Love and Lots of Work: What it Takes to Build a Good Horse-Rider Relationship
When I ask my students what their most important goal is, they will say: “I want to have a good relationship with my horse.” Most of the time, hearing this this makes me happy. A good relationship with our horses should be our main goal.
A couple of my students come from competitive backgrounds where the horse-rider relationship tends to get neglected because winning matters too much. These students now want something in addition to ribbons - they want to develop trust, communication, understanding. Another group of my students are people middle-aged or older who don’t have much horse experience, but finally fulfill their life long dream of learning how to ride. That’s wonderful. It’s part of my job to help them build a good partnership, to make the process safe and enjoyable for everyone involved. I enjoy helping horses and their riders understand each other better. It’s the biggest pleasure I get out of my work as a trainer.
On the other hand, there are times when working with adult novice riders can be frustrating because some of them have only a vague, highly unrealistic notion of what it takes to build a good relationship with their horses. Often, they buy or rescue a green or troubled horse, which is a challenging project, even for very skilled riders. Rather than acknowledging the challenge, some of these novice riders envision a deep, magical bond between themselves and their new horse, like the kind they’ve read about in the Black Stallion novels when they were twelve. They believe that their dedication makes up for their relative lack of practical experience. They really, truly love their horses, but they sometimes think that love alone creates a shortcut leading straight to horse-rider harmony.
Don’t get me wrong: compassion for the horse matters a lot in horse-rider relationships, maybe more than anything else. But in and of itself, it’s not enough. Riders who truly love their horses know this. They know that they need to develop certain mental, physical, and emotional skills if they want to build the relationship they envision.
Riders who truly love their horses know that horses need a calm demeanor and consistent boundaries from their riders. Often, inexperienced riders are not as unflappable as they need to be because they get scared when their horse does something unexpected. Other times, they take things their horses do personally, as in “I rescued him from the kill pen - why is he trying to buck me off?” Or they reward their horses at inappropriate times, in ways the horse can’t understand. Please get professional help before your relationship with your horse leads into the dead end of mutual frustration. A few sessions with a sport psychologist can help with fear issues. Working with a good trainer will help you develop consistent boundaries and timing, both on the ground and in the saddle. Riders who truly love their horses will do whatever it takes to become calm, consistent, confident riders.
Technical skills are important, too. A horse-rider relationship will never blossom without a balanced, independent seat and quiet hands. Riders who grip with their legs, sit crooked, lean too far forward or backward, or hang on to the reins for balance can’t communicate effectively with their horses. They can’t develop feel and timing. Their horses will become dull, unresponsive, or confused. Luckily, there are many ways to improve rider biomechanics, body awareness, flexibility, and strength. Off the horse, yoga exercises can be helpful, combined with regular body work to address imbalances. On the horse, riding without stirrups or lunge line lessons are excellent methods for developing an elastic, following position in the saddle. This allows riders to feel what their horse is doing, and to give controlled feedback to the horse through their hands, legs and core muscles. Riders who truly love their horses will do whatever they can to communicate with their horses in a way both parties can understand.
Theoretical knowledge never hurts, either. For most of us, the “why” has to be clear before we put an honest effort into learning how to ride a horse. Books, videos, symposiums, workshops, and clinics, are no substitute for the hands-on time we spend with our horses, but they can supplement the practical knowledge we gain from our growing body of experience. Your trainer should answer any questions you have willingly, honestly and to the best of her knowledge. I love it when my students stop me in my tracks with a baffled “Why do we do this?” There are times when the answer is simple. Other times, I have to admit I am not really sure. That’s when I say “Let me think about it, and/or read about it, and/or ask one of my mentors, and then I’ll get back to you.” These questions make me a better teacher, a better horsewoman. Riders who truly love their horses are educated riders, thinking riders, questioning riders. They don’t blindly follow gurus. They are lifelong learners. They keep asking “Why?”
Lastly, riders who truly love their horses are realistic enough to know when to call it quits. With enough time and dedication, many horse-rider relationships can work out, even when this seems unlikely to begin with. I’ve seen green riders develop beautiful relationships with green horses. I’ve helped older novice riders overcome considerable physical and mental obstacles because they wanted that relationship with their horses badly enough to do whatever it took to make it work. Because of this, I’m reluctant to discourage anyone, but nonetheless, I have to acknowledge that there are relationships that won’t work out because the gap between what a horse needs and what a rider is capable of doing is just too wide. In these cases, the kindest thing to do is to re-home the horse into a situation that will work out better - with a more confident, more experienced owner. Riders who truly love their horses love them enough to find them a more appropriate partner when, after giving it an honest try, they realize they’re in over their heads.
A rider with a beautiful seat and perfect technique who does not love her horse will never be a great rider because a vital piece of the good horse-rider relationship will always be missing. At the same time, a rider who loves her horse but neglects other necessary elements will never build that relationship, either, in spite of her best intentions. So, yes - horse-rider harmony should be our main goal. But to get there, we have to work on the physical, emotional, and mental skills we need to create it.