Is Winning More Important Than Caring?

I recently heard from an unimpeachable source that upper level judges are concerned about a lack of foundation they are seeing in upper level riders which makes the horses uncomfortable and puts the riders at risk. As we all know, a secure, centered, grounded seat is the basis of a good foundation. But there are, in my view, two other basics.

The first, both in importance and in the learning sequence, is developing a good relationship with your horse. I think part of the judges’ concern is seeing some riders who don’t really care about their horses. The horse, for them, is a means to an end, and this is the result of the rider’s initial training. If she is not taught from the start that understanding and caring about the horse’s physical and emotional needs is an important part of the riding experience, it will show not only in the way she treats the horse, but also in the way the horse responds.

A horse that is not treated with caring and respect will never fully trust his rider, and in a difficult situation will not have his heart in the job.  By contrast, I have seen many examples of a horse who has a good relationship with his rider performing beyond expectation in his desire to please.

The second is closely related. It is the process of learning to communicate with the horse, which must begin with listening to the horse, rather than just telling him what to do. Most of the failures in riding are the result of the rider not listening to the horse saying that he is frightened, or doesn’t understand, or is not prepared at that particular moment.

I once watched a very fine trainer working with a young horse at a show. She was riding a circle in an open corner of the hunt field. Other horses were galloping and jumping nearby, which must have been a distraction for the horse. Sometimes the circle would get larger, sometimes smaller. Sometimes they would canter, then return to the trot; occasionally they would jump an easy fence.

By watching carefully, I could see that the horse was making many of the decisions, as he felt more or less comfortable with what was happening, and the rider was assisting him in doing what felt right to him at that moment. Though the horse was obviously green, the picture was one of perfect unity, in which the rider was always getting exactly the response she wanted, which is to say, the one that the horse could achieve most comfortably.

To return to my original statement: how can riders be persuaded to improve their riding? And, as long as they’re winning, why should they? (Unlike other sports, the horse is the athlete, and, to a great extent, winning depends on one’s ability to purchase a winning—and expensive!—horse and the skills of a good trainer.) It seems apparent that this problem must be approached at the entry level. That is, the way a rider thinks about horses and riding is the result of how she is taught in her early lessons.

I believe that nearly everyone who takes up riding does so because she likes horses! So the foundation already exists in the beginning rider’s mind. She may have dreams of competing at high levels, but she has no idea how to get there, nor any understanding of what it’s like.

There are two paths she can take, depending on the instructor. One sort of instructor builds on the student’s desire to compete as soon as possible, choosing horses that will put up with mistakes, sometimes teaching very aggressively, all to make winning the immediate goal, and the horse just a means to that end. This path may get the student to the show ring sooner, but she will probably never become a good rider! (And she will spoil a lot of good horses.)

The other sort of instructor builds on that initial foundation of the student’s love for horses, teaching her how to develop a relationship of caring and trust, how to ride in a way that is comfortable for both her and the horse, and how to communicate with the horse by listening. This path will take a bit longer to get to the show ring, but she will become a good rider (quite soon!) and in addition this route will lead to more satisfaction than any other approach and, other things being equal, to greater success.

(By the way, many people think that instructors who teach beginners are somehow inferior to instructors at the advanced level. That’s like saying that the person who has spent her life starting young horses, and gives them an excellent, solid foundation, is less skilled than the trainer who builds on that foundation. I’m sure the second trainer doesn’t think so. The real problem is that, too often, the least experienced instructor is given the beginner lessons to teach. Which is like having the least experienced riders train the greenest horses!)

Many years ago, when my stable was doing a lot of showing at the middle level, I had a student who had just never gotten everything together in the show ring. We didn’t have fancy horses, just nice, well-trained average horses. Something would always go a little wrong for her, and she would end up at the low end, or out of the ribbons. But she never got mad, or took her disappointment out on her horse.

Finally, one day at a very important show, in a class where points counted for the team, she and her horse laid down as close to a perfect trip as one can have. When she came out, I congratulated her and told her she had a very good chance of winning. Her response? “I don’t care if I don’t win. It was just soooo much fun!” And she jumped off and gave her horse a big hug. The horse looked thoroughly proud of himself as well. (Horses are perfectly well aware of when they’ve done a good job, and enjoy success as much as we do.)

She did win, and so did the team.  But she won a lot more than a blue ribbon, and so did I. Everyone concerned, rider, horse and trainer, had reached an important goal without any negative pressure.

So we have three important basics:

  1. A caring trusting relationship with the horse;
  2. Learning how to be around and on the horse in a way that is comfortable for both of you; and
  3. Learning how to communicate with the horse by listening to him.

If you the instructor encourage your students in the first basic, they will be more than willing to spend the time it takes to learn the other two, because they will care about how they treat the horse. And isn’t that the only kind of rider you really want riding your horses?