By Andrea Monsarrat Waldo
I’ve had to accept that I was riding the wrong horse, and I’ve had to tell my students that theirs wasn’t right for them. Neither situation was easy! Here are some common horse-and-rider “odd couples” that I see (or have experienced myself).
He’s Green—and So Are You
You’ve just started riding or you’ve taken it up again recently. You looked at a couple of schoolmaster types, but they were kind of plain. Then you found a gorgeous 3-year-old that was as sweet as could be.
Even “straightforward” young horses are a challenge if you’ve never trained your own horse before. They really are blank slates, and they don’t know what you’re asking for. Training a youngster can be deeply rewarding, but it can also go very wrong if you aren’t sure how to go about it.
The Horse for the Rider You Wish You Were
You’re 5’1″ and just learning to sit the trot. Your trainer urged you to get a lovely 15.2-hand Welsh-cross, but you bought a 17.2-hand Hanoverian.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to be 5’10” someday, unless you’re 12 years old at the moment. Having a horse that suits your body type, especially if you are first developing your seat, makes everything easier and much more fun.
The other common mismatch here is in temperament: You choose an off-the-track Thoroughbred because you’d like to be a rider who loves speed, excitement, and flash, even though you’re happiest when you ride a horse that feels like a well-broken-in pair of jeans. If you’re hard-wired to love security, the James Dean Thoroughbred will never do anything but scare you.
The Three-Years-from-Now Horse
This is the horse that many parents want for their kids, “One she can grow into, so we don’t have to keep buying and selling horses as she progresses.”
You can buy a pair of boots for a child that are two sizes too big, and she will grow into them with no ill effects besides a blister or two. Horses, however, don’t work this way. More advanced horses are usually more sensitive to the aids; they do exactly what you tell them to, whether you meant to tell them that or not. One of two things is likely to happen with this horse: 1) he will object strenuously to your lack of experience, or 2) he will eventually regress to your level.
A horse that challenges you at the edge of your ability can definitely improve your riding, but if he’s too far above your current level, you may become overwhelmed, and your comfort zone will shrink rather than expand.
You Are Two Peas in a Pod
Sometimes, having the same temperament as your horse is a good thing: that super-quiet draft horse is likely to love an equally laid-back rider. Two peas in a pod can be problematic, though, when you and your horse are equally high-strung.
I once met a rider who suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks. Her horse startled every time a bird flew by and couldn’t stand still to save his life. Sadly, the two of them ricocheted off each other’s nervousness, one’s anxieties constantly triggering the other’s until they were both a mess. Humans who tend to be anxious are generally more successful with lower-octane horses.
In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books and movie series, the handsome, brooding Edward turns out to be a vampire. He’s a good vampire, though, with a deep soul and a big heart. He even sparkles.
The vampire horse sucks you in with the same qualities: he’s devastatingly gorgeous, even sparkling, and his brooding nature makes you sure that there’s a deep, misunderstood, but ultimately loving soul underneath his outer dangerous behavior. He may bite, kick, or buck you off, but his beautiful movement and athleticism mesmerize you so that you minimize the harm he’s doing to your body and to your soul.
Here’s the thing: Your vampire horse is not Edward. He’s just a vampire. He’s going to suck you completely dry. A vampire is always going to be a beautiful heartbreaker—or worse, he will hurt you someday.
The Abusive Boyfriend
You know you’re in an abusive horse-and-rider relationship if you alternate between total elation and abject misery, and if you have no idea what brings out either the stellar or the despicable behavior in your horse. “Abusive boyfriend” horses are horrible one day, perfect the next.
The problem is, sometimes something works, and the next day, it doesn’t. You can’t find a pattern, because there probably isn’t one.
Often, when a horse is acting like an abusive boyfriend, he’s in pain or in the wrong job. If you suspect you and your horse are in an abusive cycle, give yourself permission to say enough is enough. If you can’t bring yourself to “give up” on your horse, consider that you may be doing what’s best for him by finding him a new job that suits him better.
But I Love Him!
“All You Need Is Love” is a classic Beatles tune, but it’s woefully inadequate as a training philosophy. I hear this often from people who have, on impulse, “rescued” or otherwise taken on a horse from an apparently bad situation. While it can be a kind thing to do when you have the right experience and skill, it’s often done without realizing that horses in negative situations may have negative behaviors to match, just as traumatized children often have severe behavior problems.
If you find that your heart is bigger than your training toolbox, please seek help from someone qualified to handle behavior problems. Incomplete knowledge leads to inconsistent training, which leads to more (and possibly more severe and more dangerous) behavior problems. It’s easy to make things worse, despite the best possible intentions.
