If you are connected with the horse show world even remotely, you hear some not-too-pleasant tales of horses sacrificed—sometimes literally—to their owners’ greed and ambition. It could easily lead one to believe that horse owners as competitors are a bad bunch.

One might also wonder whatever happened to the horse as a companion, sharing his owner’s fortunes both good and bad? The Man from Snowy River with his ‘mountain horse’ heroically sliding down the mountainside together to capture the wild herd and win the girl; Smoky and his cowpoke drifting through the blizzard to keep the cattle together; the Black Stallion and his boy capering in the surf; Velvet and The Pie galloping to victory in the Grand National; are they all merely dreams with no basis in reality? More to the point, if you want to compete on your horse, must he be treated like a race car? Is he, as one wealthy owner was heard to say, “merely a commodity?”
That would seem to be the practical point of view. It is the same point of view taken by totalitarian countries with respect to their Olympic athletes. And, to a certain extent it appears to work. The athlete, whether horse or human, can be shown, through force, on which side his bread is buttered. He can jump his heart out to avoid the punishment which he knows is inevitable if he fails.

But how well will the athlete perform if fear is the compelling factor? I was working once with Shane, a young horse who had been trained (unsuccessfully) by the force method. I started to ride him out of the field in which we had been working and realized that some one had left a rail in the gate about three inches off the ground. Shane’s first reaction was “I can’t do that,” followed by “I’m going to get punished for failing.” He showed every sign of refusing utterly to step over the rail. I steadied him and rode him up to it in such a way as to indicate that I thought he probably could do it, while at the same time talking to him in an encouraging and praising voice. He hesitated; I did nothing, and he stepped over the rail. Here was a horse whose confidence had been destroyed by his fear of failure and the punishment which would accompany it. Only when he was sure he wouldn’t be punished would he even try.

One of the things I admire most about Corey, a professional I know, is that when she and a young horse occasionally have that disastrous round (which happens to us all!) she comes out of the ring laughing and patting the horse, telling him it’s okay, not to worry. When the horse goes back for his next class, it is with cheerfulness and confidence. Had she done as so many riders do, and come out angry and punishing, the horse would remember that when he had to go back into the ring. So here is a professional, with many horses to work with, who is able to remember even during competition that each horse is an individual with feelings that can be hurt, and who takes the trouble to consider them.

The Desire to Please

I truly believe that the horse will perform better if his heart is in his work. I saw an unusual performance on TV once. It had nothing to do with competition, only with a horse giving her all. It was a show about unusual American animals. A paraplegic man had decided he wanted to ride, so he got himself a horse. I don’t think that he had any professional help, nor did he seem to be an experienced horseman when he started. But he managed to teach the horse to let him approach her in his wheelchair, stand while he threw a heavy Western saddle up onto her back, which he could only do very roughly from his chair, so it had to hurt. Then, as he had taught her, she lay down while he dragged himself into the saddle, and finally stood up with him on her back!
It was this last action which really caught my attention, because the man was a big man, and was wearing braces besides. He had to weigh two hundred pounds if not more. The mare was a little horse and it was obvious that standing up with him on her back took every ounce of her strength, far more than it takes a jumper to get over the biggest oxer. And yet she did this every day. There is no way you could force a horse to such an effort; she had to want to please the man.

Of course it is not possible for a professional who has eight or ten horses in his string to develop that close a relationship with each horse. The paraplegic was able to spend most of every day with his one horse, developing the bond. And even the rider with only one horse usually must spend most of her time making a living for both of them. But it is possible to be a caring rider, whatever other limitations you may have. An article on the dressage trainer Lendon Gray pointed out that she will not force a horse beyond what he is ready to give, either physically or mentally, merely for the sake of a ribbon. So she may have missed a ribbon here and there, but she has a stable full of sound, happy horses, many of whom she has had for a long time.

The Practical Aspects

There is another practical point. Some people can afford to throw away a horse which is worn out, and buy a new one even fancier and more expensive. But most of us are not in that position. If we are fortunate enough to find a very talented horse in our price bracket, we’d better try to make him last as long as possible, since we may not find another. A horse that has been trained through fear is a tense horse, and a tense horse will break down—physically as well as mentally—long before a relaxed one. So being a caring competitor, like Lendon Gray, will prolong the horse’s competitive career because, barring accident, the horse will stay healthy—and happy—longer. And, in the end, produce more winnings.
The general run of teaching today puts the emphasis on riding as a skill, like golf or gymnastics. If you are a good rider you have fun, if you’re not, you don’t. Go away and take up croquet! The instructors forget that the reason most people take up riding is because they like horses, and would like to get to know them better. If all they want is thrills, they can ride roller coasters.

In my career as an instructor I have met many riders who are never going to get to the Olympics. They might be timid, or have a bad build for riding, or simply not have the necessary time or money to develop into competitive riders. Several of them really didn’t ride much at all. What all these people had in common was that they liked the horse for himself, irrespective of the pleasures he might give them in a riding situation. As a result, they always enjoyed the time spent with the horse. They became companions.

‘Companion’ is defined as ‘one who accompanies, a comrade, one of a pair or set.’ A ‘friend’ is a person whom one ‘knows, likes and trusts, a favored companion.’ If you go out on the trail with a ‘commodity’ horse, you are going with one who doesn’t care whether you come back or not. If you go out with a horse who is also your friend and companion, whose welfare is important to you, then your welfare will also be important to him. the two of you form a set, and you need each other.

In the days of the wild west, a cowboy alone with his horse on the range might lose his horse through an accident. If he was smart and lucky he could capture a wild horse and break it then and there. For the first few days he would have to hobble the horse to keep it from running away, but, with his own herd gone, the horse would soon realize that he was dependent on the man for companionship and safety, as the man was dependent on him for companionship and transport. After that, the horse would stay as close to the man as he would to his former herd companion. (You’ve probably noticed that horses tend to form pair bonds. You usually see two horses grazing close together, showing that companionship is important to the horse.)
The person who is trying to become a good rider strictly as a technical exercise is frequently going to be frustrated by the fact that her lack of skill results in the horse going badly. If she thinks of the horse only as a vehicle, or as a slave who should obey her every command no matter how unreasonable, both she and the horse are risking physical and psychological damage. But if she understands that the horse has problems as well, which they can work out together, she will meet with success sooner and more completely. If she has a companionate feeling toward the horse, she is able to say to him “Sorry, I guess I blew that one. Can we try again?”

It is also true for most of us that it is more fun to do almost anything, no matter how difficult or tedious, with pleasant, even loving companions than in an atmosphere of anger and frustration, whether ours or someone else’s. Competition essentially means that winning is the most important thing, within the limits of integrity. A person who truly wants to win is willing to give up almost everything to reach her goal, including, frequently, her health. She does this voluntarily to realize her dreams, and that is her privilege. To force her partner, whether human or equine, to do likewise is not her right.But if she can gain the love and respect of her partner so that he willingly gives of his all as well, then they can win together, and victory is indeed sweet.

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