A few years ago, I regarded myself as a decent rider.
I could exercise a variety of horses with no issue, could deal with most vices/behavioural problems, and could do schooling to some degree. However, occasionally there were the situation of not being able to “click” with the horse. The respect was minimal, most of the time we would simply tolerate each other.
In such a case, there were a certain thoroughbred, who I could not even get to trot. Even a walk was a big ask.
Before coming to ESC, this horse was considered a “difficult” horse. He was tall, wide and muscular, with a personality even bigger than he is. He retired as a racehorse due to refusing to get into the starting stall after winning many races. After some retraining, they tried again, and again he refused to get in the starting stall, after which he was fully retired.
I tried riding him twice, and then left it at that. We did not work together. He had his way, I had my way, and neither of us would give way to the other.
The past three years, I have ridden and worked with many, many other horses. Schooled horses from scratch, re-schooled older horses. Same as I always had, but in that time I had learnt something far more valuable through them, something I wish all riders could learn. Something that there is a HUGE lack of in the equine industry and minimizes any hiccups you have in the training sessions.
Meaning be aware of the specific horse you are riding in that specific time and in a specific situation. Reading every horse as an individual. Not forcing them to accept your methods, but adapting to them. Understanding them and working with them to achieve goals. They do not need to do anything for us. Yes, you can bully them into doing what you want, but is that truly the relationship that you want to have with your horse? In addition, what about when you meet the one that you cannot bully into submission?
That is what changed for me. The same thoroughbred I could not ride three years ago, I got on, and in 30 minutes, I was happily, and he was willingly, cantering and jumping with, minimum resistance and absolute confidence. This was a massive achievement for me.
The ride started a bit sticky, he was not being nasty, but he was not really taking what I wanted in consideration, the same as 3 years ago. However, instead of being harder and pushing him into submission (which equally increases horses stress), I considered what he might want. In addition, I went softer, and the softer I went, the softer he went.
I had improved as a rider, but more importantly, I felt I had become a better horsewoman. I could better judge each horses personality and give them what they needed, whether it was to understand and allow, or to become a stronger leader for them. You have to learn to read them and defuse problematic situations before they start, and learn how to work around their feelings and emotions. They do not think about the reasons behind the things we do, but they are willing to work with us if we take them in consideration.
It has taken many years to learn a simple skill, but nobody else could teach it better than horses. I feel I was lucky to have someone like Uzel Mouton (read more about the yard and owner here) to guide me to this thinking of treating, and riding each horse as an individual.
If there is one thing I hope for every rider of every level to learn, it is empathy. Empathy in order to give every horse a better, stress-free working life.
Author: Chantell Aylward, ESC Instructor and manager