NH Works for 4Hby Jan Young
Published in Eclectic Horseman
Jan/Feb 2005, Issue No. 21, p. 24
What happens when you present a group of 4-H kids with "natural horsemanship" concepts? Can this way of thinking be taught to kids?
Jack Young has been successfully teaching 4-H kids how to work with their horses in a gentler way, how horses think, and how to ride with feel, timing and balance. The 5-day horse camp at Deer Park, Washington, June 21-25, was Jack's third year instructing kids, parents, and 4-H leaders from the greater Spokane area.
The camp was started in 1979, offering classes on horse health, horse show attire, equitation, and survival skills. The emphasis was always on skill, safety and fun.
Since 1984, Sally Shepard has been donating the use of her beautiful boarding and training facility, Northwest Trails, for "North Camp," an ideal setting for tents, campers and RVs at the foot of the mountains. Hundreds of panels are set up into temporary pens in the pine trees along the creek. Campers provide some of their own meals, while group meals are prepared at the outdoor kitchen. A parent is required to spend the week with their 4-H'er, with sometimes several in a family. Many come back year after year and literally grow up at North Camp. Parents and leaders are encouraged to ride and learn along with the kids (ages 9-18), so that when camp is over, they are all on the "same page."
The riders, varying each year in number from 50-80, are divided into four ability groups, each spending two hours a day in the arena. The other 2-hour blocks are trail riding, a rotating class such as crafts, bareback riding, jumping, or judging, and a free period. Jack worked with four groups every day, with the help of his wife Jan and volunteer John Tullar, gearing the lesson to the group's ability level.
In 2002, Jack's theme was equitation. Last year the theme was moving the feet. This year his theme was breaking it down to doing one thing at a time. Many riders try to do too many things at once.
Everyone began with groundwork, learning that groundwork is the same as riding. "Rein them on the ground, lead them from the saddle." At first the horse was asked to move anywhere; then they added a specific direction. Then the horse was asked to stop with the hind end away from the person, encouraging horse and human to be specific and particular. Asking the horse to get its weight back helped the student to set up the change of direction with the front end. Jack emphasized that while they might not understand everything that was presented the first day, it would start to come together the next day.
Then he showed them "Hangerman," a little man fashioned from a hanger, that demonstrates how the whole body affects the horse as we focus. Shoulders, hips, legs and hands all do the same thing. "Hangerman" became the frame of reference for equitation. Students found they could turn their horses 180 degrees at the trot without "reining" but merely by using their body. While some people don't do enough, most people want to do too much; instead, do less to get more. Just help the horse where he needs help, using focus first, and if needed, legs second and hands last.
Students built on this concept to turn on the fence doing as little as possible. Riding down the fence, they would look at the fence to move the hindquarters over 90 degrees, adding leg if necessary. Then stop, release, back two or three steps to shift the weight back, release, and move the front quarters 90 degrees. They would ride off and do the same thing the other direction.
Now they were ready for the one-rein stop. Jack didn't want the kids or horses doing this before they had some concept of focus, feel and handling all four quarters of the horse. He explained why we don't want to pull on both reins at once. Instead, he had them stop one half at a time. Then he had them shorten up the interval between sides (left-right-left, in time with the feet) in quick succession. Several riders reported that the one-rein stop came in handy in the trail ride class.
Many kids have never thought about a horse thinking or feeling. They probably won't understand a lot about predator/prey relationships, so instead you set up situations that demonstrate this. Although Jack doesn't generally stress technique, you have to teach kids a certain amount of technique--for example, getting them to take one step backwards. There is no way to do that without releasing; then you can present the concept of "release." Present the concept AFTER they have already learned it.
With these basic concepts established, many of the riders, depending on their level, were able to go quite a bit farther with their horses. Beginners developed more confidence in their horses. But more importantly, horses developed more confidence in their riders. Kids CAN learn to ride with feel, and they can have fun while they are doing it!
Activities that gives kids and horses a job to do help develop focus and horse/rider communication. Kids like speed, but slow games are more effective in promoting good horsemanship concepts without overloading them with theory: pole bending at walk and trot with less reins and more focus; fast walking races; slow trotting races, where the slowest horse wins; serpentines in pairs; clover leaf pattern, solo and in pairs, at walk and trot. Advanced riders did the cloverleaf three-abreast, holding hands.
While feel cannot be taught, it can be demonstrated. Jack has Elizabeth reach for his arm several times, as she would feel the horse when she picks up the reins. Depending on how much resistance she feels in his arm, she adjusts her pressure, matching her feel to his feel.
Many riders had the problem of leaning forward, especially when slowing or stopping. Jack demonstrates how the horse can't pull you off balance as easily when you are sitting up.
Sandy was afraid to give slack on her own horse, so she practices on Rosie. The faces tell the story.
Megan and Nick cross the finish line in the slow trotting race, which helped the students work on getting the horse's feet right in their hands.