Riding: Good or Bad? A Reader Question

“I find myself going back and forth in a quandary of whether or not riding a horse is disrespectful to the horse and whether or not it can be done in a way that is not in any way painful for the horse.”

It’s such an interesting question you ask, one that in my experience most thinking people who have horses face at some point. I certainly wouldn’t presume to tell you or anyone what is right for you and your horse. All I can tell you is what I believe to be true about the reasons horses have chosen to stay on this planet and what they bring to their human partners.

Let’s face it, there’s no practical reason for horses not to be well on the way to extinction by now. Their natural habitat is pretty meager and humans have selectively bred for traits that don’t necessarily set them up to succeed in the wild. Their original usefulness to people, as means of transportation, is no longer relevant. So, by many standards, we should have stopped feeding and housing and breeding them decades ago. But we didn’t. Why not?

I think so many people find horses to be essential elements in their lives because the horses negotiated a new deal with the universe to be of service in a new way. We don’t need them to help us explore the frontiers or defeat an enemy or carry heavy loads. So they stuck around to help us face some other, less obvious challenges. To save us from ourselves, in a way.

Ichobod works with one of his riding students.

Ichobod works with one of his riding students.

Ask a person, horse owner or not, why they like horses and at first you’ll hear enthusiastic exclamations about how beautiful horses are, how graceful their movement, how fast they run. Foals and ponies are cute and fuzzy. Stallions are majestic. Mares are sweet and nurturing or fiesty and interesting. But let the question hang in the air a while, especially among people who really do spend time with horses, and you’ll start to hear the deeper reasons. Horses can help us feel our power (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). They connect us to nature and the earth – just think, if you live and work in a city, the only concrete-free ground you ever touch might be the arena. And they hold up a big mirror and show us who we are, the good bits and the warts, in a non-threatening, judgment-free way that other people just can’t manage.

For those of us born with that mutant “horse” gene, they just make us feel good. We love the sound of them munching sweet-smelling hay and the feeling when they share their breath with us. We love the way they smell and how soft and fluffy or sleek and glossy their coats look and feel. We like the sounds their hooves make on various surfaces – the clippity clop on a paved road and the cushioned thud on green pasture and the thundering roar on a fast racetrack. They’re our friends, our therapists, our family members. They require us to focus, to learn to quiet our mental chatter and learn to just be, to intentionally choose to inhabit our minds and our bodies now, in the present. There’s even an interesting study, I think still ongoing, that shows the heart rates of a human and a horse entrain when they interact. So there is a definite physiological effect to spending time with a horse, even just sitting near one.

How do they choose to interact with us to accomplish all this? The answer to that is as diverse as the horses and humans. I’m lucky to have two horses who have chosen very different paths. Sport, the younger of the two, may never be ridden. He didn’t have a very good start in life and he doesn’t tolerate the feeling of being bound up around the middle of his body. Even the soft fleece “girth” of a bareback pad causes him to dissociate to the point he doesn’t realize when a person is standing next to him. He has other talents and skills and is a wonderful horse. He’s just not a riding horse.

On the other hand, Ichobod, my old gelding, has taught me many lessons that weren’t about riding at all while still making it very clear that he wants to be ridden. He chose and is very content with his role as teacher and he has brought along his riding students very effectively over the past few years. He has quite different lessons to teach each of them and has unique relationships with them that have very little to do with his partnership with me. At 27, you might think I’m overdue “allowing” him to retire. But he loves what he does, he’s good at it and I trust that when it’s time to change, he’ll let me know. I no more believe in forcing a horse to stop doing his job than I believe in forcing him to do a job he doesn’t like.

Sport helps a clinic participant overcome fear of horses.

Sport helps a clinic participant overcome fear of horses.

There is, in my opinion, absolutely no question of riding being disrespectful or cruel at all if you and the horse agree that’s going to be part of your relationship. They’re big, strong animals with reflexes much quicker than ours, so if a horse really, really doesn’t want someone on him the person is not going to stay on. (Not to say that every time a horse “loses” his rider, that means the horse doesn’t want to be ridden. There are many factors.)

Do I think you are capable, either physically or emotionally, of inflicting that kind of abuse on your horse? No, never. To do that you have to completely dominate and break down a horse – and that attitude would have to define your entire relationship with the horse, not just riding time. You’re not going to do anything like that, and I don’t think your horse is the type who would be likely to fall victim to it.

That doesn’t mean that if you decide that riding doesn’t feel right, now or at any time in the future, you shouldn’t choose to spend your horse time differently. There are certainly a lot of good choices – all kinds of fun and beneficial ground exercises you can do. To my way of thinking, you can’t make a wrong choice in this. Just different choices that lead down different paths.

Read a discussion of this topic on Facebook.

Old Humans, New Tricks?

Horse people can be so impatient. They want their skills and their horses’ training to progress on a predetermined schedule, often based on a competition calendar or a chronological list of some kind.

