I don't know if I ever had a great teacher or not, I was a very poor student and a very distracted and unhappy one. I saw a great teacher yesterday, and it was a joyful thing to see. Great teachers can light up lives and open us to new experience and help us feel competent and encouraged and can change our lives.
I've known Eli Anita-Norman for a decade or more, she is the wife of my friend and farrier Ken Norman, the Grumpy Care Bear, I like to call him, with a heart as big as his body. Eli has often come to help Ken take care of our donkeys, she helped Ken bring Simon back to life. We rarely got to speak to her outside of the barn and the usually rushed visits there. Horses are Eli's life, she rescues them, boards, them, breeds them, rides them and teaches people how to care for horses and ride them. She is teaching Maria how to care for and ride her new pony, Chloe, a Haflinger-Welsh mix.
When Simon died, Ken was in the hospital, Eli rushed over to be with us. We didn't ask her, she just came and we were very grateful for her presence. She and Maria became friends that day, they connected in some way I could feel, but not really explain.
(For those of you wondering – a number of messages – if ponies are big enough to ride adults, you might have fun checking out their history. They took Attila and the mongol hordes all across Asia, they did the same for many Native-American warrior and nomadic tribes. They were often bred to be war horses or working animals. Most are very strong and powerful animals, riding Maria around is not much of a strain, neither it is hard work for draft horses to pull carriages in Central Park. Why, I wonder, do so many people seem to see horses as fragile and weak?)
I don't usually come along to Maria's lessons, it is her thing, not mine. But she invited me to come for awhile yesterday and I am a sucker for that, I wanted to take some photos, and it was liberating to watch. As it was, I don't think Maria even knew I was there, she was so engrossed in her lessons.
Ken came and sat next to me, we grunted and grumbled for awhile.
It was uplifting and inspiring to watch Eli work with Maria, who does not have a warm history with instructors or people telling her what to do. With Eli, lessons are fun, and they are productive. It is unnerving to take on a new thing like a horse, but she looked completely natural and at ease to me. One of the reasons was Eli, who has the gift of teaching. She stays close, offers support, is clear in her instructions, yet always encouraging and warm. She never makes her students feel small. Like good animal trainers, she focuses on what her students are doing well, and gently reminds them of what they could be doing better.
I could see Maria get it right before my eyes, the ride was so different at the end of one lesson that it was at the beginning. I loved hearing how the horses sense movement and intention.
Eli loves horses very much, they are her life, and she conveys that passion in her teaching. She sees the animals as partners, yet she also reminds us that they need leadership, consistency and clarity, what every good dog trainer knows. She is honest but always positive, and Maria trusts her completely. These things are the key, I think, to great teachers. Maria can be as high-strung as any horse, but she is completely relaxed around Chloe, and around Eli. The three of them seemed to move and communicate as one, in sync, there was only learning, no tension or feelings of being overwhelmed or inadequate.
Riding a horse well is not easy, as I could see. It is complicated, it requires patience, physicality, attention to detail, a small person getting a large animal to move in tandem with them, understand them. You really have to pay attention, you have to master equipment and movement, you have to be safe and keep a hundred things in your head.
It takes trust and time and experience. In a way, that is how I feel about training a dog. And I was proud of Red, also. He sat out in the ring, showed himself to Chloe, let her walk right next to him. The two are fine with one another, that will be helpful when she comes to Bedlam Farm, that is why I brought Red. We are working hard to acclimate her well. I like Chloe a lot, all the more so because I don't have do anything but give her carrots and brush her.
Sitting out there in Vermont, I was grateful for our friendship with Ken, and with Eli. She is a great teacher, and her presence will help this new experience be a loving and responsible one. We already love Chloe, and now we are learning how to take care of her – and ride her – in the best and most thoughtful and loving way. Great teachers can do that.