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The Student from Hell

Michael Hillman

I guess in a lot of ways I was spoiled by Ashley, my first working student. She was eager to learn, a hard worker, attentive, and knew how to leave what was left of her ego at the barn door. To say it was a pleasure to work with her would be the understatement of the year. In fact, I credit Ashley with giving me the courage to try to help others. And while they are not always as attentive as Ashley, they are usually quite appreciative. That is, at least when compared to. . . the student from hell.

To protect the guilty, and my assets, lets just call her ‘‘Awanabe’’.

I first meet Awanabe shortly after completing a run cross-country. For some reason that still eludes me, she was impressed by my ride. Awanabe had been hanging around events for some time, and had even given it a go once or twice, but with a horse unable to get around even a basic, chicken elementary course, she wasn't getting far very fast.

After listening to her tail of woe, I agreed to try to help her. On the appointed day, Awanabe pulled into my driveway in a big tag-along rig, which was more suitable for a professional then a weekly rider. I knew something was amiss when I noted that the interior of its huge dressing room was decorated with every ribbon Awanabe had won from every local dinky horse show she had attended in her life.

After exchanging pleasantries, I headed off to the dressage field where I left my gin and tonic and awaited Awanabe’s arrival. And I waited, and I waited. After 30 minutes, I headed back to the house for another gin and tonic and waited some more. Finally Awanabe showed up . . . in bright green stretch breeches, a pink halter-top, a hard hat with a pink fuzzy ball on top, and a belly pouch full of horse treats barely holding in a beer gut a college drunk would be proud of!

I made a mental note never to drink before a lesson again.

To this day, I still don't know how I got through the lesson. I do remember saying a lot of ‘‘um’’, ‘‘err’’, and ‘‘um’’ again.

Awanabe was up front with me. She thought she and her horse were upper level material. It didn't matter that she was already 34. It didn't matter that at 5' 2" she was carrying the weight of a person two feet taller. It didn't matter that she hadn't jumped anything bigger then a baby novice crossrail. She was going to be an international rider and it was up to me to help her get there.

Part way through the first lesson, I excused myself and made anther gin and tonic.

After watching Awanabe struggle for five minutes to get on her 15 hand quarter horse, I finally got the courage up to ask her about her prior instructor and why she had left her. According to Awanabe, most of her lessons involved meditating in front of a candle in group séances where she got in touch with her horse's inner being. But at $75 a candle, after three years she felt that she had learned as much as she could.

"You've been riding for three years?"

"No, I've been riding most of my life. I just took lessons to put some polish on my position. You should have seen me before I started to take lessons"

"No thanks, I can't imagine anything worse," I mutter under my breath.


"Oh, nothing, go ahead and trot, or at least try to . . ."

Well I somehow got through the lesson without laughing or crying, which can't be said for my wife or Ashley who gasped in awe at the display from the tack room window.

"You agreed to teach her again!? You have got to be kidding," giggled Audrey.

Yes, I have a soft heart. And she was so happy with the lesson, I found it hard to say no to her request for another. After all, her horse was nice, and if I could get her to dress right, drop the belly pouch, and shut up and listen, I thought I could get her around a baby novice course.

As the date of our next lesson approached, I searched in vain for a diplomatic way to address the riding attire issue. In the end, I finally decided to tell her simply that eventing had standards, and green breeches, pink halter-tops, and belly pouches did not fit into the equation. My speech sounded better and better as I recited it over and over to myself. It went over like a lead balloon when I delivered it.

I got the 'I've wasted years carrying about what other people thought of me' routine, and then she started to cry and throw her tack. I was taken back, but having worked with some erratic people in my life, I was not completely caught off guard.

"Look," I said, "If you expect to be an upper level rider, you better start dressing the part. You want people to notice you for your riding ability, not your unique riding attire." For good measure, I added, "When’s the last time you ever saw any rider wearing a belly pouch on cross-country?" It worked, and I made a mental note to never teach anyone who wore bright green spandex breeches.

With the clothing issue hopefully behind us, I headed off to set up some fences before going out to the cross-country field. Eventually Awanabe joined me, albeit still equipped with a belly pouch.

"Did you not understand me? I asked you not to wear the belly pouch."

"I have to. I've got all my treats in it and my clicker."

"You're what?"

"My Clicker."

"What's a clicker?"

"I've trained Robby to it. Every time he does something right, I get off and give him a treat and click the clicker. So all I have to do now to keep him from getting scared as we approach a fence is to click the clicker."

I was awed. "Let me get this straight, you're expect to run around a cross-country course, and as you approach each fence, you intend to whip out your clicker and click your way up and over a fence?"

"Ya, pretty neat, huh?"

I sighed. "Awanabe, you have enough trouble steering your horse at a walk, I don't think it's a very god idea to try to click your way over a fence."

"Well then, how do you expect me to encourage Robby to jump a fence?"

"Have you ever considered ‘clucking’?"


The lesson went downhill from there.

Awanabe’s third and last lesson came a few weeks later. I had noticed a slight limp in her horse during the cross-country school and recommended that she have a vet look at him. When she arrived for her next lesson, the horse was still lame.

"What did the vet say about your horse?"

‘‘My blacksmith looked at him and said he was lame from a fungus in the frog. So I've been squirting a solution of Betadyne and sugar into it."

"What?" my veterinarian nurse wife asked.

"Ya, my blacksmith made it up for me . . . I figure since he works with feet all the time, why waste my time talking to a vet . . . "

Needless to say, the horse was now lamer then it was the last time I had seen it.

"Oh well, next time I'll just bring my younger horse. You know, everyone who sees him want’s to buy him. They're sure he'll one day go to the Olympics."

"Uh huh," is all I could manage to get out of my gin soaked lips.

The final lesson began well enough when Awanabe was able to beat her record of five minutes for getting on the horse, but from there, things went downhill again.

"OK. Pick up a trot. Good, now change your diagonal . . . No, you missed it, try again . . . No, try again . . . Look sit once, not twice . . . Once! . . . No that was two times, Once! That's less then two! Once . . . No that was four times . . . OK lets try three times, or for that matter, any odd number, just don't sit on an even number . . . No that was eight . . . that was ten . . . that was six . . . fourteen..."

It went on like this for fifteen minutes. Figuring it had to be a problem with the horse, I got on. I was surprised to feel a dead even, albeit green horse under me. I got off and handed the horse back to Awanabe.

"There is nothing wrong with this horse."

"I can work on the diagonal thing later. Can you get back on and show me how to do a leg yield, I understand I'll have to do that at the Olympics..."

As it turns out, she never got the right diagonal that day, and thankfully has never returned for another lesson. But I've learned mine. I'd rather help kids like Ashley for free than be paid to help someone who doesn't want to put the effort into learning. Thankfully this lesson was more humorous then it was painful. If only that was the way with all life's lessons...

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman