What to do when happily ever after… isn’t.
By Horse Rookie
A healthy horse and rider partnership is a thing of beauty. Mutual respect, trust, and affection abound. Each partner brings complementary skills to the arena and feels safe and valued.
On the flip side, few things are harder to watch (or experience) than someone trying to “make it work” with the wrong horse. Frustration, hurt feelings, and anxiety abound. Each partner senses something is “off” and is unable to meet the needs of the other in a productive way.
Life isn’t like Equine Tinder — we can’t simply “swipe left” and move onto the next candidate.
You may own or lease the horse in question, or you may be limited to a certain lesson horse. Maybe it’s the only horse you could afford, or perhaps it was perfect for you… five years ago.
If you’re stuck in the wrong (equine) relationship, you can make things better for you and your horse. (After all, chances are your horse has also wondered “Do I have the wrong person?”)
What Kinda Wrong
No two riders or horses are the same, and there are countless factors that might be contributing to your woes.
I’m reminded of the Chris Cagle song What Kinda Gone. It’s important to identify “what kinda wrong we’re talkin’ ‘bout’ here” before deciding what to do next.
With the exception of some truly dangerous animals:
The wrong horse for you may be the right horse for someone else — and vice versa.
In this article, we’ll discuss common reasons horses and riders break up:
- Wrong energy
- Wrong skills
- Wrong health record
- Wrong safety record
Every horse has a unique energy and personality, as does every rider. While we can influence behaviors, we are who we are (and so is your horse).
Horses that are high-spirited, flighty, standoffish, or respond to the lightest of cues are often called “hot” or high strung.
A rider who is a natural go-getter, assertive, and competitive are described as having a “hot seat.” The moment a hot seat rider sits on a horse, it seems to perk up, become animated, and hit the turbo boost button.
Other horses are “more whoa than go,” and they’re happiest moving slowly, thinking through things, and dozing off whenever possible.
My lesson buddy and I refer to the human equivalents as “sleepy butts.” The moment a sleepy butt sits on a horse, the animal seems to calm, slow down, and become less reactive.
Sometimes hot horses and hot seat riders make great matches. High-level competitive show jumping teams are classic examples. Many of the top riders are competitive, assertive risk takers riding bold, energetic, and athletic horses.
Sometimes laid back horses and sleepy butt riders make great matches — like recreational trail riding teams. They like to take it slow, sightsee, and enjoy quiet and solitude.
Other times, opposite energies attract.
A nervous, green rider is able to learn safely on a quiet schoolmaster. A relaxed, experienced rider may find that a spirited youngster offers the challenge she craves.
The issue arises when a horse-human energy mix doesn’t bring out the best in either of you.
- You drive to the barn feeling anxious and sick to your stomach.
- Your horse seems to get anxious just being around you.
- Your horse is notoriously lazy, and you always struggle to get him moving forward.
- You just want to go on fun trail rides with friends, but your horse spooks at everything.
- You don’t enjoy hanging out with your horse. Personality-wise, it’s not a good match.
- Reality Check: Is your horse really too dull, or are you not requiring him to respond to your leg? Is your horse really too hot, or are your nerves making him tense?
- Provide What Your Horse Lacks: If your nerves or high-strung energy are creating anxiety in your horse, it’s time to get serious about training your brain. Learn about sports psychology, talk to a therapist, and develop coping techniques that work for you.
If you’re a “sleepy butt” who struggles to motivate a low-energy horse, it’s time to step up your grit game. Raise your expectations, and hold your horse accountable for meeting them.
- Focus on Groundwork: If you’re still committed to your partnership, it’s time to go back to the beginning. With the help of an experienced trainer, rebuild a firmer foundation through groundwork. Use exercises that help your hot horse relax and learn to trust you. Or, work with your lazy horse to reset expectations that “now means right NOW.”
- Take Lessons: Many issues can be solved with time, patience, and knowledge. Invest in lessons with a coach who understands the challenges you’re facing.
- Call It Quits: Sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away from a relationship that isn’t working. But that means finding a better match for you and your horse. Instead of throwing your horse on Craigslist as “Free to a Good Home” (please don’t do this), find a new owner who is well suited to your horse’s energy and personality. Only once you’ve found your partner a wonderful home should you start shopping for your next horse.
Most people have worked in at least one job that wasn’t a good fit. Perhaps you were a shy person in a demanding sales job, or maybe you hate math, but were asked to handle bookkeeping.
We all have natural skills that come more easily to us, and horses are the same way. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn new things. But some jobs take specialized skills your horse simply may not be able to master.
Simply put, your horse isn’t into what you’re into. The activities you love aren’t the ones at which your equine partner excels (for a variety of reasons).
For example, your barrel racing horse is sweet as pecan pie, but he’s also slow as molasses. Try though he might, he will never have the “engine” or motivation to do the job well.
- Your horse doesn’t seem to enjoy the job (i.e. discipline).
- Your horse is physically or mentally unable to perform at your level.
- Your horse doesn’t turn out to know as much as you thought he did. Instead of progressing to the next level, as you’d hoped, you’re going backwards.
