I am fifteen. I am standing in the arena at Spice Creek Stables while five riders circle me, as Bill Richey’s apprentice. I am uncomfortable, and ashamed that I feel this way when everyone keeps telling me what a great opportunity this is. I want to be an instructor, I want a job with horses, but now I am unhappy and I don’t even know why.
Bill doesn’t notice my reluctance. “Being a riding instructor is easy,” he says loudly, so that everyone can hear. "All you have to do is be able to give four commands. Eyes up! Heels down! Hands low! Sit up straight! That’s all there is to it!”
I can feel his invisible wink, but something in me is crying out “No, no, no!” I’m too young and inexperienced to understand why. But dimly I sense that there’s an important aspect missing, that this education is futile. He is telling me what to look for and what to do with rider’s bodies, but not with their hearts and minds. He is teaching me the mechanics and I want something so far beyond that I can’t articulate it. I can’t ask for it, and the apprenticeship is a doomed failure.
Since then, my transformation into a teacher has been wholly self-directed. I have learned through trial and error, observation and experience. I devour books on the subject, and I draw on the techniques of my own teachers past and present, but mostly I have learned from the students themselves. I can read their reaction to my performance, and I always feel when I’ve made a mistake. And mistakes there are, more than I’d like to admit. But after time you learn not to dwell on them, but to file them away to draw on later when a matter is in doubt. I will remember not to raise the jump so soon, or not to get a canter out of the stubborn horse until out of the student’s sight.
This is how I learn, how I have learned almost my entire life. There is no prescribed course of action. There is no piece of paper that determines my qualifications. When I left Richmond at the age of twelve I was also leaving behind a life of structure and constant interaction. I was plunged, head over heels, into the strange new word of unschooling. Gradually, I overcame the initial trials, and my love and conviction for this new freedom grew. There is such an unconscious rightness to finding one’s passion and following it, to determining your own education, that I soon felt no guilt in forgoing chemistry for Pony Club.
“Where are you going to college?” friends and relatives ask constantly. I sigh and give them the well-rehearsed answer – I’m going to take a few classes at a community college, but I’m not going away to university, because I’ve got a good thing going with the barn and I want to see where it takes me. Some people accept that. Others think I’m crazy because I’m running a business with my mom – of all horrors! – and passing up the chance to spend four years partying and getting Credentials. Then there are those who say, “Oh, how nice,” but I can see in their eyes that they don’t really understand; they seem to think that I should abandon the life I’ve spent eighteen years building and get with the program.
What would they think if I told them that the only school I wanted right now was Life? That I don’t agree with the educational system that everyone takes for granted? I’ve tried explaining this once or twice, but without any success, so usually I just make my case with positive points, like the fact that I’m already turning away business. I have to smile at the irony: I put the cart before the horse, and it’s rolling away along the path on its own.
My peers go to their classes, complain about their workload, get drunk, collect their credits. Meanwhile, I delve deeper and deeper into my chosen world.
I continually struggle to discover how bring knees and heels down, how to keep fingers closed on the reins, how impart feel. But with every passing lesson I sense that my quest really has less to do with the horse than I thought. If I do my job right, I’m giving away a lot more than the knowledge of equitation. There are additional needs that are perhaps not in the job description, but I end up filling. I give relief to the troubled pre-teen, confidence to the emotional self-doubter, discipline to the enthusiastic nine-year-old. To the dying girl, I give a brief window of joy.
Through horses, I am finding my touch with people.
It is Sunday, a busy day. The morning has flown, with stalls and a very giggly group lesson, and now the sun is out and the weather is perfect. I look a little longingly at the other women out riding in the pasture, having a great time. It’s so tempting to join them, but I have to put someone else up on my horse. Among other things, I am learning to share.
Heather arrives for her lesson tired, hungry, and out of sorts. She is nervous about riding Heaven; she has only ridden her once since her fall in October, and that was a long time ago. I pick up on her reluctance right away and I know that it will be a difficult lesson if I’m not careful. In the arena I encounter another challenge: Heather is not thrilled with the prospect of dressage. How can I open her mind to the challenge, so she raves about the fun of it like Jessie now does?
I am careful. I build the lesson in small steps. I lavish praise and exude enthusiasm. My darling pony is an angel, and together we bring a smile to Heather’s face. Near the end of the lesson, she says with satisfaction, “Well, I guess I’m really getting good at this stuff!” Inwardly, I sing. Mission accomplished!
But Leah is at the gate, and I know immediately that things are going to be rough. Thirty seconds into the exchange and she is already whining. Later I will find out that she and her mother had a colossal fight on the ride over, but now all I hear is that she doesn’t want to ride Sweetie and she can’t catch her by herself. Leah is already my biggest project. I really don’t need this tonight.
I am careful. She is nervous on Sweetie, so first we just walk. We talk about her vacation. We do suppling exercises and I express delight over her heels, which are marginally improved. Gradually we work up to dressage movements and trotting. I choose one area at a time to work on, ignoring the incorrect diagonal until we get her circles round. I make light of her mistakes. I feel her relaxing. She and Sweetie are starting to come together.
A window of opportunity opens and we talk about tension. She admits that her tight reins are due to fear, making the connection for the first time herself. We discuss jumping and I outline our plan to get her there in the months ahead. “I won’t be here in months ahead,” Leah tells me, anxiously. “My grades are slipping. My mom says I can’t ride anymore.”
I am crushed to hear this. When Leah came to me in September I recognized her right away as one of those students who make a big difference in a teacher’s career. She has been a constant challenge, and now that I feel like I am finally starting to break through her barriers, her mother is robbing us both. Leah loses the chance to have fun and decompress. I won’t be able to complete the transformation I have been so desperately striving for. But I can’t show my hurt. I can’t undo the good work.
So I am positive, and silly, and encouraging. Suddenly dressage is fun and Sweetie is fun. Leah is proud of her ride, relaxed and happy. She’s never had such a good lesson. “You will ride your dressage test,” I vow. I tell her mother that she must allow one more lesson. I talk her into it at last, and I think that perhaps I am not yet done pleading our case.
Yet despite this bombshell, as I leave the barn that night, I feel light and happy. I’m a stray sunbeam that will not set. I suddenly have a glimpse of what it might be like to be a musician. Today, I played Mozart and didn’t miss a single note. The horses, the children, the world and I are in harmony – and I take a moment to appreciate my priceless education.