We all want to feel safe when riding, but fear often sabotages our chances of that. Maybe it’s because we’ve had a bad experience in the past, or recently with the horse we now ride.
In my previous post I recounted how my horse, Cruz Bay, reared and dumped me in the warm-up arena of a big show. I didn’t want to ride him ever again after that!
That vital superglue which bound us together, called trust, had dissolved and left a yawning chasm between us.
Who’s to Blame?
I took me a long time to realize that the blame for my horse’s behavior lay not with him, but with me.
Horses need to trust us to be fair and competent leaders before they consent to follow our commands. Otherwise they take matters into their own hands, and we wonder why they’re ‘being naughty.’
I put Cruz in a frightening position by riding him in a crowded warm-up arena full of horses performing ‘threatening’ higher level movements which he’d never seen before. He wasn’t properly prepared for the claustrophobic conditions of a recognized show, with Grand Prix dressage riders practicing their lateral movements and extended gaits right next to him. He was a humble First Level guy used to little schooling shows with his First Level rider.
When I felt him getting nervous, I should have kept calm, taken firm control of him and led him safely through a gap between the horses and out of the arena. I should have shown him that I was a worthy leader whom he could trust to steer him safely through scary situations.
Instead I panicked and ceased to exercise authority. No one respects a leader who bails on his followers when times get tough.
So Cruz took matters into his hands and exercised the only option he saw open to him: rear vertically to ward off the prancing horses closing in on him.
I was so mad at him! How could he do that to me? How dare he frighten me like that! He was a bad, bad horse.
Eventually I placed that anger where it belonged – on my shoulders. I realized that the whole situation was my fault and that ambitions to compete at a big show had made me lose consideration for my horse. I’d thrown Cruz (and myself) in at the deep end without sufficient preparation, and paid the price for it.
Believe me, this self-evaluation process was very, very slow! I hated Cruz because he’d frightened me and made me look like a bad rider, followed by feeling like a quitter because I was giving up on him. That evolved into feeling sorry for him, and I began to ask myself the important questions about how it all went wrong.
The Big Question
When your horse does something naughty, ask yourself whether you’re being a good leader.
Are you a figure of authority whom he respects or do you just hope he’s going to behave without giving him firm direction?
Are you being fair in your expectations of your horse, based on your experience and his?
Next Friday I’ll explain how my own answers to those questions set me on the road to recovering the broken trust between me and my horse.
Horses are my big obsession, and I'm constantly striving to get better, smarter and more in harmony with my equine buddy, Cruz Bay.
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