'Horsemanship Can’t Be Allowed to Die Out': An Argument for The Barn Rat

'Horsemanship Can’t Be Allowed to Die Out': An Argument for The Barn Rat

How tight should a noseband be? How many fingers should you still be able to put in a noseband when tightened? What about the throat latch?

Are the answers to these questions common knowledge among riders? Helena Stormanns, former international competitor and current trainer to some of the best show jumpers in the world, thinks they should be. “These are all things I knew when I was seven years old. But I knew because someone had taught me.”

Helena Stormanns grew up in the city; she didn’t come from a horsey family. When she was five, a school friend went for riding lessons, and Helena wanted to try too. The minute she got on that first pony, she was hooked. Completely hooked for life. 

“At the riding school where I went, you had to tack up your own pony. You couldn’t ride unless you could tack up. We didn’t use boots in those days. We just had a saddle and a bridle. As kids, the first thing you had to do if the pony had been in the field was brush the pony. So, you got a brush, and you learned how to brush the pony. Then, you put the bridle and the saddle on.” Of course, Helena says, there was someone there to help. But the pony kids weren’t allowed to get on until they could do the tasks themselves. 

"I think anyone who goes to a riding school should commit the same amount of time getting the horse or pony ready, tacking it up or untacking it afterwards, as they do riding"

Helena compares her childhood experience with the system many young riders in the United States grow up with today, and she sees some problems. Many children start in a riding school unless they are lucky enough to have horses at home. Oftentimes, the parents rush in, and there’s a thirty or forty-five minute lesson, and the pony is tacked up and standing there, ready. The kid gets plunked on top, and off they go. They get their riding lesson, and then they hop off. The kid gets whisked away, and that’s it. They don’t know anything about how a bridle should fit or how tight the girth should be, because it all gets done before they get there.

Related: Wherever Life Takes Us, Barn Friends Are Forever

“To me, it’s sad. They don’t realize they are missing so much that’s important. I think anyone who goes to a riding school should commit the same amount of time getting the horse or pony ready, tacking it up or untacking it afterwards, as they do riding. If you are going to ride for half an hour, you should also spend half an hour looking after the pony. Maybe fifteen minutes grooming and tacking it up, and afterwards fifteen minutes untacking and cleaning the tack and making sure there are no stones in its feet. 

"The amount of time you spend on the horse should be equal to the amount of time you spend developing horsemanship on the ground.”

Why does it matter?

Horsemanship is a topic Helena is passionate about. She made that clear right at the start of our conversation. Her life is surrounded by horses, and she’s made it her mission to pass on her knowledge of horses to the next generation. So, I was a little hesitant to ask my next question: Why? If a rider can jump on a ready-made, tacked up horse, go out and win a blue ribbon, what’s the point?

First, Helena just laughed. Then, she got serious. Yes, she conceded, you might be able to win a ribbon or two. But what are you going to do a year down the line, when your horse starts having issues? When your trainer moves on? When you need a new horse? When you aren’t getting blue ribbons anymore?

Helena and Jessica Springsteen. 

“You’ve got to know why. You’ve got to know what direction to go to solve problems. I think it’s vital. If you don’t know the answers yourself, there’s a limit to how far you can go. You are at a disadvantage, in the long run. You might be able to get a blue ribbon on a ready-made horse, but you won’t have the knowledge or skills you need if you want to be a professional.”

Horsemanship is not just about physically caring for your horse, but that’s where it starts. You should know what’s good or bad for your horse. “Where should the saddle sit? Right up front on top of the withers? Or should it be down the back? Why do you groom a horse? It’s not just to get the dirt off. It’s for his circulation. Why do you oil the feet? It’s not just to make them look pretty. It’s to give the nourishment to the hoof. Everything we do around the horse has a purpose.” 

When you learn how your horse needs to be cared for, and you take the time to do it yourself, you get to know your horse.

