In praise of schoolmasters

Schoolmasters (and mistresses) are worth their weight in gold – as long as you get the real deal, writes Carolyn Henderson.

The Mum who posted online looking for a jumping pony schoolmaster doesn’t stand a chance. She wanted a “kick, point and shoot” pony that was guaranteed to take her daughter around 85cm courses.

She’ll probably find one, but that pony won’t be a schoolmaster. He’ll be a robot, and her daughter will learn very little from riding him.

The true schoolmaster is the horse or pony who knows its job inside out and will jump confidently/perform that perfect lateral movement if the rider presses the right buttons. If the rider asks the right questions, the horse will give the right answers; if the rider gets it wrong, the horse will set his own agenda.

The best schoolmasters I’ve known seemed to have a sense of humour. I know that’s anthropomorphising, but I can’t find any other way of describing it.

One was a beautifully schooled gelding who would turn and stay perfectly in balance from subtle weight aids. If you got it wrong and used too much inside rein, he would put himself in shoulder-in and stay there.

When you realised what you were doing and made a correction, he’d float across the school. You could imagine the thought bubble floating above his ears: “At last! I thought she’d never get it.”

The other was a former advanced event horse who, at the age of 18, still enjoyed showjumping. His proviso was that the rider had to establish a canter rhythm and stick to it; the moment you tried to hook back or ride for a long one, he put the brakes on.

It was a salutary lesson, because those brakes could lock on in an instant. It got the message across to riders who couldn’t help themselves trying to adjust their horse’s stride, no matter how many times their trainer told them that their job was to get the horse to the fence in a good rhythm and the horse’s job was to jump it. I know – I was one of them.

Most horses are in their teens by the time they reach schoolmaster status. They’re hard to find and they need and deserve every care we can give them. The best trainers protect their schoolmasters as fiercely as they protect their family, and heaven help you if you blame the horse for your mistakes.

So what if a schoolmaster has a few lumps and bumps? So what if he comes out a bit stiffer through his joints than he used to and needs nutritional support, careful warming up and so on?

Give him all he needs, and if that includes regular massage treatments, appropriate manipulation and downright mollycoddling, good for you. It isn’t just that horse who will benefit – it’s every horse you ride through the rest of your life, thanks to what the schoolmaster has taught you.