Girl meets Horse. Or guy meets horse. Or gender fluid person meets horse. Sorry, but the last two didn’t quite have the punch I wanted for a headline. Besides which, we all know women make up a disproportionately large proportion of the leisure horse sector. Hey – I’m just playing the numbers here. No bias intended.
Whether we’re looking for a human partner-in-crime or an equine one, let’s face it, what it all boils down to is The Bond. And no matter what sector your search is concentrated on, finding that, building that and maintaining it, is what the journey is all about. Both paths are minefields. After all, when it comes to human partnerships, everyone is (usually) on their best behaviour on the first date. That potential squeeze is unlikely to crib on the bar of your local pub. Lack of personal hygiene is not necessarily off-putting with a horse, but highly likely to be a red flag with a human. Horses are unlikely to spend your first meeting engaged in a monologue about themselves which is a big plus in their favour. However, as they cannot answer your questions, you are left having to rely on the honesty of the seller and then your vet. Many is the time I wish my vet had been on hand to give a prospective date a five stage going over before getting further involved however. Rossdales take note: potential new and limitless income stream identified.
When we talk about the ‘bond’ with our horses, I believe this is shorthand for what we all want to achieve: and that is a better relationship. We’ve all seen or possibly even worked with those people who just seem to have a mystical power. Who can form that bond almost instantly with any horse. The man or woman who within minutes of encountering a so-called ‘problem’ horse, has it following them in the round pen like a enraptured puppy or instantly obeying every aid – Buck Brannaman, Guido Louis Leidelmeyer, Stacy Westfall, Lorenzo de Angelis. This isn’t about what gifts they have that we don’t. I want to talk about an aspect of the ‘bond’ that has most people spooked. And that is knowing when the bond actually doesn’t exist between you and your equine partner of choice. And no matter how hard you try, or how much money you spend, or who you consult, it probably won’t. And what to do about it.
Just as we don’t expect to get on with each and every human being we encounter – including that blind date, we should not expect to get on with every horse we meet – or even end up owning, either. If we’re honest, most of us over dating age, have jumped in with an instant attraction – only to regret it further down the track. And most of us will spend less time trying out that new horse than we do lingering over that coffee or glass of wine with that latest love prospect. The first horse I went to see on my search for an equine partner – a 16.3, 12 year old schoolmaster, showed me quite categorically he was not the one for me by kicking me hard in the small of the back as I led him out of his paddock. Direct, painful and to the point. If he didn’t like me on the ground, there was no way he was going to like me riding him. He saved us both a lot of wasted time, money and unhappiness. Others have not been so lucky.
If you’ve ever faced the ‘Should I stay or should I go’ dilemma with a human partner – and you chose the latter, chances are you never once said in retrospect ‘I left way too soon’. It’s usually the opposite. We cling on longer than those bony headed guys in Star Trek. Same goes for horses. Knowing when to leave is something women especially have a hard time arriving at. So, if you feel you are stuck in a toxic relationship with your horse, when every ride or interaction is ending in frustration, fear and even tears, when do we know when to let go and when it’s worth persevering?
All arguments in human interaction stem from one of two questions: How much do you love me? and Who is in charge? It’s no different between you and your horse. However, the question with horses very often is the who is in charge one. You or the horse? The argument itself will come about via just three scenarios. 1: You are over-horsed and the horse does not match your skill level. As a result you sit there certain you are going to die on every ride. You are certainly not in charge. As Guido Louise Leidelmeyer tells us: You are not just the horse’s leader – you are its protector. It never occurs to the horse it is him you are terrified of. All it picks up from you is there is something to be scared of. The two of you are now trapped in a self-perpetuating downward spiral, where the more nervous you get, the more the horse acts in a way to make you nervous. And so on.
Scenario 2: The horse is just not doing what you ask and you end every interaction frustrated and wondering what you are doing wrong.
Scenario 3: Unrequited equine love. You and the horse are mismatched in terms of your personalities. This is actually ‘How much do you love me?’ You’re doing everything right, but it’s as if you are in a one-sided relationship. You do the giving, not much is coming back.
No matter your situation, there are ways to solve this but first you are going to have to let go of two things. The first, comparing your riding journey to other people’s and the second – your ego. Egos are tricky things and they have no place around horses. It is usually our egos which most get us into trouble with our equine companions. Letting go of it allows us to move into a place of openness, learning and non-attachment. This then frees us to obtain the right outcome for both us – and our horse.
