What’s the True Value of Riding?

WMClaralookingThere’s a meme that travels around Facebook that states, “Most people don’t need a $35,000 horse. They need a $1,000 horse and $34,000 in lessons.” Boy howdy, the horse world is resplendent with stories of novice riders buying advanced competition horses for tens of thousands of dollars, only to get them home and find out they are un-rideable–at that rider’s current level. It’s like finding an Indy car in the driveway and not being able to locate where the key goes.

It turns out that the rider half of the partnership actually counts. It’s one of my very favorite things about horses; they aren’t impressed with status or money. It’s all about the rider.

Thinking about the meme, I knew that I’d spent more than twice that on lessons and clinics over the course of my life. Granted, in my early years I was ambitious, but more than that, I wanted someone to be as serious about my horses as I was. Now, as a professional, learning is always at the center of the job. I could label the expense continuing education for my career but the truth is I’m still as fascinated by horses today as when I was a kid. I’d do it anyway.

The vast majority of people who commented on the Facebook meme acknowledged that lessons were a lifestyle for them, and happily so; it’s a safe and challenging–a confidence-building way to share a life with a horse.  But there were more than a few people who were proud to say they’d never had a lesson and never would. They seemed cynical about trainers, understandable in some cases. Some sounded almost defensive, as if asking for help was shameful. They had figured it all out on their own, usually after books and videos.

(I’m probably being a stickler here, but those books and videos were produced by professionals who would be less than thrilled to hear their work discredited this way. In truth, lessons come in many forms. Like this blog, for example.)

Here’s the question: Does a rider really need to improve? Isn’t it enough to just get on and ride? Maybe you’re one of those who refer to themselves as “only a trail rider” and you have no intention of competing or traveling. You just ride for your own enjoyment and know everything you need. Sure, your horse has small problems, but you can avoid them by keeping your horse away from those situations.

Balance that with this statistic: A local rescue estimates that 80% of the horses they take in have behavioral problems. There are no guesses on the number of “bad” horses turned out in pastures forever.

Horses would be easier if they were more like dirt bikes. Then they’d be built tough and fearless. And that ignition switch would be nice.

Even if everything truly is perfect, change happens. No living thing is static, least of all these sensitive, emotional creatures. Sometimes there’s a physical condition that initially causes what looks like bad behavior. Eventually stoic horses can lose patience. Reactive horses can become so overwhelmed that one day they’re unsafe to ride. Even the kindest horse can come apart in the right horrible situation.

Life is change. Horses are always working on a tendency; either getting a little better or worse. So are we.

I want to offer some advice: If the idea even crosses your mind that your horse might need some help, don’t put it off. Ignoring problems never works as well as we all wish it did. Horse rescue has proof of that.

Find a trainer who doesn’t yell at your horse or you, and get there while the problem still a small challenge. Share the good days and minimize the bad, for you horse but also for you. Somewhere in the process, I hope training will change from a feeling that you and your horse are in detention, to the two of you becoming members of a very old club. Equestrians have sought partnership with horses since before Xenophon wrote my all time favorite quote in 430BC,

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer

The truth about horses is that no matter how much we give, we’re always asked for more time and money and effort. At first it’s all about frustration and confusion for both of you. It can seem natural, but then something begins to shift inside. One day you understand that just because you can push your horse through it, there’s no reason to feed his anxiety. So instead, you learn how to slow things down and give him time to understand. On another day, your horse will show you patience when you don’t really deserve it. In due time, fears subside, egos melt, and all that’s left is a belonging to each other and all of those who have ridden this path before. That’s how commitment works; its real value is felt in hindsight.

Is improvement necessary? I’d like to think it’s inevitable.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

27 thoughts on “What’s the True Value of Riding?

  1. “One day you understand that just because you can push your horse through it, there’s no reason to feed his anxiety”. This is a phrase I’d like to print out and put on the blackboard at our barn. And people still wouldn’t get it.
    I so often see people with bad trainers, bad attitude and poor horses that I am quite fed up with looking for someone to teach me. They ride and they make the same mistakes over and over and the horse doesn’t get any better and neither does the rider.
    So I watch DVDs and videos and go to clinics. But I am well aware that a person to correct me in real life would be so much better.

  2. Beth Weaver

    This post came at a good time for me. Yesterday was my first ride of the season and also after recovering from a broke leg. First ride for my horse since November and a new saddle,too. I’ve been thinking I should get some lessons to help with little things, but after yesterday, now I am sure. Your post said it for me. I’m just a trail rider, and my horse is really a cupcake. The trainer I will go to will have no trouble with her at all. I know I am the problem. Not that she’s so bad. She just doesn’t trust me enough. And while I know the theory for how to develop it, somehow I don’t seem to be able to do it. At least I am not the only one. For some reason, that makes me feel better. It’s pretty frustrating to have been riding for 40 years and still not be that good at it. Is it so much to ask to just be able to go out for a nice trail ride and not have to worry?

    1. It isn’t that you aren’t good at it, it’s changes. Good for you for taking the path of least stress, for both of you. A great opportunity for both of you. Thanks for the honest comment.

  3. Patricia Hayes

    This is so true. The day I quit “training” my horse, and concentrated on myself and how I presented my request, real partnership became a reality. It didn’t take tricks, or special gear, but educating my own delivery system.

  4. Judy Shaub

    I’m “just a trail rider” and I also like to think I am a life long learner. I cannot count how many trainers I have taken lessons from over the years and this post has made me want to reflect on them. I’m not a great rider and at 67, I doubt I will be. But I can still improve a lot, and am thankful I am able to do it. Our horses are so worth the effort. It has come to my attention how important my own fitness is to how well I do in the saddle. And of course my horses fitness as well. We are both of a certain age and it is a wonderful journey. Your books are so very helpful.

    1. The phrase “just a trail rider” drives me nuts! That said, I think there is so much to learn at this age; things that weren’t possible when we were younger. Thanks for the comment, Judy.

  5. Thank you for this. It comes at a good time. I am just a pleasure rider too but love taking lessons because they give me something to work and lend confidence. I’ve found a gem of a teacher who is very close by. But the expense. As a retired person, the expense…Oh well, sometimes things are worth doing because they make life worth living. I am hoping in the new riding season I can find the fun again.

    1. Yes, the challenges to riding are not all physical! I hear that! Still every profit/loss statement is still worth it at my barn; you’re right. They make life worth living. Thanks, Katie.

  6. sherryw2015

    This was a great post. I’m and adequate rider and always open for improvement. I find i get a great deal of pleasure in trying to figure ‘it’ out, maybe that’s why I’m so enthralled with Temple Grandin. If you are fortunate enough to have experienced a really good ride where you and your horse are practically reading each other’s minds you can hardly stop yourself from continually striving to recapture that experience. I think that’s a good part of what makes one a true horse person, not just a horse rider.

  7. Thank you for the post, Anna! For those of us who are “just trail riders”, I encourage us to change the label. We are horsemen and horsewomen who seek to enjoy our relationship with these wonderful animals in a non-competitive environment. I’ve had lessons and learned from many people and many animal teachers. I don’t just work on my posture, my leg position, and my cues, While all of that factors into being a “good rider”, I find my relationship and understanding of my horse more important. I’m sure he’s forgiven me far more than I’ve forgiven him for perceived misunderstandings. The true lesson is in learning why the misunderstanding is occurring and changing the behaviors that trigger it. Most of the time, the behavior that needs changing is mine. Mutual respect and understanding is the goal.

    1. You are the argument against the phrase “just a trail rider.” Such a horrible name. I agree so strongly- relationship and understanding will fill in ways that body position can’t…it’s Grace. Thanks for this perceptive comment, Kristina. I think you’re right.

  8. I’ve been riding my entire (almost 62 year) life. My grandparents starting me riding when I was 2. I have always made my living with horses. Although I have not had a lot of formal lessons, I have been lucky enough to have been around a lot of exceptional people in many disciplines and I learned from them all. I’m still learning every day. We couldn’t learn all there is to know about horses even if we had 50 or 100 lifetimes. That’s one of the things that makes them so interesting. I think most people run into problems when they misinterpret the motivation behind their horse’s behavior. Take rearing for example. A horse may rear from anxiety, fear, dominance, or just in play. Each of these scenarios needs a completely different approach from the rider. Using the wrong approach will not only not solve the problem, it can actually make it worse. People sometimes think they’re asking a horse for one behavior, when they are actually physically asking for another behavior. That’s when a good instructor is invaluable. He or she will act as an interpreter and open the lines of communication between horse and rider. Even if a person isn’t having problems with their horse, lessons can help sharpen a person’s skills. That’s why even Olympic level riders have coaches.

    1. Well, I can’t say it better. That is the challenge entirely; understanding the big picture of what the issue could be. Thank you for this comment, and I do rest happily knowing I will never know it all. I love the infinite nature of being with horses, too. Thank you, Sandy. I wish us both another hundred horse years.

  9. Hi. As a veteran of many lessons and clinics, great and not so great,it is very refreshing to read this blog. It is insightful and it makes so much sense to me. Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you, Debra. Sometimes I think I should give a clinic on what I’ve learned from bad clinics… Thanks for reading, I appreciate the compliment.

  10. Cat Boeker

    I always take a lot of what you write straight to heart. I think you are at a place with horses I’ve always wanted to be but haven’t yet achieved. Please keep writing and inspiring me (and others!)

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