Love is important, but it’s not enough.
The Horse for the Rider You Used to Be
In my 20s, I would—and could, and did—ride anything. Bucking, rearing and spinning were all challenges I took on with enthusiasm. I liked the badass reputation it gave me to sit on the horses that no one else wanted to ride.
Fast-forward 20 years. Add one marriage, two mortgages, a few dramatic falls, and a round of breast cancer, and there’s no way I’d sit on many of those horses today—and I ride for a living!
Our life experience changes who we are as riders. The older we are, the more awareness we have of our own mortality. While our ego may sting a bit when we choose an “easier” ride, there is much more enjoyment in riding the horse that suits our current self.
I’m Riding the Wrong Horse—Now What?
You and your horse aren’t a good match. What do you do now? Parting ways is not the only solution. There may be a way to work things out.
Get Professional Help
Seek out training for your horse, yourself, or both. Ideally, you should take lessons not only on your own horse, but also on a competent schoolmaster. And have your trainer ride your horse.
Make sure the trainer is qualified to handle your situation. This may mean one trainer for you and another for your horse, or two trainers to work on different issues. Also: Good training takes time and costs money. Period. If you are committed to keeping a horse that hasn’t been working out for whatever reason, you need to be prepared for the fact that is likely to be expensive. Cutting corners will land you in even more trouble.
Call Your Vet
Schedule a full physical workup with your veterinarian. Gastric ulcers, sore hocks, back pain, Lyme disease, and nutritional imbalances can all contribute to behavioral issues. A mare may need management of her reproductive cycle to make her more comfortable and less edgy. Cushing’s syndrome and other metabolic or hormonal disorders can impact behavior, as well. Make sure you are doing everything possible for your horse’s physical wellbeing.
The personality you have the most control over is your own. Horses can and will bring to light every single emotional and interpersonal issue we have. Every. Single. One. So, if high anxiety or a quick temper is a problem in your riding, I’m willing to bet it shows up in other parts of your life as well.
There are two pieces of good news in this statement: 1) If you manage it effectively in other areas, you can use those same skills with your horse; and 2) any type of coping skills training can be shaped to work in your riding.
Switch It Up
If your horse makes it clear that he hates the job you’ve chosen for him and nothing is going to change that, switch disciplines. Along those same lines, you don’t have to do anything with your horse—if you adore him, but he’s too old, too injured, too hot, too cranky, too whatever to be anything but a pasture pet, then he can be a pasture pet. If you are happy to have him in your life in that capacity, then by all means, do so. It’s your horse, so as long as you can interact with him safely, you get to decide how he fits into your life.
Step Away from the Keyboard
You may be tempted to ask people online about what you should do about your horse. Please, in the name of all that is holy, DON’T DO IT. Just don’t. Inevitably, there will be several know-it-alls whose strong opinions are in direct inverse relationship to their knowledge and experience, and they will take it as their sacred duty to both advise and judge you. Talking about your dilemma online leaves you emotionally exposed and vulnerable to people who have not earned the privilege of seeing that vulnerability. You’ll also just get a lot of really bad advice.
Finding Mr. (or Ms.) Right
When you feel ready to search for your next equine partner, start by writing your own equine personal ad. Write a profile of yourself as a rider: what types of riding you love, your personality traits, your body type, your experiences, what you’re hoping to accomplish. Next, write your “in search of” ad for the horse of your dreams. Tall, dark, and handsome, or small, catty, and quick? Big and strong, or long and lean? Mr. Right (I’ll keep you forever!) or Mr. Right Now (I need you to teach me the next level of skill)? Do you prefer girls, boys, or both?
Don’t go it alone. Horse shopping is exhilarating, stressful, and often brain-scrambling. You can do it alone, but why would you? It’s far too easy to fall head over heels for some big, flashy moving bay, and have those George Clooney looks blind you to the fact that his hocks are a disaster or that he’s three years greener than you are ready for.
Bring a trainer you trust, preferably one who knows your riding and your personality. You should expect to pay for this service, but it’s money well spent, and it can often prevent you from making a very expensive mistake.
If you don’t have a trainer to work with, bring a knowledgeable and honest friend. Ideally, the friend should be your temperamental opposite: if you’re impulsive, she can put on the brakes; if you’re indecisive, she can list objectively a horse’s pros and cons. She needs to be confident enough to voice her disagreement with you, and not just tell you what you want to hear.
Adapted from Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo and reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com)
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!