“Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”― John Fitzgerald Kennedy
I am knitting a scarf. I have not knitted in decades. My grandmother taught us to knit and crochet and to do needlepoint when we visited her as children over Christmas, and she kept us happily busy for hours, knitting swatches and admiring our stitches. But we never knitted a thing. I have never knitted something.
Knitting gives me a lot of time to think. While it is true that most progress in riding happens in the saddle, don’t underestimate how much progress you can make thinking about your rides. I have had the incredible good fortune to have trained with some excellent trainers and riders and clinicians. When I ride, or when I think about rides, I can hear bits of guidance in my head; I can hear their advice. I am lucky about that. That advice has been most useful at times throughout my life.
For example, when my four year old Friesian mare, Dona, spooked and bolted in a Training Level test, and as she thundered toward the exit, like a freight train in the reins, with me standing in my stirrups, leaning backward like a water skier, I heard Kim Barteau (one of my favorite people ever) as clear as day, speaking calmly to me from a past lesson, “Touch and give. Don’t pull.” For a moment, I looked around, standing there in my stirrups, to see if Kim were witnessing my debacle because I felt sure I would receive a little lecture if he did, and yet, I wanted to hang there on the reins for just a moment more. Finally, I resisted my own intuitions and gave a few half halts. Three strides outside of the ring (therefore, a disqualification), Dona calmly stopped and the excitement ended. The moment was forever memorialized in the photo below.
Many years have passed since that ride, and both Dona and I have made a lot of progress along the way. Nonetheless, there are still moments like that one, when the movements, or the moments, or sometimes the entire rides, are challenging.
I had a similarly challenging moment with Filigree two weeks ago (which was also memorialized on film, below). This one happened to occur on Halloween, and it reminded me of another past lesson with Kim. I was riding in an indoor arena in December, shortly before Christmas. He was instructing me through a bluetooth ear piece. The barn was planning a holiday show and there was a stage for the Snow Queen set up at one end of the arena with decorated trees and an ornate throne on it. As Filigree went to pass the stage, she balked and reared a little bit. Kim said into my ear, “Uh-oh, Fili hates Christmas.” I laughed so hard, I almost fell off.
I have been texting with Kim about my rides on Filigree and he joked with me just before this ride, “Don’t forget. Fili hates Christmas.” So, when she did her little Halloween rear and protest, I started laughing again, thinking of Kim. Now we know she hates Halloween, too.
Let me start by saying that you cannot solve these little hiccups if you are on emotional overload. If your horse behaves in ways that frighten you, you should definitely work with a trainer. I cannot imagine riding with fear. If I were afraid, I would not want to continue riding unless I could see a path to overcoming it. Horses are prey animals who constantly scan their environments. They are incredibly intuitive about intentions and if you are afraid, your horse knows that too. Similarly, the horse knows if you are angry or frustrated, and they cannot receive clear aids from you if your signals are mired down in suppressed agitation. I saw an inexperienced rider one time literally start punching her young horse in the withers because she was so frustrated with her ride.
Above, Dona in a more civilized dressage test (top) and on a ride last week.
Sometimes challenges in the saddle present the best learning opportunities. What could I have done to prevent it? What could I have done to manage it better? What could I have done to help ensure I can avoid it in the future? Why did it happen?
This last question, the why, is perhaps the most important one. I can’t always answer that question, but what I can say is that it is never the horse’s fault. Literally, never.
The horse misbehaves or fails to deliver the correct response because he may not understand the aid; he may be too fresh because he has not had enough exercise or because he is young or because the rider should have longed him first; or the rider lacks skill and is not clear in the delivery of the aids; the horse may be in pain because his saddle does not fit him or he is footsore or his teeth need to be floated. The horse may be confused and disconnected from you because your rides are too inconsistent. The horse may not be properly trained. The horse does not ever misbehave because he is angry that you bought the wrong brand of peppermints or because his polo wraps do not match his dressage pad. He is not bearing a grudge because his best friend was not in his turnout group, or because he was not in his turnout group with his friends. That is not how the horse’s mind operates. (To read more about the nature of equine learning and how to improve your relationship with your horse, I strongly recommend Ariana Sakaris.)
The failures of your ride are not the fault of the horse. The responsibility for failures in the saddle always lands squarely at the feet of the rider. The good news is that this means it is always within your grasp to improve your relationship with your horse and your riding success.
When things go awry, it will always be my fault.