Equestrian Confession : We're all worried we're 'ruining' our horse
Have you ever watched a video of someone riding their horse, with every movement precise and beautiful, the horse responsive and the whole impression one of pure synchronicity, and wondered if that rider could get much more out of your horse than you do?
Or have you ended a ride feeling strung out and frustrated, thinking 'I'm ruining this horse. I'm unraveling all of his training. I'm just not a good enough rider to get the best out of him.'
You're not alone - basically every equestrian I know, across the full spectrum of level and ability, is worried that they are failing their horse, and that their horse's true talent would shine with a better rider.
I think this feeling is common to professional riders and amateurs alike, but I do think it's particularly acute for the latter, especially when you have gone and purchased a schoolmaster and suddenly find yourself unable to get the horse on the bit or do a correct leg yield, or make it over a fence without knocking a rail.
You've just seen the horse ridden by their previous owner before you bought him, and it all looked so harmonious, but now you're at home and you feel like you're absolutely destroying the picture-perfect schoolmaster you purchased.
I've noticed this feeling shared across my close friends who are amateur riders like me. We love our horses, but we've seen other people ride them better than we (always) do. There's a nagging thought that lurks in our minds, which is 'I'm just not good enough for this horse. She deserves better than me'.
I've been pondering this a lot, and I think the hard truth is this:
It's probably true that there are riders out there who could produce better results with your horse. But unless you're employing some truly terrible methods, you can't 'ruin' your horse.
Of COURSE other riders can ride your horse better than you. Our level of skill is always going to be less than someone else, and very experienced riders have the seat and aids to get a base level of results out of most horses. That's just fact.
But can you 'ruin' your horse? No. Not unless you're abusing them, using fear to control them, or aren't furthering your own education with theirs. (I'll come to the latter in a moment).
Riding is a journey, and horses are very smart. They might gain some bad habits from incorrect riding, but they don't lose their level of education and training overnight, and majority of the time, when asked correctly, they will remember the correct response (whether they give it to you is another thing!).
Achieving the results you want from your partnership depends on a whole number of factors, not least of which is the bond and relationship you develop with your horse.
My horse Penny is a totally different mare today compared to how she was two years ago when I bought her. She was a head-tossing, lazy, stubborn nightmare. Now, she still questions and resists me occasionally, but she also trusts me and has come to the party when it comes to our training. Often, when I put someone else on her who is at a similar skill level to me, the stubborn nightmare of a horse returns - because our bond is part of what produces the willingness in Penny that makes owning her such a pleasure for me. She has chosen to work with me because she has come to know and trust me. But other riders still have to earn her willingness.
Over the years, I've been lucky to have my coaches ride Penny occasionally, to demonstrate a particular concept or to help us work through issues or sometimes just to diagnose what isn't working. As soon as they hop on, Penny begins to demonstrate her true ability - the power of her paces, her adjust-ability, the fact that she can actually use her hind end and back correctly.
But instead of being disheartened by this, I am excited. I love knowing that that potential and ability is in her, I just have to learn how to produce it.
That's why continuing your own education as a rider is the most effective way to combat the doubts and to really get the most out of your horse. I have no doubt that if I didn't have weekly lessons with coaches I admire and trust, Penny would still be prancing around with a hollow back, behind my leg, with her head tossing wildly in the air.
It's through a commitment to training and learning that I have been able to improve our partnership to the point where I don't feel disheartened, even after our bad rides.
So the fact is, there is always going to be someone out there who can ride your horse better than you. But getting the best out of a horse is about more than just ability - it's about the bond, resilience, and committing to always learning how to be better.