfortable and (if immodestly stated) quite good at teaching beginning students how to ride. I relate easily to inexperienced riders. My equestrian status for the vast majority of my horse-obsessed lifetime has been that of "novice" in virtually every equestrian arena I have entered. I am the perpetual beginner.

I started my riding career as so many youngsters do, being gleefully led around on placid ponies at a local fair. By seven, my equestrian education took a more formal approach in hunt seat instruction at various area stables. I began lessons with little more going for me than an almost uncontrollable enthusiasm, but I rode only twice a week during the summer months. Returning each summer after ten months of horseless solitude was akin to beginning instruction all over again: muscles were untoned and ineffective, skills were lost or hopelessly rusty. After four years of instruction on the flat, I began again ... over fences.

At sixteen, I was favored with the purchase of my first beloved mount, Albert - a very accommodating stock horse type. I made him look foolish under hunt tack for a year before I finally purchased a western saddle and gave him occasional respites under this far more familiar (to him, anyway) medium. Giving up the leg and rein contact with which I had become so accustomed under hunt tack in lieu of the slack rein, no leg style of western riding considered correct at that time marked yet another new beginning for me.

I entered William Woods, a college with a four-year equestrian degree program where my novice status had never been so embarrassingly apparent. Neither had I ever been made so keenly aware of the exclusive and discriminatory nature of competitive equestrian society. Try as they did, my classmates ultimately gave up the attempt to identify me with any specific riding clique. All of my previous equestrian education had been hunt seat, I owned a stock horse, and my college advisor immediately enrolled me in beginning saddle seat instruction at school. I rode my first five-gaited Saddlebred, my first Missouri Foxtrotter, my first Tennessee Walker. I harnessed and drove my first Saddlebred in a jog cart. Albert and I chased and cut our first cow. And in every instance, I was a beginner again.

I have, for the last decade or so, owned and operated a riding instruction stable. I teach students age six to sixty-six, primarily beginners, how to ride and care for horses. Many students acknowledge their inexperience from the start, while some need only be asked for a specific diagonal or lead to be humbled into a reluctant admission of their novice status. Regardless, every new student inspires the beginner in me to empathize. Each new student challenges me to devise fresh solutions to old problems and to answer new questions with current information. I have never taught a student from whom I did not learn an equal amount.

Their horses present similar opportunities for my reversion to beginnerhood. Ranging from barely green to selectively trained, these mounts return me twicefold to the infancy of my own equestrian instruction. Not only must I cope with the training, or retraining, of these less-than-ideal school horses, but I must tease appropriate responses from their unskilled, and most likely somewhat intimidated, riders. But as with any beginner, every balanced turn, every soft halt, every smooth transition fills me with pride for the team's accomplishment and my small part in it.

There are benefits to experiencing so many beginnings. Don't get me wrong; I have a great deal of respect, and no small amount of envy, for those horsemen and horsewomen who develop their skills in a specific riding discipline to a high level of mastery. I am likely to be as impressed as anyone by a well endowed trophy room. But consider the many options the perennial novice can explore which someone who specializes too early in their riding career will probably never attempt. Consider how many times the perpetual beginner has been schooled in the basics. And finally, realize that the rider who continues to seek new starting points in their equestrian pursuits will never risk reaching the end.

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