Don’t Look Down


Don’t look down, you’ll end up there…..

Whoever came up with that line should be cold hosed on a winter morning, naked. Those that are fond of saying it should stop and think how those words may impact a child. I cringe when I hear an adult saying it to a group of children, it’s worse than cringing, I feel like someone has physically slapped me and it makes me wince. The line I usually hear next is check your diagonal!

See where I’m going with this?

The child then looks down at the shoulder and the teacher says nothing. An experienced rider can feel which diagonal they are on, but not a child that has had four riding lessons, and is probably unaware why being on the correct diagonal is useful.  Children are simultaneously taught to look down at the horses shoulder while being told to stop looking down.

I have taught children’s lessons and when they are about to fall off they are terrified. Children become unbalanced at sudden stops or acceleration, when the pony bucks, stumbles, or the rider loses a stirrup at trot or canter. While falling off is inevitable for any rider at any level, falling off in the first twenty lessons could be avoided if the lessons were run professionally.

The problem can be attributed to lessons progressing too quickly these days. I came across a review recently left by a parent, the comment was directed at a popular riding school close to my home. The remark was Don’t take your child there, mine wasn’t even cantering after 2 lessons. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the stupidity of this comment. If a riding instructor suggests canter within the first twenty lessons then I recommend taking your child off the horse and going somewhere else.

Looking down can unbalance a rider and the horse, I will partially agree to this although there are many times when it’s necessary to look down. If you can agree to this then ask yourself why a child is being told to trot or canter in a lesson when the instructor knows they are likely to look down. Why is a child even at the stage of trotting still being told to look up? The instructor has advanced the lessons too quickly if this is the case. The child will inevitably end up down there, but the fault lies with the instructor. Anything other than walk should not occur until the position is at a stage when they are no longer unwittingly looking down. Children can only progress when they have a solid foundation on which to build.

When a child is unbalanced and has reached the point of no return they sometimes scream, then once on the floor they holler and cry. But the cause of the noise hasn’t been down to injury, not with the children I have seen fall. The screaming and tears are the reactions triggered from extreme anxiety, as opposed to feeling pain. After some encouragement the rider is usually back on their feet and the horse after a few minutes.

Far back sometime during the late Jurassic, my riding instructor wouldn’t even react if one of her students fell off. Moreover, the other kids were more likely to laugh than check for injury or offer sympathy. A rider would be in a whole heap of trouble if they screamed on horseback, and I mean big trouble. Either a temp ban from riding, or just kicked out of the riding school. Crying was also a big no-no, the instructor would see weakness and propose you were too soft to ride horses and suggest sticking to playing with dolls.

Political correctness didn’t exist in the 1970’s…the good old days!

What a dragon she was. Although that dragon taught me to remain calm in situations or at least zip it, she also didn’t allow me to canter for almost two years. I considered my riding to be brilliant thank you very much (it wasn’t), when I asked to canter she replied with You will canter when you’ve learnt to trot! I didn’t like her very much, but she was right. After all, she wasn’t there to make friends, she was a riding instructor and didn’t treat horses like toys. A silent rider is more likely to assess a situation and deal with it. You can focus on your seat and calming your horse, as opposed to panicking and hollering nonsense.

It’s easy to identify a nervous rider in both children and adults. It is always the person that expresses great joy once they have dismounted. There will be plenty of hugs, pats, treats and informing everyone in earshot what a good boy he was.

This is called relief. Relief on a grand scale. The relief felt at having both feet back on terra firma can only confirm my earlier point because this isn’t the behaviour of someone that started with a solid foundation in which to build a riding career on.

So bearing in mind my experiences of riding as a child and teaching children, I have observed fear in them while in the saddle. Children might love riding, they will look forward to the lesson and can’t wait for the next. But while sat on the horse there is in many children an element of fear, a fear of falling off. It’s on their mind even when they feel secure and are having a great time. There is always that niggling idea that with horses, anything can happen at any given moment.

This is what I want riding instructors to realise. If you are teaching children, no matter how confident they are, even worse if they’re not, the last thing they want to hear is…

Don’t look down, you’ll end up there.