I was blessed to learn from the old school

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, March 21, 2018

I’m blessed to have a mom who loves horses.

This means I grew up in the saddle with a lot of great learning opportunities, including ones she didn’t have.

My mother, Gigi Hoelscher, didn’t get any formal riding training until she was in college. Though they could afford riding lessons for her, Mom’s parents thought golf lessons were more appropriate. I suppose they hoped she’d “grow out” of the horse thing.

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Mom said she didn’t know much about riding. She remembered, as a young child, begging, borrowing and mucking stalls to ride a few minutes on the local rental stable horses. She said she chose a college that had riding as part of their curriculum. She always wanted to learn to jump, but the college only taught saddle seat.

“I didn’t know the difference at the time,” Mom said.

I think she wanted to jump because she saw the movie “National Velvet” as a child. Liz Taylor was a big deal back then.

When I was 6, Mom started teaching at a local “Equitation” school. The owner of the school sent her to a clinic at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and my life changed forever.

At Sweet Briar, Mom trained with Clayton Baily, a student of Vladimir Littauer. She learned forward riding and came home with Littauer’s book, “Common Sense Horsemanship.”

When I was 16 years old, my folks bought some property in Guntersville, Alabama, and proceeded to build a horse farm and riding school. Mom started teaching, and began instructing me how to teach as well.

I shadowed her, watched the classes and learned the theory. Mom would point to a student and ask, “Where is her weight?” or “Why is her rhythm off?”

I learned to see when a student had a relaxed or tense leg, back or shoulders, how to get them to relax and what to do help a rider get the weight in her heels, or her shoulder open.

I remember Mom teaching posting. It took her about 10 minutes to teach someone to post properly. I still use her easy, effective method of teaching posting today.

I remember the first lesson I taught on my own. I had a student who’d never ridden, and I was starting them from the beginning. Mom had shown me many times how to teach students to halter, groom and saddle a horse, but never how to teach them to mount.

I suddenly realized I had no idea how people mounted horses. I could do it, it was automatic, but to break it down into steps a beginner could understand? I have no idea how I got through that one. I hope I managed it without the student realizing I was green at teaching.

During this time in my life, I was able to get on a lot of horses as well. Not only were we training a string of school horses, people would bring us their problems to fix as well. I learned to stick buckers and be gentle with sensitive, nervous horses. There’s no better way for a rider to learn than getting on a lot of different horses.

During the summer, we ran a small summer riding camp for girls. I managed the barn and the dorm, trained the horses and helped teach lessons.

I would get out of school on Friday and the campers would arrive on Saturday. I’d teach all summer. The last group of campers would go home on Sunday and I’d go back to school on Monday. I also learned about hard work in those days.

Mom and I taught a lot of theory during those summer camps. Of course, the theory sessions would dissolve into horse stories, but the theory sessions were a wonderful way to learn and to understand what I was learning to teach. I learned how and why things worked with riders and horses, and it prepared me for my national rating test when I was 19.

I wish that today’s young riders and instructors could experience the wealth of training and instruction that I received. Often today, students are told to get their heels down and their shoulders open, but the young trainers can’t say how or even why.

Mom hasn’t taught or ridden in years, but I’ll bet she hasn’t forgotten any of it. Unfortunately, much of the old knowledge is dying out — along with the old-school riding masters. They were tough, but they knew their stuff.

Catherine Hunter’s journalism career spans 20 years of writing for newspapers and magazines, including The Chronicle of the Horse, The Western Horseman, he Tryon Daily Bulletin and Foothills Magazine. In 2000, Hunter received a South Carolina Press Association award for reporting in depth. She is the author of “Sacred Connections Horsemanship: Empowering Horse and Rider through Chakra Energy.” Email her at catherine.hunter@tryondailybulletin.com.