It's not the Horse's Fault
I think at some point, every rider has heard some version of the same story from an inexperienced horse person. It goes something along the lines of:
“I was riding my friend’s horse and I got thrown off.”
And while we might be more polite outwardly, in our heads, we all make the same amendment: “you mean you fell off.”
Anyone who has been riding long enough eventually acquires the wisdom that when things go wrong, it is not the horse’s fault. It is easy to accept this fact when we go off course in a jump off, or chip to an oxer and have the front rail down.
It’s harder to accept responsibility for things that may be less obvious repercussions of our influence on horses, whether it’s the day to day behaviors we perceive as our horse’s shortcomings, or the details that differ between the winning round and our own performance in the show ring.
I often hear people describing their horses by focusing on what they don’t do well: “He doesn’t pick up on the right lead”, “he’s spooky in the arena”, “she doesn’t do flying changes”, “she paces in the paddock” or “he runs out at jumps.” These issues are almost always human-driven, whether it stems from misguidance from the rider, missed signs of physical discomfort, or counter-productive horse management techniques. You can be a great rider, and still struggle with a horse in a program that’s not suited to them individually.
I have been humbled by horses on countless occasions, and continuously find myself re-evaluating my expectations and figuring out new ways to address challenges that arise in my partnerships with my own horses, my students, and their horses. If I have learned one thing from running the farm, developing green horses and helping other people with their horses, it’s that the discrepancy between how our horse behaves and how we want them to behave is always less about the horse and more about how we manage them, ride them, and take responsibility for our role in shaping our horse’s performance and disposition. I am comfortable addressing mistakes in riding, training and horsemanship because I’ve made many of them myself. Like most riders, I have spent a lot of time trying to solve issues when what I was doing contradicted the natural inclination of the horse.
The biological evolution of horses does not lend itself to being kept in a stall for most of the day, walking into trailers for long trips, standing quietly in the crossties while we pull their manes or any number of other things we expect them to do on a daily basis. Horses don’t understand why we’re counter-cantering fence #5 or what the judge is looking for in a hunter class. They can only do their best with the information we’ve given them, and when things don’t go according to plan, it’s usually because somewhere along the line we have not provided them with the information they need to answer a question the way we would like.
When we feel like we aren’t reaching our goals or finding harmony with our horse, it’s important to remember that it’s not the horse’s fault (or the judge’s, or the spooky corner of the arena…) even if it can be easier to believe that our horse just can’t do something well than it is to acknowledge our own culpability.
If I could sum up my approach to horsemanship in three words, it would be “empathetic problem solving.” Having the self-awareness to identify when we are at fault for giving the horse confusing or inadequate information, and allowing the ethology of horses to inform our decisions is crucial to improving our relationship with our horse and filling in the gaps between where we are in our partnership with them and where we would like to be.
A rider could think their horse is afraid of jumps with fill, meanwhile they may lack the balance, confidence or accuracy needed to communicate to their horse that jumping an unfamiliar object is a good decision. You may feel like another horse placed above you in a hunter class because it was a better mover, when in reality the other rider was just able to show off their horse in a more nuanced way. Shifting our perspective away from what our horse doesn’t do well and focusing on our own contributions to the equation goes a long way in improving our performance and alleviating frustration.
The first step to achieving our goals is to reframe the problems we have with our horses as miscommunication on our end: When I have a horse who gets quick jumping, it says less about the horse than it does about how much I've practiced making adjustments on the flat to make jumping a less stressful endeavor. A horse who balks at the trailer ramp isn’t a “bad loader”, we just have work to do building confidence loading. Developing a partnership with a horse is a constant process that requires patience, empathy and an open mind.
Whether it’s something that can be changed with our horse’s feed, daily routine, our body language, riding position, expectations or just our broader mindset when it comes to horses, there are a myriad of ways we are responsible for their behavior and happiness, and by acknowledging and adjusting our own behavior we can effectively create positive changes in our partnership and performance.