Helena says she treats horses the same as she treats people: like individuals. “By looking after your own horse, you learn their character. You learn about the ones who are strong-willed, the ones who are nervous, the ones who are more timid or afraid. Sometimes a horse who is timid in the box is also going to be timid in the arena. If they are pushy and bullish in the box, they might also be pushy and bullish in the arena.” 

Want to branch into groundwork with your horse? Here's where you can start: How to Choose the Right Groundwork Equipment For You

When you spend time together, you figure out if you have to work a little harder on the flatwork and the dressage to make them slightly more obedient. Or, you might see that you need to encourage them and take them out for trail rides so they get more courageous and aren’t so timid when you get them out of their safe environment. Helena continues, “So, you learn the character of the horse, and that stands you in good stead in competition because you learn when you can push a little and ask a little more, or when you need to be more careful.”

Building a Partnership

But it’s not only about winning. When you get to know your horse, Helena says, you aren’t just learning how to work a piece of equipment that will get you blue ribbons. You are building a relationship, creating a bond. When you work together, when you combine your personality with your horse’s personality, and you solve a problem or achieve a goal, it’s an amazing experience, and one you get to share with your best friend. Whether you are a pony kid or competing in a grand prix, whether you are showing or hacking or brushing your horse, the time you spend together is a privilege. Happiness is found in that partnership. You learn to rely on someone, and to be reliable yourself. If after a good day or a bad day, you get to put your arms around your horse’s neck, all the work you’ve done to get to that point was time well spent. 

Maybe we think we are making life easier on kids when we do things for them, when we don’t make them learn to do things for themselves. But are we really doing young riders a favor if we don’t teach them how to think? How to care? How to be a good partner? Helena believes the answer is an emphatic no.

Tony putting in the work on the ground.  

For Helena, as a trainer and as a mother to her son Tony, taking the time to teach horsemanship is essential. “It’s the greatest thing you can do for your kid. It teaches you to be humble, to be responsible. To matter how tired you are or how bad your day was, you still have to look after that horse. My son has learned that if his partner is not doing well, he is not going to do well. Those are lessons he will take with him for the rest of his life.”

In Helena’s experience, most kids want to learn those things, if given the chance. “I think most kids are inquisitive. It’s quite good fun, you know! We would spend all day on Saturday and Sunday with our friends in the stable at pony club. It was fantastic! We did everything. When the hay came, we would unload the bales of hay. Mucked out. Fed them. Groomed them. Tacked them up. Rode them. Groomed them again. Cleaned the tack. It was a very healthy and happy way to grow up.”

“So the kids get muddy. So what? Tony goes out of the house clean in the morning, and comes back again covered in everything, from hoof oil to dirt to ice cream. And he’s happy.”

It’s always about the horse

Our conversation might be boiled down to one question: what gets lost when a groom or trainer does everything for a young rider? The first part of the answer is straightforward: you won’t develop the skills you need to be a top rider or a professional in the sport. But Helena’s response goes deeper than that. You lose a legacy of horsemanship, and without that, you miss out on building a partnership with your horse and on a world of happiness that horses bring. And that’s not something we can afford to lose. 

“Horsemanship can’t be allowed to die out. It is our responsibility, and that’s why I love to teach actually. When I teach, I don’t hold anything back. I want you to learn everything I know. I want to teach everything the student wants to learn. They can ask me anything. We have to teach. We have to give our students the answer to every why? The knowledge will be lost otherwise. That scares me.”

In the end, the answer to every why? has one thing in common: It’s about the horse. For Helena, it’s always about the horse. It’s about bonding with this magnificent animal and developing a friendship, learning and doing what’s best for them. And with that, Helena ended our conversation with a simple challenge: “And how would you know, if you haven’t spent time with them?”

Want to take your horse care to the next level? Don't miss Max Corcoran's "Horse Care for All Seasons" Masterclass. 

Feature photo by Leslie Threlkeld. Inset photos courtesy of Helena Stormanns.

Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo

Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.