One of my most controversial philosophies is that it is not always the rider’s fault when things go wrong.
Maybe this comes from working with a lot of young horses, or maybe in ten years’ time I’ll disagree with myself, but right now I’m pretty sure of this. Of course, many horse problems are not horse problems, they’re people problems. Horses are so easily spoiled or scared and 80% of them will misbehave when they’re overtired, overfed or have been allowed to get away with it; it’s only the real jewels that will be good when everything else is bad. Also, many novice riders simply don’t know what to do, and for that reason things go wrong easily.
But it’s not always the fault of the rider, especially not with a young or inexperienced horse. There are very, very few young horses who do not respond with varying degrees of resistance when put under pressure, and I strongly disagree with anyone who presumes that it is possible to train a horse without putting it under pressure. Of course, some horses can take a lot of pressure, and with some you have to apply only tiny amounts of stress or their brains switch off, but if you never make it harder they will never learn anything. Sooner or later a stress response is bound to come out. I don’t understand how a rider whose horse spooks at a flappy flag and jumps out from under him is to blame for falling off. The horse spooked. Horses spook. No rider is capable of sitting 100% of equine shenanigans.
Horses are large flight animals capable of a wide range of emotions and moods. These include empathy, willingness, courage, loyalty, compassion and even love. They also include fear, anger, pain and exhaustion. Shocker alert here: they also include laziness and spitefulness.
Think about it: most horses are, at the root of it all, lazy animals. If they weren’t lazy, then why do they so predictably choose the path of least resistance? The vast majority of training methods are based around the fact that the horse always chooses the action that is, in the end, less effort. He eventually learns to work with us because it is less effort than fighting us. This is true for most horses, although there are some very special ones who will do things for you just because you are you.
If horses weren’t lazy, we would have no horses. Wild horses are forced to conserve their energy for when they need it, and if they spent all their time doing things the hard way, they would have nothing left for when predators arrive. Lions would have eaten all of them years ago and we’d be riding around on cows. Laziness is a basic requirement of equine survival.
It follows, then, that horses can act out of laziness and they can act out of fear. If your horse has learned that throwing a couple bucks will get him out of work, he will buck every single time because he is lazy. Of course, some buckers buck because their backs hurt or their mouths hurt or their rider is sitting with their heels in their guts. But there are those who will buck because they think it is easy, and you can call as many chiropractors and dentists as you want – they will buck until you make it the harder thing to do. It is also true that if the rider tenses up every time the horse spooks, the horse will decide that there really is something to be afraid of and you can feed him maize-free diets until you’re blue in the face. He will spook until you show him not to be afraid.
Those are examples of when it is the rider’s fault, albeit indirectly. But sometimes, it is not the rider’s fault. Sometimes it isn’t anyone’s fault. Sometimes nobody sees the hole because it wasn’t visible until you were on top of it and your horse trod in it and you both went sprawling. Gasp, horror! How could the rider injure the horse in that way? It was an accident. It’s not that hard to get up, dust yourself off, say, “Well, that was random,” and keep riding.
Sometimes it is the horse’s fault, believe it or not. Some horses are wilfully and stubbornly disobedient. Even if you never let them get away with it, they will still test you and test you and test you. These are the born leaders of the equine world; they would have been lead mares or herd stallions in the wild, and you just have to put up with it and stand firm until they give up. It’s not your fault that they’re going to keep testing you. It’s just who they are.
All horses have strong points and weak points. If your horse doesn’t learn as fast as everybody else’s, maybe you’re training him slowly. Or maybe he’s not a fast learner. Some horses are smarter than others, some are more willing than others, some are lazier than others, and some are moodier than others. Some horses have a more active flight response than others. Some have a greater tendency towards aggression. Some are more sensitive, some are more stubborn. There’s a reason why sport horse breeders select horses for temperament; not all horses are created equal in terms of trainability. Things go a lot better once I can admit to myself that the horse has weak points, and then learn to work around those weak points instead of butting my head against them.
What about the abused horse that wants to run a mile when you go near him? Or the horse that had a gentle groom and a rough rider, who is perfect until you get on and then randomly throws you into next week? Is it your fault that somebody else beat him half to death? Of course not. His problems are not always your problems. The horse is not merely a mirror of his rider; he is a flesh-and-blood creature, unique, responding differently to any other horse. Only a great rider who has worked with a group of horses for a long time will stamp each horse with his trademark, and even then each of those horses will be different.
Maybe that horse that leans on his rider’s hands until his jaw gapes open is 100 times better than he was six months ago. Maybe that horse that just threw his rider a mile doesn’t have a sore back; maybe he had a bad hair day and didn’t feel like carting people around today. Maybe that rider with the one heel in the air has ripped a ligament and can’t put that heel down no matter how much they want to. I try to view every problem in my own training objectively (with varied success, I admit), with the goal to solve the problem, not to lay the blame. Blaming anyone achieves nothing in the end.