In Defense of Unmounted Lessons

Photo © ES EQUINE PHOTOGRAPHY || EVELYN SZCZEPANEK

BY DAPHNE THORNTON OF TWO BIT TRAINING

When it comes to riding lessons, I understand that riding is the overwhelming desire, as well as the underlying principle, guiding most participants. However, sometimes riding is not possible, or even advisable. On those days, I am a fan of unmounted lessons. 

If you hang out on the horsey Internet at all, you will soon find that lots of folks think that horsemanship is a dying art. Articles and posts abound decrying the lack of “barn rats,” the rise of the  “princess programs” at horse shows, and the loss of the true “horsemen” who could do ALL the things.  And all that is probably mostly true. 

But as instructors, we have a bit of an obligation to try and create at least partial “horsemen” from the moldable clay that is our riding students. Unmounted lessons are a part of that creation process. 

If you think you can learn all there is to know about horses and riding while sitting on the back of a horse you are…wrong. If you think your lesson dollars are only well-spent if you are sitting on the back of a  horse you are…equally wrong. Riding lessons are many things. Sometimes, a riding lesson is standing on the ground and talking about stuff. 

We have a list of unmounted lesson topics that we email out at the beginning of each year. That way,  students have some say in what topics they can work on in an unmounted lesson unless we put a larger group together. In that case, we select the topic. Knowing how much everyone wants to ride, we usually limit our unmounted sessions to days when it is too hot or too cold for riding, although not always. We have a handout (and if you know me at all, of course you know I have a handout) that goes out in our yearly packet to our students and that covers the situations, and topics, for unmounted lessons. 

Every instructor will have topics that are near and dear to their heart. I’m a fan of proper longeing,  judging a video-taped trip (nothing makes them feel empathy for judges like having to sit in their seat for a hot minute), and learning to wrap and bandage. Our beginner instructors and horsemanship instructor like to go over-grooming, and the parts of the bridle and saddle, and help kids learn to saddle and bridle correctly, as well as clean and care for their (mostly our) equipment. 

The bottom line is, there is always something to learn OUT of the saddle. As instructors, we should regularly plan to make time for those important unmounted lessons. I know a couple of BNT’s who came up through Princess Programs and who, quite literally, don’t know how or what to feed their horses, or how to make a hoof bandage. They can’t tell you how many calories per day their horses need, the calorie content of the hay they are feeding, or what animalintex or ichthammol are. Without a barn manager or groom taking care of that, they’re lost.  

No one has time to teach their students all the things. We have to trust that, through curiosity and genuine interest, they will continue to educate themselves into being better horsemen. But, we can help to lay a foundation for that through offering an education in things learned while NOT riding. 

Here is my list of unmounted lesson topics. It’s not perfect, or even comprehensive. But, it’s a good starting place to launch your students on that journey. If you have a better one, or some additional ideas, please share! I love hearing what other trainers are doing.

  • Taking apart and reassembling a bridle, naming all the parts, and cleaning it correctly.
  • Naming the internal and external parts of a saddle and cleaning it correctly. Short history of materials used in saddle-making.
  • Saddling and bridling correctly. Practice.
  • Naming and correctly locating the parts of a horse.
  • Shortening a mane correctly and naming the tools and techniques. Practice.
  • Thinning a mane correctly and naming the tools and techniques used. Practice.
  • Learning the uses and actions of different types of bits and bridles.
  • Techniques for correctly applying polo wraps and standing bandages.
  • Techniques and materials for making a proper hoof bandage and applying it correctly.
  • Scoring a hunter round used a video taped round.
  • Learning the tables and sections used in USEF jumper classes.
  • Naming everything in the grooming bucket and correctly identifying their uses.
  • Proper care of stabled horses.
  • Learning the purpose, history and techniques for lunging and practicing it correctly.
  • Understanding the four hunter gaits and their rhythm, sequence, and energy usage.
  • Short explanation of striding and related and unrelated distances and horse show math.
  • Long explanation, using actual math to solve some striding problems.
  • Finding and discussing position problems in photos.
  • Finding and discussing position and distance problems in videos.
  • Discussing conformation of the horse as it relates to performance.
  • Managing horses in extreme weather conditions.
  • Doing horse show entries, both on paper and online.
  • How to import horses.

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