The unemotional rider

One of the best parts about a horse is the relationship we develop with them. We spend years developing a shared language, building trust, finding joy together. They are a source of acceptance, kindness, and redemption. They greet us with a soft nicker and nuzzle for cookies in our pockets. Most certainly, our relationship is one of the most important reasons why we do this at all.

And then your horse goes and does something silly, like get behind your leg or forget how to bend right or spend the entire ride saying OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT WEIRD THING IN THE CORNER IT WILL KILL US FOR SURE HAAAALP!!! Let’s face it, what horse doesn’t have less-than-stellar rides, or bad moments, or rides that are so terrible you question whether they’ve ever had training at all or whether you’ve actually learned anything in all those lessons? Mechanical horses - that’s who. But those suckers are expensive and probably don’t nicker to you, so here we are with the real deal. And the real deal can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.

And in these moments, it’s our love for them that does us in; it usually does us a disservice rather than being helpful. Our love and our relationship with the horse bring up feelings and actions, like:

  • Why does she hate me? She must be not bending/running off/twisted like a pretzel because she’s trying to get my goat.

  • Oh, poor baby! You’re right, even though you’re 12 years old, staying in front of the leg is too hard. Let’s just chill out.

  • *crying* I must be doing everything all wrong!

When your horse (or you) has a bad moment, bad ride, or moment of misbehavior and you have a deep love connection (in a not-creepy way), it’s very easy to take things personally. That usually results in you getting mad, sad, or overly sympathetic, none of which are helpful for the horse. (I am as guilty of this as anyone. Someone pointed out to me the other day that my go-to response when a horse stops at a jump is to pat them. So yeah, I feel the pain.)

But how do you do it? How do you keep and maintain the beautiful relationship you have with your horse - and train her effectively?

Like so many things in life, this requires you to hold two fundamentally opposed concepts in your mind at the same time, and not go bonkers in the process. You have to love your horse, and interact with her in an almost wholly unemotional way in many situations. You can bring patience, a sense of humor, and empathy with you in the saddle, but not much else.

In this way, when something goes wrong, it’s not a reflection of your relationship. It’s not personal and it’s not cause for alarm. It’s just a thing that happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re bad or that she’s bad.

Maybe she’s sore. Maybe she’s tired. Maybe she’s just having a case of the “blahs.” Maybe the weather changed, maybe her hormones changed, maybe the breeze blew the wrong way. Maybe you woke her up from a nap. Maybe she needs a nap. Maybe YOU need a nap.

Regardless, stuff happens. Now, I am in no way saying that you should ignore patterns of negative behavior (which could be indicative of health issues or other training problems). Nor am I saying that you’re doing everything perfectly and can discount your own problems. Instead, I’m saying that you will be a more productive trainer and have a better working relationship with your horse if you can let negative situations or interactions roll off rather than interpreting them through the lens of your relationship.

I’m not saying this is easy. I ride some horses and feel like we’re an old married couple, for better or worse. But with each horse I start, I feel like I do a little better job at maintaining those boundaries.

Keeping those clear boundaries lets me - helps me - be a better rider. I can be clear about my expectations without being unduly sympathetic to the horse. When the horse gets behind my leg, I can apply a consequence without feeling guilty that I’m being too tough or attributing emotion that doesn’t exist to the situation. When the horse misbehaves, it’s not a reflection on our relationship; it’s just something that happens because we’re all animals and this riding thing is hard. It’s kind of like parenting a toddler (from what I’ve seen, at least) - sometimes everything falls apart for no apparent reason and no real meaning. There is no judgment or deeper meaning. It’s just how life works.

I frame it in my mind as a way of being kind to the horse. By staying unemotional and training with clarity, I can help the horse get to the right answer as quickly as possible. I can reward sooner and more often. I can show the horse my love by being a fair, clear, and consistent trainer. And of course, lots of grooming and snuggles and carrots along the way.