This is a mindset I used to endorse, but which now just makes me smile. (Sometimes grimace, sometimes chuckle.) Why? Because I know that developing a physical, mental and emotional partnership with a horse is a process, not an event. You can’t just complete a set number of lessons or schooling sessions or shows and then declare that you are “there,” that you are now an accomplished horseman or horsewoman.

You can try, of course, but I’m betting your horse will have something to say about your personal milestone. And it might just not be what you want to hear.

When I ran a traditional lesson and training barn years ago, prospective clients almost invariably asked during our first conversation, “How long will it take before I can jump?” That usually came after they had told me at length how many lessons they had taken with which trainer or how many times they’d been on a dude-string trail ride or some such. At first I made the mistake of trying to give them an estimate based on what they had told me about their past experience. (This was before I learned that almost everyone inflates his or her experience at first!)

After I wised up, my standard answer was, “Anything from six lessons to six years.” That tended to be followed by a moment of mutual silence, which I generally followed with a laugh and the statement that although I was joking, I was also serious. This led to an explanation that every rider and every horse progresses at a different rate, and that my focus was on teaching good basic skills to keep both members of the partnership safe, sound and happy. The people who just wanted to run fast and jump high never called back. A good number of the sensible folk who actually wanted to learn to ride as well as they could showed up and generally did stay safe, sound and happy. Seemed like a fine business model to me, and it still does.

This approach does, however, present more of a challenge than you might think. Over the years a number of older riders, those lovely folks who take up riding in their 40s or 50s or even 60s, have lectured me about my firm insistence that they practice and master all the basic skills. One particularly prickly older gentleman got quite heated during a session in which I was focusing on improving his abysmal sitting trot despite his wish to lope circles at varying speeds. He informed me in no uncertain terms that at his age he didn’t have time to trot around and around until he was no longer bouncing on his poor horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. (Okay, my words, not his!) He was only interested in practicing the skills he needed to go work cattle. I was being unfair to him, wasting his precious riding time on things he didn’t like to do.

My response was that while I understood his sense of urgency, it wasn’t really relevant. The one who was putting up with his rotten seat was his horse, and she didn’t care how old he was. In order to work with her, instead of hindering and annoying her, there were certain things he needed to learn. And he couldn’t learn the advanced skills without mastering the basics any more than he would have been able to read classic literature without first learning the alphabet.  “See Spot Run” before “War and Peace.”

Your horse doesn’t care that a month from now there’s a show, a cattle drive, a group trail ride or your 50th birthday. All he knows is that today, in this moment, you and he need to come together – body, mind and energy – to build on what you learned yesterday and the day before and the day before. Learning is a progression – one thing leads to another leads to another. That’s true for horses and for humans.

And it’s not a straight line, either, no matter what some calendar or checklist might indicate. During the good times, it’s one step forward at a time. In challenging times, it’s one step forward, three steps back. It takes as long as it takes. And if you skip a step along the way? You might get away with it for a while, but I guarantee holes left in the basic skillset will come back to haunt both rider and horse one day.

The Riders’ Paradox

rockbackcompositeOne of the exercises I focused on when riding Ichobod recently involved sending him straight forward into pretty strong left-rein contact to get him connected enough on that side to release and stretch into my hand. Compress, compress, compress, loading the spring by lifting his back and asking him to push from behind into a firm hand. Then the magic connection happens and that loaded spring expands into an exquisitely balanced, elongated, elastic spine. It was the same exercise I coached a student through recently on her lovely Azteca mare, who is finally supple enough to actually start to telescope her heretofore stubby neck. And the student has developed enough feel and a stable enough seat to load the spring and soften just right when that release happens. Contact and connection in that fascinating and frustrating balancing act.

When I was done with my ride and cooling out, I got to thinking what a paradox correct riding presents. I know from my own journey of learning and from working with students in many disciplines how many of the basic skills are completely counterintuitive. How nuts must it seem to novice riders that they have to compress in order to lengthen? Maybe if they are students of muscle physiology, it’s completely understandable. But for the rest of is, it was hard to make that connection – mentally and physically.

Let’s see, what other paradoxes can we present? How about the way bending and lateral work are so imperative in creating straightness. Or how you need to shift the horse’s weight back in order to send him forward in balance? Geez, no wonder it takes so long to learn to ride. I’ve been at it for (don’t tell anyone!) 42 years, and I feel like I’m just starting to have a meaningful and useful understanding of the physical process in the horse and the human.

Along the way I’ve had a whole string of “ah, ha!” moments, some of which I remember vividly even decades later. One of those was the day a very hard-working dressage clinician (who had bravely agreed to teach a bunch of western riders!) instilled in me the importance and correct application of the outside rein. What? I have to keep my outside rein solid, solid, solid to pursuade my chunky quarter horse mare to soften and stretch into my inside rein? Mind-blowing stuff to someone who had pretty much only ridden made horses that neck-reined with micro-pressure.

So, what was your biggest counter-intuitive challenge – the riding or groundwork concept that made (or still makes!) your brain feel like it’s twisting inside out when you apply it?