Riding an unfamiliar horse is a valuable educational tool for a rider, if she’s willing to step out of her comfort zone for a ride.
She looked at me as though nauseated, procrastinating at the arena gate despite my encouragement to mount up and get our lesson started. No matter how many times I promised her she would love riding this new horse, I could tell my student found the idea unpleasant. Her face squeezed in to a grimace, her body language paralyzed to reluctant movements. The scene became a classic example of what I call the Bond of False Perfection.
This affliction, which leads to paralysis in the presence of opportunities to ride horses other than one’s own, is a sweet out-cropping of horse ownership. It elevates a student’s own steed to a perfect standard in her eyes. While naively charming, the bias interferes with the would-be benefit of riding other mounts from time to time, especially those with more training or skills.
Motivated by my recent pleasures borrowing my friend’s mountain bike, a much better one than my own, I was full-fledged in the conviction that stepping outside our comfort zones is necessary for growth. My student’s balkiness, though, reminded me that the zeal of borrowing nicer things does not extend to horses. When it comes to riding horses, most students do not want to trade up for a day. Knowing how educational it can be for students to ride other horses, we trainers must navigate around the Bond of False Perfection to convince them.
The Bond begins innocuously enough. Neatly over-looking how poorly trained or rough his gaits, students form an affection for their horse’s flaws that stands so solidly they forget that other horses might actually be more fun or enriching to ride. Before they know it, their serenity comes in the familiar bone-rattling trot they have grown to accept, the predictable spookiness, the laziness. Sure, other horses might be appreciated for their beauty or athleticism. But their own horses offer the known and familiar.
Talking a student away from that cozy familiarity towards the merits of experiencing the unknown, but better trained steed, for a lesson requires coaching suave I’m still honing. It relies on denting that Bond of False Perfection to illuminate how or why a student’s horse might not be so perfect after all. Telling a student to eschew familiarity in favor of enrichment becomes a hard sell. With her own horse, she knows he will spook in the far corner of the arena or that he will dance around the mountain stool. She knows his canter feels like a runaway race car, or he will fling his head up during transitions. These traits, coming from any other horse, might bother her. But as part of the lovable package of her own horse, they add to his quirky perfection. When you own the World’s Best Horse, as well believe we do, why would you wish to ride any other?
Again and again, I return to the knowledge of how valuable it is to ride all kinds of other horses. This experience refines our cues and timing. It enhances and accelerates our learning. Tactfully, I coaxed my student to understand this last week. I danced around her expression that negated the purpose of riding any other horse besides hers. Hopefully without marring the view of False Perfection for her own horse whose canter resembles jarring up and down on a pogo stick, I talked her in to a lesson on a horse whose canter resembles a graceful dance. The expression of nausea did wear off as she felt how smooth a canter could—and should—be. She finished with a puzzled expression, possibly trying to stretch her Bonds of False Perfection to include less familiar feelings.
JEC ARISTOTLE BALLOU is the author of 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider.