Just as with the people in our lives, our horses can be cherished companions and trusted teammates … or the polar opposite, with the accompanying pain and emotional heartache that goes along with a mismatched relationship.
There are no perfect horses, or perfect riders. How do you know what’s workable and what’s not, and when is it best to call an amicable end to the relationship and move on?
Can This Relationship Be Saved?
With horses, it’s easy to be blinded by good looks and potential, or perhaps swept away by the impulse to save or rescue one whose problems may be insurmountable.
A more healthy approach is to step back and ask this first crucial question: When you assess the horse’s qualities that are true and consistent, day after day, are they what you were really looking for?
Signs of a Mismatch
The signs of an equine mismatch are like those of any other relationship. “If you are honest and listen to how you describe your horse or your riding, you will hear the discord,” says Wendy Murdoch, a Virginia-based, biomechanics-focused riding instructor who works with all breeds and disciplines in clinics in the U.S. and around the world.
Some telltale phrases include:
- is too big for me
- is too much horse
- doesn’t listen to me
- pushes me around
- scares me
- is frustrating to ride
- is holding me back from achieving my goals.
Ultimately, identifying a mismatch comes down to these core questions: Do you look forward to working with your horse and try to find more time to spend with him? Or do you look for excuses not to go to the barn and find reasons to avoid riding when you are with your horse?
Margaret Zancanella, a rider in Elbert, Colo., recalls feeling this way about her horse, Grace. “The mare came to me with an issue of being head shy,” she says. “This escalated to rearing shortly after I brought her home. I began avoiding spending time with Grace; in fact, just thinking about riding caused stress for me. I knew we weren’t a good fit, but I didn’t feel I could just get rid of her until I’d tried everything to make the relationship better.”
Zancanella’s lack of enthusiasm and eventual fear in working with Grace pointed to several important compatibility questions.
- Are you having fun?
“I think the biggest sign of a mismatch is that the rider is not having fun,” says Guy Vernon, a Colorado-based reining horse trainer and National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) judge and board member. “To me, riding is a joy. If you are not experiencing that joy with your horse, then things need to change.”
“If you’re not a professional horse trainer or instructor, I think this question is even more important to consider,” says Murdoch.
- Are you afraid of your horse?
“We all have moments when we may be afraid, but if you find yourself making excuses as to why you don’t have time to go ride, then you are not having fun, and it’s likely caused by some level of fear,” says Murdoch.
Fear can also stem from a more surprising area: a talented horse with a less talented rider. “I have seen situations where a person might have a horse that is above their ability,” says Vernon. “This can turn into a situation where the person begins to fear riding, both because the rider is unable to match the horse’s physical abilities as well as a fear of ‘ruining’ the naturally talented horse.”
- Do your riding goals mesh with your horse’s abilities?
Your horse’s talents need to match your interests, and vice versa. “For example, if you want to ride on trails but your horse can’t leave the safety of the arena without bolting, this is not the right horse for you,” says Murdoch.
Similarly, “I won’t look at Clydesdales hoping to find a reining horse,” says Vernon. “When the rider’s expectations for a horse are higher than what he can provide, it leads to frustration. And, in the unfortunate cases where the horse is pushed to meet those unattainable goals, it can be detrimental to his physical and emotional wellbeing.”
- How much time do you have to spend with your horse?
“You need a horse that fits your lifestyle and available time so that you can enjoy the time you have together,” says Murdoch. Be realistic. If you can only ride an hour a week, can your horse cope with that, or does he become a bundle of nerves without daily exercise?
- Do you make excuses for your horse’s behavior?
“Assume that how the horse is today will likely be how he is tomorrow,” says Vernon. “Things don’t normally change drastically day to day. Can you live with that, or is it time to make changes?”
- Are your personalities compatible?
“Personalities are important and sometimes overlooked,” says Vernon. “A high-energy person will tend to do better with a horse that is more laid back and vice versa, just as a timid horse can benefit from a more confident rider and a timid rider from a confident horse.”
What is Workable?
“This is a very individual question,” says Vernon. “For example, are you the type of person who wants immediate gratification or will baby steps work for you? There is no right or wrong answer, but a good guideline is that if the horse builds confidence, then the issue is likely workable.
“On the other hand, if all the feelings you’re having are negative—fear, dread, anxiety—then this issue is not workable,” he adds. “The hardest but most crucial thing is setting honest, realistic goals. If those goals can’t be met, then you’ll know when it’s time to move on.”
Devising a Plan
Murdoch stresses the importance of working with a reputable trainer to sort out what is workable and what is not.
