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Melissa Simms: Thoughts on Becoming an Educated Rider, by Nan Meek
Melissa Simms compares learning to ride with learning any other professional skill –education is essential for success.
Melissa’s dressage education was equivalent to several PhDs. At the renowned Egon von Neindorff Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, she spent 24 years studying, and ultimately becoming director and head rider and trainer, under the classical dressage master Herr von Neindorff. She was his trusted right hand until his death in 2004. Today she continues his legacy of classical horsemanship through her students and her translation for his recently published book, The Art of Classical Horsemanship.
“Whether you’re a concert pianist or a horse trainer, you need to go to school,” she contends. “Sadly, ours is one of the only professions where you can actually represent yourself as knowledgeable without the necessary education.”
Melissa’s love of horses formed her perspective: to benefit horses and riders through the use of correct knowledge. “At the riding school, we had all breeds, sizes, and ages. The horses were developed over time, and never sold. Each horse’s talent was identified and nurtured. No horse was required to be perfect at everything, and all the horses were used as professors to teach the students. Many of the horses also participated in the twice-yearly festive performances given by the Institute.”
Not every horse was a grand prix horse, but they were all teachers and performers with a variety of abilities and talents, and they were well-loved for their contribution to the school. They all could teach the students something of value and play their part in the exhibitions for which the von Neindorff Institute was famous.
Learning to ride is difficult, Melissa says without any sugar-coating. “At the Spanish Riding School, the old adage was that it takes ten years to learn to ride a trained horse, and another ten years to learn to train a horse.” And that’s with a young person on good horses with good instructors.
“It used to be,” Melissa says, “that horses were transportation, so the rider learned to ride correctly to keep his horse going as long as possible; basic riding was functional and necessary. Dressage was considered part of a gentleman’s education, along with Latin, fencing, charming women and drinking good wine!”
In today’s more egalitarian lifestyle, dressage still has its place as an art form, for “What is a world without art? A sadder place,” Melissa says. The sight of a beautiful horse and rider is always a pleasure, as is a lovely painting or sculpture.
But the knowledge of the old masters is sadly slipping away. “We are in a very dangerous state at the moment because the old masters are dead, and few people exist who have had a lifetime of experience with them. The problem is that most riders possess a few pieces of knowledge here and there, but without all the necessary components, you can’t paint the picture,” she explains.
“I believe there is no shortage of riders who would like to become more educated,” Melissa continues. “But theory goes hand in hand with learning experience. You need the experience to feel the theory, and you need the theory to understand the experience.”
One common problem today is to read instructional books and expect to be able to implement the theory without the correct experience and a good instructor. “Although horses are our ultimate teachers, the horse cannot be a schoolmaster for the student rider unless it has been correctly trained by an educated rider,” Melissa concludes.
So how does today’s student find correct education? Melissa’s advice for finding a trainer who can help you is to look for someone who has gone through many stages in their own training and to study with the best instructor you can possibly find; then, perhaps with a long term goal of teaching others what you have learned.
She recommends that you find the best instructor available – one you believe in – and study with that instructor for enough time to thoroughly understand the information they are teaching you. Stay on one road long enough to get good results, as constantly switching instructors will only produce the opposite. If no instructor is available locally, find your dream clinician, ride with them consistently, and remain true to their teaching in their absence.
“And have some sympathy for your riding instructor,” she says with a smile. “Being a good riding teacher is tremendously difficult. People are very emotional, they love their horses, they care about their riding, and they want to learn. Sometimes they want to learn too fast.”
Melissa points out that today we are accustomed to paying for services, but you can’t just pay to learn to ride – you must put in the actual work. Today as in times past, it still takes dedication and determination, as well as education and experience, to become an artist as a rider.
If as riders our goal is achieving harmony with our horses, what is Melissa’s goal as a trainer? She answers, “In my own way, I want to impact the lives of horses and riders, passing on the knowledge I have been so fortunate to acquire in my lifetime.”
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