Photo: My Arabian and I trying an obstacle course for the first time together
“Every time you are handling your horse you are either training them or untraining them.” Some wizened clinician (or several) said that, and it’s something every rider and handler should keep in their mantra when interacting with their beloved equines. Am I setting my horse up for longevity, or daily struggle? A cliché’ example; you can bully a horse into a trailer, but you’re going to have to fight with them any time you need to take them somewhere. But if you take the time to work with them through the process, they will load easily and quickly every time.
Horsemanship, (like hoof health) is a process, not an event. The journey is the majority of the fun and our entrancement in the world of horses. If we were all overnight masters of all sports, the repetition of success and lack of mystery would likely be stale and boring. So we are all on our own journeys, in different places, and constantly learning as the joy of our chosen sport commands.
In the last two years I have casually competed both my Arabian and my Quarter Horse in a variety of sports, and they have won prizes and ribbons in everything we have attempted. We were never the “best,” but we still did well. Much of my approach (primarily with my arena-sour Quarter Horse) was for training, not for winning. If something in the event was going to set him up to fail (stress him out, make a negative experience, etc), we would just skip it or do a lesser version of it. Sure, it cost us points, but it set him up to win in the long run. (He’s a gem in the arena these days)! We still placed, all things considered. And he actually did better than if I had tried to force or push him through it, AND we fixed his arena anxiety.
Photo: Some of the ribbons my Quarter Horse won for us last year while using shows to retrain him
For the last year I have taken on a volunteer mentorship with a preteen girl. At first it was just to help, (like a job) but it rapidly grew into a real appreciation and love. She has changed me. I have begun to act in ways I have never experienced, such as expressing complete unconditional love for another human being, which I normally reserve for animals. The most important thing that has also changed me is the realization that I’m being watched, every time I handle or ride my horses. And she is going to mimic me.
Photo: My “student” on her new horse
And I’m not the only one she’s eyeballing. She’s watching every single rider she comes across, hoping to glean little bits of information for her own internal database of horse handling. So every time she sees another rider yanking their horse’s bit, punishing it for spooking or using spurs for discipline, she feels the validation (and sometimes even peer pressure) to act that way as well.
Realizing that the young riders in our community are watching me and that they are learning from their silent observations of my behavior has encouraged me to try and become a quiet and confident rider. I want the next generation of horsemen to be educated and graceful with their horses. I thought this journey was just between me and my horse, but it's not. How I treat my horse can influence how others treat theirs.
Tip: Ride as though young students are watching you. Be a good example.
I made a major change this year, with both my protégé and Arab in mind. Since I do not have the time to invest in endurance conditioning this year, I’ve begun taking my Arabian out to obstacle clinics, solo trail rides and arena sessions, to bring some versatility to our work together. And he will also do a few shows this year. Again, not to win, but for the positive training and experiences. My student has been watching my journey with both horses, and this has been a lovely example to show her of taking the time to tone things down and get my horse focusing outside a high-pressure environment, to create a well-rounded individual. And he’s doing great! It's not the change in sport - (we've still been out conditioning as able) - I’m the only factor that has changed. My attitude has changed. So my horse is changing with me.
I want our youth to ride for the horse they are creating, not just ride for “fun.” And I don’t want them to see excessive yanking, spurring, kicking and whipping as “normal.” I want them to be aware and appalled at the inappropriateness, and take a mental note that they can act differently, then find a better solution to the puzzle that is horse behavior. I want to let them observe a positive and continuous growth in my relationships with my horses, not a constant struggle. I want them to have something positive to mimic.
In short, ride for the longevity of your horses’ mental and physical well-being and always remember that your journey is under observation by the horsemen (well, mostly women) of tomorrow. I promise, they are watching you!