“If the rider is committed to resolving the issue, then I generally suggest we give it a certain amount of time, say six months,” says Murdoch. “During this time, the rider needs the guidance of a good trainer as the issue is addressed. After the time limit, we re-evaluate, discuss progress and make another decision to continue or not.”
If the owner is willing to do what it takes and then re-evaluate after a set period of time, the relationship can sometimes be saved. “Without guidance, however, these situations often do not resolve, and going to a weekend clinic isn’t going to give the horse and rider the support they need,” says Murdoch.
In Zancanella’s case, many people told her to either sell Grace or to become more dominant in her handling of the mare. “I tried the more dominant approach at first, because I thought maybe her behavior was a result of me not being a confident, consistent leader,” she says. “It didn’t work. Plus, while I wasn’t comfortable with Grace, the more I watched her behavior, the more I felt she was responding out of pain and needed help.”
Her patience paid off. “It took almost three years to identify that Grace’s behavior issues had three key causes: physiological, physical and learned responses as a result of pain,” adds Zancanella. After the issues were addressed, the mare was restarted under saddle and Zancanella worked through her own fear issues. “Today, she’s a different horse; one I feel safe with and enjoy being around.”
What is Not Negotiable?
In a word: safety. If you don’t feel safe, you need to recognize it quickly and devise a plan before you, someone else, or the horse is injured physically or psychologically.
Beyond the black-and-white requirement of safety, there is one intangible quality that Vernon thinks is just as important. “When a non-pro rider buys a horse, he or she needs to have a true affection for that horse. A lot of things can and will go wrong during their life together, and if a rider doesn’t like the horse to begin with, it can make it hard to want to keep working together as a team.”
Is it Time to Move on?
As professional instructors, Murdoch and Vernon see many horse/rider mismatches that can only be resolved by letting go and moving on.
Some involve a disparity in talent. “I taught a youth rider whose beloved horse did not have the physical abilities to be competitive at the levels she wanted to achieve,” says Vernon. “She loved her horse more than anything, so of course my suggestion that she find a more suitable partner was met with considerable resistance.”
After a season of struggling to compete at a higher level, however, the rider finally agreed to find another horse. “She found a great home for her horse and bought one that had already been successful in the show pen,” says Vernon. They went on to be in the top 10 at the NRHA North American Affiliate Finals Championship. “And as it turns out, she loves her new horse every bit as much—maybe even more—than her first horse because they are more compatible.”
Non-workable mismatches also occur when incompatibility results in fear. “I was teaching a clinic where a new student rode in on a draft-cross foxhunter who stood about 16.3 hands,” says Murdoch. “In comparison, the rider was about 5 feet tall, 100 pounds and in her late fifties. I could see immediately this was not a great match.”
When Murdoch asked about her riding goals, the rider talked fondly about the Arabian gelding she’d had earlier in life and how much fun they’d had riding western.
“I asked the obvious question: If she enjoyed riding western on a quiet little horse, then how did she come to have this horse?” says Murdoch. “She said the horse had needed a home and she felt sorry for him. She admitted that this horse had to be ridden regularly and very strongly because of his fearless personality.
In fact, she didn’t enjoy riding him and she was afraid—afraid to canter, afraid she’d come off, afraid to jump, and yet jumping is what this athletic horse loved to do.”
After listening to the rider’s fear of this horse compared with how much she used to love riding her Arabian, Murdoch had “the talk” with her.
“I told her it wasn’t fair to either one to continue the relationship. He wasn’t able to enjoy being ridden, and she wasn’t having fun. I emphasized that he was just as unhappy as she was because he loved to go foxhunting and she had no desire to do that at all.”
Murdoch suggested the student sell her current horse and find a more suitable one for the same amount. “At the end of our conversation, she agreed that she would find her current horse a home where he could have a job he loved, and she was looking forward to happy rides with a sweet, sensitive horse that fit her personality and size.”
Love it, Fix it, or Leave it?
We have horses because we enjoy spending time with them. When our enjoyment decreases because of fear, frustration or incompatible interests, it’s time to set aside emotions and evaluate the situation honestly.
“To reach your goals, sometimes you have to let your head overrule your heart,” says Vernon.
“If you are not having fun, invest the time to see if you can come to an enjoyable place in your partnership,” says Murdoch. “If you know that the situation isn’t workable, face the facts, move on and find a horse you can enjoy. Allow your horse to have a job he loves with a new owner who appreciates him.”
KARA L. STEWART is a freelance writer and horse owner based in Colorado.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!