If you are experiencing Scenario 1, be open and honest about the fact your chosen horse is right now, not the right match for your riding skills or perhaps even what you want to be doing. Riding your horse is supposed to be fun – not a white-knuckle rollercoaster. Step back and look holistically at your relationship. Are you confident handling your horse on the ground? If so, this is literally where you build your relationship – from the ground up. Spend time with your horse, try liberty work. Find yourself a good instructor and be honest about the problems you are having. Don’t be afraid to interview several to find the right one for you. Also know that even the most experienced rider has had confidence issues at one time or another. You are not alone. Understand that bonding together is going to take a lot of time, work and money. However, if you are also having problems with your horse on the ground as well as riding – say the horse has become bargy or is showing signs of aggression; it may be time to quit while you are ahead. Again, let go of the ego and be open to professional feedback. Also, look closely at what it is you really want to do with your horse. If your focus is hacking with perhaps some low level showing or dressage, is that 16.3, five year old warmblood really your best partner in crime? Or even if your ultimate aim is Prix St.George, based on your present skillset, is this the horse you need right now to get you there?
You’re asking but the horse isn’t responding and you’re ending every ride angry, frustrated and wondering what you are doing wrong. Women especially see failing to communicate or being understood as a failure at relating. You’re battling both those key questions with this one – the who is in charge and the how much do you love me? Those feelings of frustration, anger and the resulting tears are actually not directed at your horse, but at you. The big, fat failure. The fraud. The bad rider. Consider your horse does not understand what you are asking for – yet. You are lost in translation. What’s its history? Do you have reason to suspect the seller may have not been honest about what the horse has done? It may not be you, but simple lack of training/experience. Or the horse has been trained in a different way and simply is confused by what you are asking it to do? One extreme example of this I came across was a highly bred and expensively imported PRE from Spain who was deemed a ‘problem’ horse and unrideable. The horse was passed from pillar to post until it ended up in a dealer’s yard. Due to be shot, it was saved at the last moment when a Spanish-trained rider turned up, saddled it up in Spanish tack and to the amazement of everyone watching, the horse did not put a foot wrong. Simply put, they spoke the same language. Find the trainer that can translate what you are saying for your horse or teach you to speak in its language. There are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions in life – or with horses. What worked with other horses simply doesn’t with this one. Again, don’t let your ego get in the way of taking a fresh approach – or forming what could be a wonderful partnership. Also, if all else fails, consider the fact that the horse simply isn’t cut out for what you want it to do. Every year thousands of racehorses seek homes because while they are thoroughbreds, this does not necessarily make them racehorses. No amount of training, feeding or force, will get them first past the post. The same goes for any other horse bred for any other discipline. Not every person from Kenya is a marathon runner. Yes, you may have thought you were buying an eventer, but the horse clearly isn’t cut out for it – or happy. So, either change your own focus or let the horse go to the home with the right one.
Finally, it’s purely and simply a personality clash. You just cannot click. You are from Venus and the horse may as well be from a galaxy far, far away. It’s a chemistry thing and often has nothing to do with your level of experience. Even the most seasoned horseman or woman can make a mistake. I have seen this one happen usually when the horse is purchased at a time when the buyer is in a heightened emotional state. You lost your beloved horse and will do anything to assuage the pain. You’ve suffered a human relationship breakdown and want something to love. You’ve given birth and want to get riding again. And now it has all gone horribly wrong. Your timing is off. Out of all three scenarios, this is the one where letting go rather than persisting, is probably going to be best for both of you. No, you are not a failure. You are committing an act of self-love, love for the horse and sanity. Because here it is: one person’s frog is another person’s Prince or Princess Charming. One person’s pantomime horse is another’s Valegro. The horse you cannot connect with no matter how hard you try, is that other rider’s slice of instant and long lasting karma.
If you come to the conclusion you are better off parting, please be honest about any issues you have had with the horse but frame these in a positive way. ‘S/he has taught me so much about my riding and horsemanship’ allows you to come from a place of learning, integrity and also goes a long way to ensuring that the cycle will not repeat with the horse and its new owner – and neither will you with your next equine partner.
The ‘bond’ – that elusive, mystical Avatar-like connection we are all seeking, like every kind of relationship, takes work. There simply are no short cuts with human beings or with anything as complicated as non-verbal communicators like horses. We’ve all met the ‘serial’ horse owner who appears to expect horses to be pretty much like cars – start, point and drive, and who discards the horse at the first sign of needing to put in some work. I am not for one minute advocating we become like this. Just that we talk about what we can do when things don’t work out and that ‘bond’ doesn’t magically appear without anyone feeling guilty or that they have failed. Horses that make us reach deep within ourselves, and make us discover what we are capable of, can turn in to our horse of a lifetime. It’s knowing the difference between these – when it is time to stay and define ourselves as human beings and as riders, and when it is time to let go, that allows both parties to move into a partnership that works – no matter what the ultimate outcome is.
Written by Helen Watts
Editor’s note: Hereford Equestrian recommends that you always ride wearing a hat. It is highly dangerous to ride without a hat with a significantly raised risk of head injury.