I am firmly in the camp of never blaming the horse/pony when things go wrong. This concept has been engrained in me since I first put a foot in the stirrup, and I hold strong to that belief today.
Sometimes I wonder if this mentality is universal for all equestrians, and if it translates to other areas of life as well. When do people make the switch from blaming the pony to blaming the rider?
I see an awful lot of non-riding parents that are the first to praise the child when things go well, but the first to blame the pony when things go wrong. To me, if you want to take credit for the good, then you also have to take responsibility for the not so good.
A few weeks ago, a kid was riding a pony in a lesson. Another (non-riding) mom and I were watching. They have a refusal, but kid stays on, regroups and all is well. Another mom walks up and asks what happened. Simultaneously the non-riding mom and I answered with very different takes: her answer was “the pony refused that jump!” While mine was “the kid didn’t keep her leg on.”
This is how my brain works, with me and my children. When something does not go according to plan, my first response is to ask “what ownership did you have in the situation?” My youngest came home from school upset that his teacher had fussed at him for talking when he wasn’t talking at the moment. So I asked, “Have there been times when you were talking when you shouldn’t have been?”
“Then you need to check your own actions before you blame someone else.”
I thought initially after the “refusal” incident that perhaps this mentality applies to all equestrians, but I was reminded that there are many riders who blame the horse… or their trainer, or the judge, anyone other than the rider. I see it all the time, so I know this mentality cannot be universal, but maybe it should be. Or maybe it’s a necessary mindset to consider yourself a true horseman.
Because if you look to place the fault externally, then there is nothing for you to change. To be fair, the word “fault” is really not appropriate here. Sometimes a mishap is the result of a spook, which is a result of centuries of flight instinct. Certainly we cannot blame the rider for a pony spooking… except I would venture to guess there is almost always something the rider can do to minimize the spook (were you keeping his attention on the task at hand, or letting him look around outside the ring at all the scary things? Did you make sure he was prepared for the task at hand? Are you focused and engaged, or is your mind wandering?) There is always something you, as the rider, can improve upon next time.
I fully acknowledge that sometimes ponies (especially ponies) can be little turds and the rider cannot be blamed for his antics, but again, there are always parts you can control.
When I was a kid, I rode this small pony. He was all of 10 hands, but had a big enough personality for a whole herd of 17hh horses. When he decided he was done being ridden, he would lay down and just wait for you to get off. Obviously I wasn’t doing something to make him lay down, but you better believe I didn’t let him stand still in the middle of the ring and give him the opportunity to take a load off (literally)! Ponies are opportunists. If they see a chance to take advantage because the child is out to lunch, they will do it.
If my child was to decide she didn’t do well at a show because the judge didn’t like her, or her pony hates jumps with red flowers, or it’s a full moon or whatever, then there is nothing for her to learn from the experience. It’s only when she takes ownership of her part in any given struggle that she is able to change it next time. Maybe she didn’t cause a refusal, but can she prevent a similar mishap from happening again in the future? Are there parts she could do differently? What can she control?
She cannot control who is judging, or what color flowers they use in the boxes, or where the moon is in its cycle, but she can keep her leg on and her reins short. She can be tuned in to whether his stride is starting to slow or if he’s looking where he is going. That’s actually a pretty incredible thing.
Ponies are not naturally inclined to jump 8 jumps out of stride and in the correct order. The rider has to be the leader. Ponies react to the situation around them. That is how they survive. And so it is how we, as the rider, guide them through an unnatural situation, that allows them to succeed. They aren’t robots, so of course the rider has to bear some of the responsibility.
The flip side of this mentality is the ability to celebrate when things go well. My kid, after a really stellar lesson on her large green last week, got in the car and exclaimed “I’m just so proud of him! He was so good today!” Which was true. He was very good, and they are making tremendous progress. I also reminded her that if she shoulders the responsibility when things go awry, then she also gets to share in the glory when things go right! He was good because she was focused and on her game.
If I didn’t insist that she, as his rider, really look internally to find out what happened in the bad moments, and just blamed the pony, then how could she have the satisfaction of knowing she made it happen when everything clicks into place?
It is my job to raise—not just a good horseman—but also a good human. The sooner they learn to accept responsibility for their own actions, the more successful they will be in life. I will try to raise a child who accepts responsibility for working through conflicts in college, who knows that sometimes acknowledging “I screwed up” is the best way to move forward in her career and relationships, and who also knows that it’s ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them.
If you learn something, it’s a lesson, not an error. Pilot error does not just apply to time in the saddle, and the sooner we learn to own the responsibility for our parts, the farther we all can go.
About the Author: Ponymomammy juggles her roles of mother (two human, two ponies, and three doggos), wife, and perpetual amateur in Camden, SC. When not shuttling kids, or riding, she can be found feebly attempting to clean or cook, usually in dirty breeches from an earlier hack. Both she and her daughter enjoy showing on both the local, and A rated, show circuits.
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