“The horse does one of two things. He does what he thinks he’s supposed to do, or he does what he thinks he needs to do to survive” -Ray Hunt
There are a lot of quotes out there about horsemanship, but this one stuck with me. It’s about as simple as you can get, but at its core, it says all the things.
It’s up to us to listen to what our horse is telling us. Are they missing a lead change? Are they spooking at the far end of the ring? Stopping at the jumps? We have to try and see things from their perspective, because the horse’s perception, not our own, is their reality.
Do they not understand what’s being asked of them? Maybe we need to go back a step and make sure our cues and their foundation are correct. Are they fearful or in pain? Did they have a bad experience in the past and they are carrying that worry into this situation? Only when we break things down from their perspective can we get to the root of the problem.
Riding is a funny partnership. When we get it right, it’s the seamless communication between two individuals that speak different languages, have different wiring and goals. I might want to qualify for adult medal finals, but I can assure you Eddie’s goal is getting a treat and a pile of hay in his stall.
It would be so much easier if they could talk. I would sit him down and say, “Look, pal, I’ve got this big goal in my head, so I’m going to need you to give it your all, okay?” Although when I think about it, the downside of talking horses would be all of the times Eddie should have stopped-mid course to tell me to get it together.
The true magic of our partnership though lies in our horse’s ability to give it their all despite these limitations. To take us over jumps they might prefer to go around, to push through their own sore muscles or fear, or put so much trust in us that when we say “do it.” They listen without question.
What remarkable animals we are so lucky to throw our leg over. They give us freedom. They let us go faster than we ever could on our own two legs. The put unwavering faith in our ability to tell them the right things at the right time. And what do they ask for in return? Not much in truth: food, shelter, safety. Okay mine might be a bit of a diva with his fancy shoes and an arsenal of blanket options, but he deserves it.
I truly believe, with very few exceptions (and those exceptions generally come in the form of small ponies) that when a horse is misbehaving, it is due to either a lack of understanding, or to pain/fear. The idea that a horse is being bad, just for kicks, is more likely what we tell ourselves so we feel better about the situation. Horses do not seek fame or glory or blue ribbons. They have no ego. What we need to do in those moments of “misbehavior,” is put our own ego on pause for some introspection: what was I saying to my horse that could be unclear? What has changed for him recently that could cause a change?
Recently I have found myself at a crossroads. I am tired of showing at our current level, and want to move up. I want more than anything for Eddie to be the one to get me there, but it’s just not going to be the case. When I bought him years ago, I knew he came with some conformation limitations but made a promise that he would always have a place with me. I will not put him in a position where my wants exceed his best interests.
My trainer and vet and I have discussed it at length, and we all agree that while Eddie would go in the ring and give it his best, that asking him to do more than he currently is doing just isn’t fair to him. He’s too kind and trusting to say no. My number one job as his owner is to do right by him, and when it comes to moving up — he doesn’t get to have a vote. It’s my responsibility to be his voice and his advocate. My first priority is to be a good steward for my horse.
I see instances, far too often, where a horse or pony is being asked to do a job that is beyond their current capabilities, be it age, or physical limitations, or basic training. To what end? When did we decide that our human wants trump our equine needs? Maybe it’s part of current society’s desire for instant gratification.
Horses can’t tell us what they’re thinking or feeling in words, but they give us volumes if we learn how to listen. If horses are the mirror to our soul, how many of us would look in that mirror and like what we see?
I hope that when my child looks back on her childhood with horses, what she remembers above all else is that when push comes to shove, we always chose to do right by the horse. That sometimes meant spending an extra year in a lower division, or skipping a show, and that’s ok. I hope that she will look back fondly on the ribbons and the successes, but that she will hold close the times when she did what was best for her horse, even when it went against what she wanted at the time.