When I was young and naive, I thought I knew why I was working with horses. I apprenticed with several trainers who made a living preparing horses and amateur riders for competition, which meant I traveled to a lot of Quarter Horse shows, Morgan shows, Dressage shows, and other shows, first as a groom, then as an assistant and associate trainer. My world was arranged in an orderly fashion: trainers teach horses to perform in a way that judges want to see. Owners want to learn how to ride well enough to come away with a ribbon in amateur classes, preferably a blue one. It all made sense.
When I felt ready to start my own training business, I believed that my success as a trainer depended on how well the horses I worked with did in the show ring. Shows, I thought, were a great tool to measure how well trained my horses were, which in turn would measure my worth as a professional. Soon, I learned that it was a lot more complicated than that. Horses are individuals. So are riders, owners, and even judges. Some horses enjoy performing in a show environment, others never will, and it’s not fair to ask them to be something they are not. Some of the things judges reward are not compatible with the kind of training that respects the horse’s physical and mental development. Some great, knowledgable trainers compete at a high level, while others have very different priorities. Some amazing riders do not have the patience or vision to train a young or difficult horse. Some trainers are great instructors, while others have trouble putting their knowledge and enthusiasm into words. Some riders enjoy the challenge of working with a hot horse, a timid horse, or an alpha mare, while others get discouraged. Some of the greatest horses I’ve met over the years have never won a blue ribbon, or any ribbon. One after the other, my beliefs became shaky, then crumbled. I had to look for a new truth.
During this re-examination process, one of the most basic questions I asked myself is why anyone would bother trying to improve their horsemanship, or to invest in their horse’s education. Like any small business owner, I very much appreciate my clients. I want to give them a fair deal. Owning a horse is a lifelong dream for many people, and learning how to ride better is something most horse owners want to pursue. But apart from the deceptive yardstick of show ring success, what, exactly, is “better”? What goals other than the blue ribbon are worth pursuing?
Today, the riders I work with are a diverse bunch. Some own Arabians, others Andalusians, Quarter Horses, Warmbloods, or ponies of unknown parentage rescued from the local horse shelter. Some of them participate in endurance rides, or compete in various disciplines from Western Ranch Riding to Dressage. Others are happy just riding. Some can look back on fifty-plus years of horse experience, others bought their first horse six months ago. What they have in common is a desire to improve their partnership with their horses. They all want to become better riders.
All my students want to know why their equine partners do the things they do, what motivates them, what they think and feel. Based on this understanding, my students want to learn how to communicate with their horses more effectively. This sounds like esoteric horse whispering, but it’s a lot more than that. Good horse-rider communication has very physical dimension: the rider’s body position makes it possible to feel the horse move, which in turn makes it possible to influence that movement. Good riding means there is a constant feedback loop. Good riders are responsible riders. They don’t ask for too much at a time. Instead, they request reasonable things from their horses, and they reward the horse often.
Good riders understand what their horse tells them, but they are not passive passengers. Good riders aim to develop each horse they work with into the best possible version of himself or herself - physically, emotionally, and mentally. They know why they ask the things they ask, and how the pieces of their program fit together. They know that working on suppleness, relaxation, impulsion, and straightness will make any horse stay sound and happy for a long time. Good riders know that the learning process never ends. It’s a humbling, yet exciting journey without an end point.
My goals nowadays are simple: to keep learning, to help horses be the best version of themselves, and to help riders become better riders. I might compete again, but shows are not the priority they once were. There is nothing wrong with winning a ribbon, especially a blue one. But it’s no longer how I define my success as a horsewoman. I am not a trainer (who focuses mostly on the horse) or an instructor (who focuses mostly on the rider). I am a horse-human relationship counselor, trying to improve both, and I feel so very fortunate to work with horses and humans who make it enjoyable.
May the Horse be with you,