Horses and I go back a long way.
Here’s a photo of the Class of 77 at the Civic Hall playgroup in Newton-le-Willows, Merseyside. A group of four-year olds, ready to move on and start school. See the little blonde girl on the rocking horse? That’s me. I am hanging onto that horse with silent, steely determination. If you think I’m going to let you have a turn, you can think again. Off you go to the Wendy house, and find something else to do.
I started riding real life equines, as opposed to rocking horses, when I was six, and rode intermittently for the next ten years. I started off at a proper riding school and then graduated to a local livery stable where I was allowed to ride the owner’s outgrown ponies. I was competent – I could canter and stick on over small fences – but I didn’t ride regularly enough to become good. I had a bad fall when I was thirteen, when the pony I was riding bolted and dumped me off into a barbed wire fence, and after that I was always a bit too nervous. At some point my visits to the stables grew less and less frequent, and eventually, at some point in my GCSE year, they stopped altogether.
Riding was always something that I wanted to go back to. I missed being around horses; missed the smell of hay and the clop of hooves. Living near lots of open countryside made me think of how lovely it would be to go for long hacks on summer evenings. But I could always find reasons to put off picking up the phone and booking a lesson. I didn’t have time. It was ruinously expensive (if you want a cheap hobby, don’t go anywhere near horses). I might fall off. It wasn’t until the year I turned forty that I finally got round to riding again, knowing that if I’d regret it if I didn’t.
That was nearly nine years ago, and in those nine years I’ve made a lot of progress. I have a stronger seat (which is massively important) and know how to ride more deeply and influence the way the horse moves. I have ridden some difficult horses. People whose opinion I respect have told me that I am relaxed on a horse and can ride tactfully. This is important, because horses, like your average Year Ten class, need to be approached with tact if you’re going to get the best out of them.
I will never be as good as I want to be, though. This is partly because I only ride once a week, but there are other things as well. One: I am not as brave as I need to be. I have to fight against the thought that at some point I might be ever so slightly out of control. If I fall off, I’ll go crunch, not bounce. This is an alarming prospect. Two: there are things I physically struggle to do, like the fresh hell that is trotting in a two-point position – basically, standing up in your stirrups while the horse trots along. It hurts. Want an agonizing cramp in your quads? Ten minutes of two-point trot will do it. There are ways in which I no longer bend and bits of me that just aren’t strong enough. And three: while I can recognise good riding and bad riding, someone else’s model of excellence isn’t enough on its own to help me improve. I can see what really good riders do on a horse, but I can’t imitate it. I’m not there, and I probably never will be.
Learning all of this has been really important to me, not just as a human but as a teacher. At school, learning came easily to me. Some subjects, like Maths, took a bit more effort, but I managed. I could look at a good example, work out what I needed to do, and incorporate it into my own work without too many problems. I never really had to struggle. Learning to ride has been different. There have been tears and frustrations, and times when I’ve thought about giving up. I’ve had to work my way through the low points and battle against my own pride. I’ve been taught by people whose standards have been unrealistically high and people who have pointed out what I’m doing wrong without ever telling me whether I’m getting anything right. I’ve also been lucky enough to be taught by a couple of lovely, lovely people who have been encouraging and kind, who have challenged me in just the right ways without making things feel insurmountable. As a result of this I’ve known how amazing it is when you’re told that yes, even though that thing seems really difficult, you can do it, and even if it you don’t do it perfectly, you should still give it a try. And so you do, and the sense of achievement gives you a fabulous crazy glow for the rest of the day.
As teachers, we’re used to being the people who know things, the people who can do things. Part of everyone’s CPD should involve learning something they don’t find easy, and reflecting on what it’s like to struggle and feel a bit rubbish, and on the difference that the right kind of teacher makes to all of this.