Horses have taught me to quiet my mind.
Horse enthusiasts use a variety of the English language that diverges from the mainstream standard. Equestrian vocabulary is tricky because some words and phrases sound straightforward, but, on closer reflection, mean something much more complex than their surface meaning suggests. “On the bit” comes to mind, or “half halt.” “Horseman” is another example. What does it mean to be a horsewoman, or a horseman? How can you tell who is or isn’t one? And why does it matter?
Being the best rider you can be is only the beginning.
You can’t spot horsewomen and horsewomen by looking at their clothes, or listening to their accents. Some wear cowboy hats, some wear baseball caps, some wear helmets. I’ve met horsemen in Germany, and in Italy, and in the US. I believe they exist wherever there are horses. But what exactly do we mean when we call someone a horseman? Why don’t we just say “really good rider” instead? Because the truth is more complicated than that. Part of being a good horseman is, of course, becoming the best rider you can possibly be, but you have to be more than a good rider to earn this distinction.
Julie Wilson, one of the finest horsewomen I know.
When someone calls me a horsewoman I take it as a huge compliment. It’s something I aspire to be someday, though I still often fall short of my goal after only 30 years as a professional equestrian. It’s a hard-earned distinction. Like “PhD”, the title “Horseman’ or “Horsewoman” should be a affixed to one’s name after a suitable recognition ceremony. It’s the one thing I would like my obituary to say. “She was a horsewoman” - I would feel proud if these three words could sum up my life when it draws to a close.
At its essence, “horsewoman” means: “someone who has allowed horses to be her teachers.” Not just her riding teachers, but her teachers in all areas of life. Horses have shaped who she is. They were and still are her mentors, her zen masters, her role models. Being around horses every day for many years can change our outlook, even our character, for the better. Horses will show us how to face challenges and solve problems. A good horseman may be successful in competitions, but never at the expense of the horse’s physical and mental well-being. A good horseman will do right by every horse he owns, or works with, or cares for. He is someone who listens with his full attention. Someone who has learned to be patient, to slow down, to communicate in a calm, clear tone. Someone who is humble, sensitive, down to earth, and soft-spoken. Someone who treats others with kindness and respect. Someone who, almost always, has a good work ethic and a well developed sense of humor. To be a horseman or a horsewoman means to live and act like the kind of person horses need us to be - not just whenever we’re around horses, but all the time.
Bill Woods, a true horseman.
Can you be a good horseman or horsewoman, but at the same time a violent, calloused, or self-centered person in other areas of your life? I doubt it.
It’s a red flag for me when I hear a well-known clinician lecture others about the importance of being kind to horses, then use demeaning language or a raised voice (sometimes both) when teaching riders. It’a a red flag when I hear a reputable trainer talk about being fair to the horse at all times, then witness that same trainer treating her barn workers like they’re subhuman. A successful dressage competitor who expects her groom to work around the clock for very little money and even less appreciation may win blue ribbons, but she can’t call herself a horsewoman. An instructor with olympic credentials who ridicules his students who each paid $250 for a lesson is not only a bad teacher, but also not a true horseman.
Amy Skinner, one of the youngest horsewomen I've ever met.
One of the many reasons I love working with horses is that they make us better humans if we let them. Of course, we are all imperfect - in the saddle, and outside of it. We all make mistakes, with horses and with other people. We are all individuals, with individual character traits and value systems. But the core values of good horsemanship cluster around calm, consistency, and fairness. Core values are by definition a central, inextricable part of who we are, not something we can try on and discard whenever it’s convenient. We each have only one set of them. We can’t use one set of core values for work, while we reserve another for our personal life, or one set for dealing with horses, and another for dealing with people.
You can’t be a good horseman with a volatile temper and a big ego. It’s just not possible.
Spending quality time with horses is important - in the saddle, and on the ground.
Why do some riders evolve into horsemen or horsewomen while others do not? It’s hard to say. From anecdotal evidence, I do know that riders who are responsible for the horse’s daily welfare - i.e. riders who groom, feed, and muck stalls - are more likely to also become horsepeople. I do know that too much emphasis on competition and training results can keep riders from morphing into horse people, at least temporarily. And lastly, I know that good human mentors play a role, too. I worked for a successful but very abusive trainer as a young professional, learning to do things to horses that I don’t even want to think about anymore today. I could have easily become the same kind of trainer. After walking away from this disturbing experience, I found another mentor who calmly told me “There is another way.” when I started to yank on the reins and do all the things I thought I had to do. I will forever feel grateful for her intervention. Without it, I would have followed a different, maybe more successful, but ultimately less rewarding kind of career path. I still hope to earn my gold medal someday, but earning the title “horsewoman” has become a much more important goal.
I hope to be the horsewoman my horses need me to be . . . someday.