- Your chosen discipline brings out the worst in your horse, instead of the best. Bad habits, behavioral issues, and injuries are signs that something isn’t right.
- Invest in Training: If you’re willing to spend the time (and money), hire an experienced trainer or coach who can help your horse improve his skills. Just because your horse isn’t great at the job now doesn’t mean he can’t be better in the future.
- Switch Disciplines: You’re really attached to this horse, then you want both of you to be happy. Changing disciplines may be exactly what you need. An underperforming barrel horse may be an outstanding pole bender. A hopeless jumper may excel in hunters. A dressage flunky might be amazing on the trails. Experiment!
- Trade Up: Your dependable jumping pony may have taken you as far as he can, but he still has a lot to teach a less experienced rider. Find someone who needs the skills your horse does bring to the table. Then, go hunting for a new horse capable of taking you to the next level.
- Learn Anyway: He may not be Mr. Right, but he may be Mr. Right Now. If a new horse isn’t in the cards (or budget) at present, learn as much as you can from the horse you have. Though he may not challenge you in the ways you want, focus on what your partner can teach you, improve your equitation, or gain show experience at lower levels.
- Try a Lease: Higher-level horses are more expensive. Often, though, you can find a full or part lease that has the skills you seek. Perhaps a young rider is going off to college and needs someone to keep her reining horse in work. Maybe an upper-level jumper travels a lot for work and would love having a few extra rides put on her horse each week. You might even find a lease-to-buy option.
Wrong Health Record
Confirmation, genetics, and plain bad luck can land even the dreamiest of horses in this not-so-dreamy category.
Of course, all horses occasionally get injured or ill — it’s simply part of having a horse. But chronic, complex, or expensive health conditions may be more than you are able (or want) to handle.
The majority of equestrians own horses, in large part, so they can ride them. Horses with the wrong health record may not be sound, or they may cost so much to treat that your budget for activities you enjoy (e.g. showing) is depleted.
- You spend more time icing, x-raying, handwalking, and waiting for the vet than you do enjoying the activities you love (and bought your horse to do).
- The majority of your horse budget routinely goes toward vet bills.
- You’re always worried about the “next injury”
- You’re unable to afford treatments, medications, or ongoing health costs.
- Retire Early: If you have the financial resources, you may want to consider retiring your horse. A “pasture sound” horse can happily retire in a big field for years. Or, keep an eye out for someone seeking a companion horse.
- Donate to a Good Cause: If your horse is nice and safe, contact some local equestrian nonprofits or related programs to see if they have a need.
- Barter for Budget: Keeping a horse with prolonged health issues is expensive, but you may be able to get creative about your budget. Bartering for part of your stall board, vet bills, or treatments can be a win-win.
- Adjust Your Expectations: Health issues might make a certain discipline unfeasible, but your horse could be able to do other activities safely and happily. If you’re flexible about your goals and interests, a simple adjustment to your game plan may be all it takes to feel good about your partnership again.
- Consider Euthanasia: No equestrian wants to think about it, but some health issues severly deteriorate a horse’s quality of life — physically and/or mentally. Talk with your vet about what the future would likely hold before making your decision.
Wrong Safety Record
He’s tall, dark, and handsome… but he bucks you off during every lesson. Being honest about your horse’s behavioral issues is critical, especially if they affect your safety — or the safety of those around you.
You wouldn’t buy (or keep) a car that kept failing safety tests. Why are you still riding a dangerous horse?
Riding is supposed to be fun. You should look forward to spending time with your horse, not feel terrified that he’ll land you in the hospital (or loony bin). If you’re experiencing more than the usual amount of anxiety about your safety, listen to your gut.
- Your emergency room bills are even higher than your vet bills.
- Other people express concern for your safety.
- You’re tired of limping, casts, bandaids, concussions (especially concussions!).
- You lack the skills to address serious behavioral problems yourself or can’t afford to someone who does.
- You’re not having fun anymore.
- Be Honest: Dangerous horses require you to be brutally honest with yourself — and potential buyers. Ask your coach about options for your horse’s future, especially if that future isn’t going to be with you.
- Restart to Resell: Find a reputable trainer who can restart your horse from scratch. Systematically correcting behavioral issues may make a challenging horse safe in the future. If things do turn around, you can resell the horse as a solid citizen.
- Retire and Relax: If your horse is too dangerous to ride, but otherwise enjoyable and safe to be around, consider retirement. If he can live a happy and relaxed life in the pasture — and you have the funds to afford basic ongoing care — you may develop a new type of relationship without the pressure of riding.
Learning Isn’t Failing
It’s easy to feel like a “failure” if your horse-human partnership breaks down. Remember that when you first got your horse, you made the best decision you could with the data you had at the time. Not every match is meant to be, and that’s okay.
As long as you’ve become a more knowledgeable equestrian on this journey, you have not failed at all.
You’re doing the best you can, you want a better life for you and your horse, and you have everything you need to make the right decision!
Nicole Ross is the founder of HorseRookie.com, an educational website dedicated to helping equestrians of all levels (especially rookies) answer common questions, make informed decisions, and have more fun with their horses.