BY MICHAELA MANGUS
“This one will teach you how to hold your shoulders back,” I say as I hand Theo’s reins back over to my dirt-covered student, her expression sheepish from an impromptu dismount. I have said similar variations of this sentence to riders of this specific horse more times than I can count. If you don’t stay tall on the approach to a jump, he stops… and often, ends up with a rider on the ground.
Some people argue back that he’s nasty for stopping. That he should jump anyway. That he should be more forgiving. However, I have come to view it differently. Theo’s stop when a rider drops their shoulders is his gift to them. He teaches them to become more correct. It is experiences like these that have instilled a firm belief in me that only continues to grow—every horse has something to teach us.
On the surface, riding can appear to be a somewhat basic task. Climb on a horse, learn to go, learn to stop, do a few left and right turns at some point. If you can do it on one horse, you can do it on any horse… right?
To a certain extent, yes. If correctly asked, any well-trained horse should respond to these basic instructions. On a deeper level, there is much more to be learned if we are willing to be taught.
Some horses teach us to ride tough. These are the wise old school horses who have carried a hundred timid beginners – the ones that we must squeeze forward with all our might, the ones that drift the rail and cut the corners until they are made to go into them.
Other horses teach us to ride gently. These horses are the ones that spook at the corner you’ve trotted past ten times already, the ones who need their necks scratched and sweet talk crooned to them, even when you feel yourself getting frustrated.
Some teach us how to hit the dirt, dust yourself off, and get back on – like the sly little ponies, who, under their adorable exteriors, have plotted the sudden dismounts of many children. Some, like Theo, teach us to stay tall in our shoulders. Some teach us to how to sit a buck. Some teach us to take a joke. Others teach us that it’s okay to have a bad ride and say, “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
Horses have taught me to work hard. They have taught me to love deeply. They have taught me to be a leader, and to be someone worthy of being followed. They have taught me to expect a lot and accept a little. They have taught me what partnership is. They have taught me that it’s okay to sometimes hand out a few extra carrots.
Now, something I tell myself is that I’m no longer just teaching people how to ride horses. I’m teaching them to understand the horse, so that the horse can teach them. The horses can teach their riders better than anyone; it’s simply my duty to be the translator.
Michaela is a young hunter/jumper professional from Montana who is currently working towards an Animal Science degree. Forever a pony jock, Michaela enjoys working with equines of all sizes though OTTBs will always hold a special piece of her heart.